A Primer on Japanese Hiragana

My son is now three years old and is starting to learn to read. For various reasons we are focusing on speaking and reading Japanese first and that includes the Japanese kana writing system.

The kana system is actually two writing systems:

  • Hiragana (平仮名) – the core writing system in Japanese. 
  • Katakana (片仮名) – used for foreign words, sound-effect words and/or very young readers. 

Right now, my son is learning to read hiragana because that’s the most fundamental thing to learn when reading Japanese. Also, in comparison to English, it is much easier for a three year old to pick up.

Hiragana is not an alphabet, despite all appearances. It is a syllabary. What this means is that each character represents a unique syllable, and does not change sound. So, for example, the character か always represents the sound “ka”. The character も always presents “mo” and so on. The entire set of hiragana characters represent all the sounds in Japanese language.

Children learn Hiragana using a chart like so:

    w r y m h n t s k  
a
n
i      
chi

shi
u    
tsu
e      
o  

With a few exceptions, you can see that all of them arrange themselves in a nice grid. The character ん (n) will only appear at the end of a word, never at the beginning.1 Also a few others are pronounced slightly different than one would expect, but otherwise function the same.

There is a little more to the hiragana than this. For example some hiragana do change sounds a bit such as ふ (hu) ぶ (bu) and ぷ (pu) if they have a little mark attached to them. Also, sounds like shō (しょう) and shū (しゅう) require a few hiragana characters put together. But even so, it is still nice and predictable.

Typically, kids in Japan will recite them from the upper-left, あ (ah), vertically, then the next column か (ka) and so on.

My son only knows a few hiragana so far, but he’s very happy when he sees them in books. Since one character is one sound, it’s easy for him to pick out the characters he knows, and he knows how to say them right away. Sometimes he’ll shout “wani no wa!” while reading which means “wa (わ) as in wani (alligator)” which is very cute. 

My daughter, when she was at that age, had a little chart in her room, and slowly learned each hiragana character until she could read them all by age 4 or so.

Speaking from experience, the only way to really learn Hiragana is to simply memorize them and then practice reading enough until it becomes second nature. You only have to learn it once though, and from then on you can read anytime. 

Good luck to all you Japanese students out there. 🙂

P.S. Katakana, mentioned above, is basically an identical system; it’s just that the characters look different.

1 This is an important thing to bear in mind if you ever play a certain word-game called “shiritori” which is popular in Japan.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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