What are kana?
The Japanese kana system is a “syllabary”—an alphabet made up of syllables instead of letters—that represents all the sounds of the language.
There are actually two separate sets of kana symbols that represent the same sounds but differ in how they are used: hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな) and katakana (片仮名, かたかな). More on their usage in the next two sections.
Each kana symbol represents either one of five “pure” vowels or a consonant-vowel combination. The five vowels are:
- a = あ in hiragana or ア in katakana
- i = い in hiragana or イ in katakana
- u = う in hiragana or ウ in katakana
- e = え in hiragana or エ in katakana
- o = お in hiragana or オ in katakana
These five vowels can be combined with following consonants k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, and w. For example, the ‘k’ column of kana is as follows:
- ka = か in hiragana or カ in katakana
- ki = き in hiragana or キ in katakana
- ku = く in hiragana or ク in katakana
- ke = け in hiragana or ケ in katakana
- ko = こ in hiragana or コ in katakana
You can see all of the basic kana in the following table, known as go-juu-on (五十音, ごじゅうおん, “50 sounds”) because it has 5 rows and 10 columns (i.e. 5 X 10 = 50).
A few things to note:
- In my version, I list roumaji (ローマ字, ろうまじ, “Romanized Japanese”) at the top of each cell, hiragana on the left, and katakana on the right.
- The go-juu-on was traditionally arranged right to left, but I have laid things out left to right to make it more intuitive for English speakers.
- You may notice that there are only 46 sounds shown in the go-juu-on chart, not 50 as it’s name would suggest. This is because archaic sounds such as ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we) have fallen out of use over the years.
Hiragana & Katakana FAQs
Why should you learn kana?
Even if you only want to understand and speak Japanese, it is still a good idea to learn kana:
- Learning kana will help familiarize you with the sounds of the language.
- Knowing kana makes it easier to look words up in Japanese dictionaries.
Do you need to learn to write kana?
Learning to recognize kana is much more important than learning to write them since the vast majority of written communication is now done via typing and texting. I do think it’s eventually worth learning to write kana (and kanji for that matter), but the minimium effective dose for getting started doesn’t require good Japanese penmanship!
When are hiragana used?
Hiragana are used for:
- Verb and adjective endings. For example, in the Japanese verb yomu (読む・読む, “read”) that the verb stem is written in kanji (読) while the ending is written in hiragana (む). Similarly, the stem of the adjective atsui (暑い・あつい, “hot”) is written in kanji (暑) while the ending is written in hiragana (い). If you’re curious, this particular use of hiragana is called okurigana (送り仮名・おくりがな).
- Grammatical particles. Japanese uses a number of single syllable particles for various grammatical functions, such as marking the subject (が), object (を), or topic (は) of a sentence.
- Replacing rare kanji. If a particular Japanese word uses characters outside the official “common use” kanji list of 2,136 jouyou kanji (常用漢字, じょうようかんじ), it is usually written in hiragana instead of kanji. For example, the word kaeru (“frog”) is usually written かえる even though it has a Chinese character: 蛙.
- Kanji pronunciations of Japanese origin in dictionaries. Japanese kanji have two types of readings: kunyomi (訓読み, くんよみ, “readings of Japanese origin”) and onyomi (音読み, おんよみ, “readings of Chinese origin”). When looking up a character in a dictionary, you can see that kunyomi are always written using hiragana, while onyomi are written in katakana.
When are katakana used?
Katakana are used for:
- Writing foreign loan words. Japanese has borrowed thousands and thousands of words from English and other European languages. Such terms are written in katakana to distinguish them from words of Japanese or Sino-Japanese origin. For example: the word “coffee” is rendered in Japanese as kouhi (コーヒー).
- Writing foreign names. Foreign proper nouns (e.g. people and place names) are also written using katakana. For example: the family name “Johnson” is rendered as jonson (ジョンソン) in Japanese.
- Sound effects & onomatopoeia. Japanese comic books usually write sound effects using katakana. For example: if there is an explosion, you will probably see the word dokan (ドカン), which is similar to the English word “boom”.
- Onyomi kanji readings. As mentioned above, kanji characters have two types of readings, kunyomi (訓読み, くんよみ) and onyomi (音読み, おんよみ), the latter of which represents pronunciations of Chinese origin. In kanji dictionaries, onyomi are always written using katakana.
Should you learn hiragana or katakana first?
Since you will encounter hiragana more often, I suggest learning that set of symbols first. But don’t make the mistake of “taking a break” after hiragana and procrastinating on the katakana front. You need both for full literacy in Japanese, so don’t delay.
Be Careful With Look-Alike Hiragana
When you begin learning kana, be mindful not to confuse the following look-alike kana:
- a (あ) and o (お)
- ne (ね), re (れ), and wa (わ)
- nu (ぬ) and me (め)
- ru (る) and ro (ろ)
Use Mnemonics to Remember Kana More Easily
Don’t try to rely on visual memory and rote memorization to learn hiragana and katakana. It simply doesn’t work! Use mnemonics instead. Tofugu has put together an excellent free guide that provides nifty mnemonics and cute illustrations to help you learn all the hiragana.
Read Remembering the Kana by James Heisig
Remembering the Kana: A Guide to Reading and Writing the Japanese Syllabaries in 3 Hours Each by James Heisig is a great way to learn hiragana and katakana in a mnemonic-based approach that leverages—instead of ignores—how the adult brain works.
Leverage the Power of Music
Music is a powerful tool for improving memory. Listen to The Hiragana Song (ひらがなのうた) from YouTube user MissHanake to leverage the power of melody and rhythm.
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