One of three Japanese writing systems, Hiragana is used almost as much as Kanji, so it’s important to learn from the beginning. Like Katakana, the Hiragana script is syllabary, meaning that each character corresponds to a sound or syllable. There are only 46 characters in total, which makes it one of the easier scripts to learn in its entirety, especially compared to the 45,000+ ideograms of the complex Kanji. Also, unlike the Kanji, the characters are straightforward to draw, often requiring five strokes or less as opposed to the complex ideograms of Kanji.
The History of Japanese Hiragana
Hiragana has origins in Chinese, like a lot of the Japanese language. It was around the fifth century that this writing system was adopted into the Japanese language. Before this date, no writing system existed for Japanese, so this was a defining moment in its history and development. Priests would read Chinese Kanji and attempt to translate them into Japanese, but what they realised is that it would be easier to do so with syllabic characters. Since Chinese and Japanese pronunciation differ greatly, this had to be represented somehow in the written word, and this explains how both Hiragana and Katakana came to be. The complexity of the Kanji ideograms was another factor in creating the two other writing systems. Hiragana and Katakana characters require fewer strokes and are much easier to produce, which made life easier when it came to writing. As a result of these adaptations, many consider Hiragana characters to be simplified versions of the Kanji ideograms. Hiragana is more familiar to a Western audience with its cursive text, while Katakana involves more curves and angles.
There’s a lot to know about this unique syllabary writing system in Japanese, so we’re going to come at it from several angles. We’ll cover the most common ways it is used in writing, how important it is to learn, how to produce it, and the ways in which it differs from Katakana.
The main use for the Hiragana writing system is ‘Okurigana’. Okurigana refers to suffixes which are used after a Kanji stem or root. As an example, you would form the word ‘watching’ in Japanese using a Kanji stem for the verb ‘watch’ and a Hiragana suffix for the ‘ing’ ending. This process of Okurigana lets you express more nuance with your writing. While it’s certainly possible to communicate solely using Kanji, Hiragana gives you myriad more options when it comes to written expression. Hiragana is also used for many other purposes, such as function words like particles, which in the Japanese language are used for various effects and to imply tone to something that’s being said. Each sound in the Japanese alphabet has its own Hiragana, but each character doesn’t mean anything on its own. Hiragana can also be used in instances where there isn’t a Kanji you can use, almost as if they were Kanji substitutes.
While you could make a strong case that Kanji is the most important writing system to get to grips with, this shouldn’t be at the expense of learning Hiragana. After all, many Kanji would be left as stems if it weren’t for the Hiragana suffixes giving them more specific meaning. Trying to learn to write in Japanese without making an effort with Hiragana is like attempting to write in English without a lot of the letters of the alphabet. It’s possible, but very difficult, and a lot of meaning would be left out. Written Japanese is a combination of kana and Kanji, so you really need to pay attention to both to make strides towards greater reading comprehension and writing ability. You could also look at Hiragana as the glue which holds any text together, since it serves many grammatical functions which influence meaning. Luckily for you, Hiragana and Katakana which form the kana element of writing, take much less time to master than Kanji. You won’t need to spend half as much time as you do with these two writing systems as you do learning the many Kanji characters. Another thing you have working in your favour is the production of Hiragana, which is relatively straightforward once you know what you’re doing.
There are 46 characters in Hiragana, and fortunately most of them are easy enough to write. Writing Hiragana, you’ll only ever need to make two strokes, which is less than the three of katakana, and much less than the many involved in producing Kanji. A brief look at the hiragana chart will reveal how simplistic most of the characters are, which should put your mind at ease. As you write them, it’s worth keeping the pronunciation of the sound in mind so that you create a strong connection in your mind between the character and the sound it represents. A few of the characters in Hiragana require modifiers as you write them. Modifiers include vertical dashes or dots.
Difference with Katakana
To get a better understanding of Hiragana and how to use it, we’re going to compare it with the other Koni writing script Katakana.
The function of Hiragana is to provide suffixes to Kanji stems, and fill in grammatical roles when necessary. It is typically the first writing system that Japanese speakers get to grips with, and some forms of entertainment like children’s books can be written exclusively in it. Katakana on the other hand is for borrowed foreign words, as well as scientific terminology and literary effects like onomatopoeia. It’s utility shouldn’t be underestimated though, since many foreign words make it into Japanese and onomatopoeia is surprisingly common in a lot of texts.
While Hiragana can be compared to English cursive in style, Katakana adopts a more print-like style.
Both of these writing systems are phonetic, which means that wherever you see their characters they will be pronounced in exactly the same way. Whereas in English the ‘a’ in ‘apple’ sounds different from the one in ‘page’, in both Hiragana and Katakana in Japanese what you see is what you get. This means that once you take the time to learn the individual characters of both writing systems, you should pick up the pronunciation rapidly.
Resources to learn Hiragana
Hiragana could be one of the first writing systems you encounter on your language-learning journey, so it’s best to be prepared. However you prefer learning, there will be a method, a course, or a video that should strike a chord with you and help you accelerate the process and make solid progress.
- Japanese from Zero! 1
The first in a series of widely praised textbooks, Japanese from Zero! 1 was developed by a professional Japanese interpreter and has everything you need to master the basics of Hiragana. This series of textbooks has been used in many classrooms across the world, and features a workbook with an answer key so you can practise what you learn as you work through it.
- Let’s Learn Hiragana
As you might have guessed from the title, this text book focuses exclusively on the Hiragana writing system. As a workbook, you will not only learn all of the characters but you will also produce them yourself for a more complete learning experience.
JapanesePod101 is one of the best Youtube channels for learning Japanese full stop. It’s an excellent resource, and one you should dip into regularly to brush up on anything from the written element to the spoken. One video of theirs which should help you pick up Hiragana quickly is called ‘learn ALL Hiragana in 1 Hour’.
- Dr. Moku
This channel leans more towards entertainment, but doesn’t do so at the expense of informing. One video we recommend you check out is ‘Learn Japanese Hiragana in 90 seconds’. This video is very short, and provides an overview of several characters and useful mnemonics for remembering each.
Online Resources & Apps
Tofugu is generally a great resource for everything Japan and Japanese-related, so it’s no surprise that it features on this list. ‘Learn Hiragana: the Ultimate Guide’ is a staggeringly detailed article covering all of the Hiragana characters and their pronunciation. This long article should be your first port of call whenever you have any doubts about pronunciation or if you just want to check if you drew the characters right. The best part of it though has to be the striking mnemonics. If you commit the visuals to memory, you should have a much easier time with recall in the future.
- Hiragana Quest
Hiragana quest is an app which makes the most of mnemonics and cute, colourful characters to aid the memorisation process. You will follow a story and by engaging with the different characters you can form strong connections with each character in your head, so they easily come to mind when you need them. It’s a fun way to pass the time while working on your Hiragana, so give it a shot if you’re in the mood for something a little different.
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