Japanese has three separate writing systems – Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Their usage depends largely on the origin of the word. Kanji are the Sino-Japanese words that descend from China and use the simplified Chinese characters. Katakana incorporates many other foreign words, and not just English words! Then Hiragana is the predominant written form for everything else. Hiragana is by far the most common written form, although both Katakana and Kanji will be intermixed in most sentences. So Hiragana is the first one usually taught to new Japanese students. Thankfully, it is easier to write and remember than the Kanji, having been simplified a lot time ago. So although it might take some time to memorize this many characters, it shouldn’t be too hard to learn!
Hiragana is read phonetically, and most of the letters can be replicated in English. Each “character” represents a sound, with all but one (‘ん’ ‘N’) including a vowel sound. There are 71 separate sounds but only 46 characters in total – one single consonant, five vowels, and forty combination sounds.
- ( ゛) = Dakuten, put on the top right of the character. Shows that a character is changing from unvoiced (き is ki) to voiced (ぎ is gi)
- は (ha) is said as (wa) when it comes by itself or is after the topic of the sentence. For example, watashi wa (I am) is spelled 私は.
- The characters や (ya), よ (yo), and ゆ (yu) can be added to a character that ends in the (i) sound. If so, the (i) is silent. For example, if ぎ (gi) is added to や (ya), it will be pronounced as ぎや (gya).
- Doubled vowels (as in おにいさん | oni’isan | big brother) are demonstrated by adding an extra vowel. に (Ni) is lengthened by adding the extra い (i) to form ni’i. For the doubled vowel (o), either う or お might be added – it depends on the word.
- Doubled consonants (as in にっぽん | Nippon) are created by adding a ‘small’ (Tsu) or っ right before the consonant. It is actually smaller in size than the character Tsu (つっ – see the difference). You don’t actually pronounce the small Tsu. For example, in Japanese, ‘begging’ would be written ‘beっging.’
- The only exception are the doubled -n characters (na, ni, no, nu, ne). They are doubled by adding ん (an extra n) before the n.
- On the other hand っ (‘small tsu) can also be added at the end of a word to suggest stronger emotions. Rather like a !. However, when they do that, it seems to often suggest stronger emotions that are not quite strong enough for a (!). For example, if I’m talking to a child, “you’re so silly っ” might be used versus “you’re such an idiot!” to someone who just caused a lot of trouble by doing something stupid. In that case, it is also no pronounced.
- If the vowels (i) and (u) are in between (k), (s), (t), (p), (h) or if the come after one of those at the end of a sentence, then the (i) or (u) may be silent. For example, ですね (desu ne) is often said (des ne).
- If へ (he) comes after a location, the (h) is silent and it says (e).
- The Japanese (r) is similar to that of China and Korea. Put your tongue in the (L) position but say (R). If you listen, it comes out a little differently from the English (r) sound.
|あ (a)||え (e)||い (i)||お (o)||う (u)|
|だ (da)||で (de)||ぢ (ji)||ど (do)||づ (zu)|
|た (ta)||て (te)||ち (chi)||と (to)||つ (tsu)|
|が (ga)||げ (ge)||ぎ (gi)||ご (go)||ぐ (gu)|
|は (ha)||へ (he)||ひ (hi)||ほ (ho)||ふ (fu)|
|ば (ba)||べ (be)||び (bi)||ぼ (bo)||ぶ (bu)|
|ぱ (pa)||ぺ (pe)||ぴ (pi)||ぽ (po)||ぺ (pu)|
|か (ka)||け (ke)||き (ki)||こ (ko)||く (ku)|
|ま (ma)||め (me)||み (mi)||も (mo)||む (mu)|
|な (na)||ね (ne)||に (ni)||の (no)||ぬ (nu)|
|ら (ra)||れ (re)||り (ri)||ろ (ro)||る (ru)|
|さ (sa)||せ (se)||し (shi)||そ (so)||す (su)|
|ざ (za)||ぜ (ze)||じ (ji)||ぞ (zo)||ず (zu)|
|わ (wa)||を (wo)|
|や (ya)||よ (yo)||ゆ (yu)|
Note the lack of a (y) in the sh-, ch-, and j- combos.
|びゃ (bya)||びょ (byo)||びゅ (byu)|
|ぴゃ (pya)||ぴょ (pyo)||ぴゅ (pyu)|
|ひゃ (hya)||ひょ (hyo)||ひゅ (hyu)|
|ぎゃ (gya)||ぎょ (gyo)||ぎゅ (gyu)|
|きゃ (kya)||きょ (kyo)||きゅ (kyu)|
|にゃ (nya)||にょ (nyo)||にゅ (nyu)|
|みゃ (mya)||みょ (myo)||みゅ (myu)|
|りゃ (rya)||りょ (ryo)||りゅ (ryu)|
|しゃ (sha)||しょ (sho)||しゅ (shu)|
|じゃ (ja)||じょ (jo)||じゅ (ju)|
|ちゃ (cha)||ちょ (cho)||ちゅ (chu)|