Learn All the Hiragana Characters in Japanese

Author Anna Baffa Volpe for article 'Learn All the Hiragana Characters in Japanese'

Anna Baffa Volpe

10 min reading time

皆さん、こんにちは。 Good morning everybody! Today we start from the basis of the language. This content is meant for everyone who desires to learn to read the syllabary of Hiragana, which is the first step of the Japanese writing system.

Japanese language is called Nihongo 日本語 Nihon is the name of the country, 日本 Japan and go is the language, the word, the idiom

Introduction to the Rōmaji reading system

In our first step it is useful to use the transcription with Latin characters, the alphabet in order to be able to read the characters. When we have become familiar with the syllabary and its rules, it is no longer necessary to use the alphabet, for it was invented for non-Japanese people who couldn't read japanese characters.

Rōmaji, ローマ字, literally means Roman letters and refers to the Latin script that is used to pronounce the Japanese language for all the beginners. This method of writing is also called the romanization of Japanese.

This system is particularly known as "Hepburn" and takes its name from James Curtis Hepburn, the American missionary who created the reading system and published the first dictionary using western alphabet letters.

The characteristic feature of Hepburn system is the reading of consonants according to English phonology and the reading of vowels according to Italian, Spanish phonology

The syllabary consists of:

  • the 5 vowels a, i, u, e, o

  • the semiconsonant 'n'

  • and characters representing syllables, elements composed of consonant + vowel

Subdividing the nature of the sounds we have:

  • 46 pure sounds

  • 20 impure sounds

  • 5 half-impure sounds

  • 36 contracted sounds

Today we deal with the most conspicuous part of the Hiragana chart, the pure sounds.

Tabella Hiragana con Rōmaji
The chart shows all the characters of the pure sounds and their transcription in Rōmaji system

はじめましょう! Hajimemashō! Let's start!

Vowels in Japanese

The five vowels:

  • あ - a

  • い - i

  • う - u

  • え - e

  • お - o

え means drawing, painting

Let's have a look at examples of words and expressions using only the vowels we have just learnt:

  • あい - ai: meet

  • いいえ - iie: no!

  • いえ - ie: home

  • おおい - ooi: many, numerous

  • いう - iu: say

  • あお - ao: blue

The two characters あ and お might be confused, but if we look carefully they are different

KA series

  • ka

  • ki

  • ku

  • ke

  • ko

We can now read many more words using the serious ka and the previous vowels. The example words we are going to look at contain both the new series and the 5 vowels.

  • かく - kaku the verb write

  • あきこ - Akiko (feminine name)

  • おこ - oko Japanese incense

  • けいこ - Keiko (feminine name)

  • きく - kiku the verb listen

SA series

  • sa

  • shi

  • su

  • se

  • so

Sushi すし

Surely you recognise the Japanese dish also known in the West and its reading sushi.

  • しお - shio: salt

  • けす - kesu the verb turn off

  • そこ - soko adverb there

  • せかい - sekai: world

  • あさ - asa: morning

  • かさ - kasa: umbrella

TA series

  • ta

  • chi

  • tsu

  • te

  • to

  • ちかてつ - chikatetsu: underground

  • かつ - katsu the verb win.

  • こと - koto the Japanese harp

  • たかい - takai adjective high

  • たいこ - taiko the Japanese drums

  • いち - ichi number 1

Double consonants

Now that we have also learnt the series ta, we can add a little rule about the double consonants.

Example in the adverb ikki ni, meaning in one gulp / in one breath, we notice the two kk.

The double consonant is obtained by writing a small つ tsu before the consonant to be doubled.

In the adverb ikkai, once, we have:

NA series

  • na

  • ni

  • nu

  • ne

  • no

Dog いぬ

ねこ - neko: cat

たぬき - tanuki raccoon dog

なに - nani interrogative what?.

に - ni number 2

HA series

The consonant h is aspirated in the Japanese language, so the sound should be heard clearly.

  • ha, imagine the onomatopoeia for the laugh "ah ah ah"

  • hi

  • hu, the pronunciation of this syllable is very close to the sound fu

  • he

  • ho

Box はこ
  • は - ha: tooth, teeth

  • はこね - Hakone town in Kanagawa Prefecture

  • はた - hata flag

  • はかる - hakaru the verb measure; weigh

Double vowels

We have learnt the process to double consonants, with the use of the syllable written small. Let's now have a look at the case of double vowels.

ああ aa is also written ā, using the hyphen also calld macron above the vowel doubles its sound

いい ii, another i is added

うう uu another u is placed next to it and can be written ū

えい / ええ ei, ee, ē the doubling of the e is obtained by combining the vowel e and the vowel i and the pronunciation is that of 2 e

おう the doubling of the o is obtained by adding the vowel u.

There are exceptions such as for the adjective ōkii big or ōi numerous in which the doubled vowel is expressed by adding another o:

  • おおきい (ōkii)

  • おおい (ōi)

The consonant N

The only consonant that we can recognise in the syllabary is the letter n, which is considered a semiconsonant due to its particular sound: ん n.

  • にほん - Nihon: Japan.

  • しつもん - shitsumon: question

Some examples showing the double vowels

おねえさん - onēsan, the elder sister

こうこう - kōkō, the high school

おかあさん - okāsan, one's or another's mother

おとうさん - otōsan, one's own or another's father

くうき - kūki: air

せんせい - sensei: teacher, master

Oniisan is our elder brother

MA series

  • ma

  • mi

  • mu

  • me

  • mo

Peach blossom もものはな
  • まもなく - mamonaku adverb shortly, soon

  • うみ - umi: sea

  • あめ - ame: rain

  • むいか - muika the 6th of the month

  • むし - mushi: insect

  • めいし - meishi: business card

  • まこと - Makoto (male name)

YA series

  • ya

  • yu

  • yo

Yokohama city
In the picture you have a view of the city of Yokohama
  • Kayoko - Kayoko (feminine name)

  • Yūmei - yūmei adjective popular, famous

  • Yamamoto - Yamamoto (Japanese surname)

  • Yonaka - yonaka adverb middle of the night

  • Yuki yuki: snow

  • Mayumi Mayumi (feminine name)

  • Mitsuyasu Mitsuyasu (masculine name)

RA series

  • ra

  • ri

  • ru

  • re

  • ro

White horse
しろいうま shiroi uma, a white horse: しろい means white, and うま means horse.

Recognising Japanese characters

On a first approach and study of the syllabary, it may happen that the characters appear slightly different from those learned from the hiragana chart. If we consider the same font we normally use for our alphabetical characters, we realise that even in our writing system some letters are sometimes not immediately recognisable.

Context and training can help us to recognise Hiragana charachters and later Katakana characters used for foreign terms, and after this first step we can reach the wonderful world of the Kanji, (かん)() the ideograms.

Characters that might initially be perhaps confused include the vowel i and the syllable ko. In a printed text the distinction is clear, but in a handwritten text it may be that the syllables are written obliquely and then they could be interchanged. Other similar characters are:

  • め 'me' meaning eye

  • ぬ "nu" as in the word ぬの cloth, textile

  • ね "ne" is the exclamative particle placed at the end of the sentence meaning right?, Isn't it?, Doesn't it?

The context in which the word is placed and the training help to identify the character correctly, so つづけましょう! Let's go on!

The last characters of the pure sound part are wa わ and を o / wo.

The character WA わ

  • わたし watashi the first person pronoun io

  • かいわ kaiwa: conversation

  • れいわ Reiwa is the Reiwa period, which began in the year 2019, so in the current year we are in the fourth year of the Reiwa period

The character WO/ O を

This last character is read "o" and is only used for the particle which express the object in the sentence.

Let's analyze an example:

As you can see, we have two o vowels: ちゃのむ。.

  • The first o represents an honorific prefix. Japanese language makes a great use of honorific prefixes and suffixes placed before or afer a noun to emphasise its importance. cha is the term for tea and it's used with the honorific o, おちゃ o-cha

  • The second o indicates the particle of the object を and the character is different

  • nomu (のむ) is the verb to drink

Japanese reading exercise: Rōmaji

Try reading and writing the names of the animals in the picture. There are some syllables that we will look at in the next section, but I am sure you will be able to write the pronunciation in Rōmaji of almost all the animals. がんばってね!

Japanese reading exercise
Learn to recognise Hiragana characters and transcribe their reading in Rōmaji

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