Today I’m going to show you how to learn hiragana. Hiragana is the first of the three Japanese writing systems and is the one that Japanese kids learn first.
Once you know it, you will be able to read children’s books entirely in Japanese since they are typically written in this script.
Starting with hiragana first is also beneficial because it makes learning katakana, the second script, easier since a lot of them look nearly identical.
Once you know both of the “kana” scripts, you can then move on to learning kanji (literally “Chinese characters”). I’ll leave that for another day, so for now let’s focus on hiragana.
The History of Hiragana
Originally Japanese did not have any writing system at all. People from China and Korea originally brought over kanji to Japan and taught it to the Japanese.
The Japanese then tried to apply it to their own language, but it didn’t work very well because of how different the two languages are from each other.
To solve this problem, hiragana and katakana were invented to fill in the gaps left by kanji. Both of these kana scripts were created from kanji, but in different ways.
Hiragana were created by taking kanji and making abbreviated, cursive forms of it. Katakana on the other hand were created by just taking a piece of the kanji out and using it as a stand alone item.
Back in the day, hiragana was only used by women and the men wrote in kanji and katakana. Thankfully that’s not the case anymore, and you have to know all three in order to be literate in Japanese.
Each hiragana character represents a sound, just like the letters in our alphabet.
Most hiragana are used for both a consonant and a vowel such as “ka” or “yu.”
There are 46 basic hiragana that you will need to learn first. After that there are 61 modified characters that are just the basic ones with some slight changes made to them.
Now that you know a little about the history of hiragana, let’s take a look at some different ways you can learn them.
The Learning Methods Available
When it comes to learning hiragana, I am reminded of the quote from the legendary Myiamoto Mushashi who said:
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.”
I know of three common ways that people learn hiragana:
- Writing it down
- Flash cards
Let’s take a look at each of these now.
Writing it down
This is how Japanese children learn hiragana in school. It’s also probably the most common way that non-Japanese people learn it. You simply learn the correct stroke order for each kana, and then practice it a few times to memorize it.
It’s actually pretty simple and the rules for writing the characters are pretty logical.
This is how I personally learned it all those years ago, and it is the primary method that I’ll be covering in this post due to its simplicity.
That being said, I did want to talk about a few alternatives.
I’m sure you’ve used flash cards before to help remember things for a test in school. It’s basically the same concept, but this time the goal is to learn hiragana.
You would simply have a hiragana character on one side and then the English letters on the other.
You can do this for free with programs like Duolingo or Memrise which are both available on computers and smartphones.
Personally I feel that this method is better for locking in information, rather than initially learning it. But if you’d like to try out this way, then give it a shot.
Mnemonics are basically useful tricks to remember things. They work pretty well for learning new words in any language, and for kanji in particular.
The basic concept is to link the shape of each kana with something that looks similar to it in the real word. That way, the meaning of the thing you already know helps you to remember the new kana that you’re trying to learn.
I personally don’t really like mnemonics for hiragana because mnemonics are all about creating and attaching meaningful stories to the subject, and it’s kind of hard to visualize a whole story when each hiragana only represents a single sound without any meaning.
I also think that learning hiragana is pretty simple, so all the extra work that you have to do initially for mnemonics is extra time spent that is unnecessary.
But like I said, that’s just my personal bias so don’t worry about it if you’d rather give mnemonics a go. I will provide a link for a great site that teaches hiragana with mnemonics in the resources section at the end of this post.
Why Write it Down?
Here’s why I think learning how to write hiragana is a good way to go.
The first reason is because when you write anything down you engage your physical motor skills which actually makes remembering things easier.
Many people say that writing notes for a test helps them remember the information better, and it’s the same with learning hiragana.
In addition to that, most people “hear” the pronunciation of the character in their head when they see it written down. This is called “sub-vocalizing” and it’s considered a part of “multi-sensory learning.”
That just means you are using multiple senses (sight, sound, touch) to learn the new information.
Studies have shown that we all have a separate memory for the things that we see, the things that we hear, and the things that we feel/do. That means when you write hiragana out, you are storing that information away into three separate memories which it makes it easier to recall later on.
Recall is the ability to draw information out of your memory and use it. It’s different from recognition, which is the ability to see or hear something and then remember what it is.
Both methods can be used to learn hiragana, but the difference is that if you can recall something, you can recognize it. The other way around doesn’t always work, however.
So by learning how to write hiragana, you are doing the harder work initially that will provide more benefits later on.
I say it’s “harder” but honestly it’s not that big a deal. Writing hiragana is actually pretty simple since no single kana has more than four strokes to it, and they all follow the basic pattern of:
Horizontal lines are written left to right →
Vertical lines are written top to bottom ↓
Traditionally hiragana was written at the top-right of the page and it went straight down to the bottom, but due to the huge influence that Western culture has had on Japan, you now see a lot of Japanese written the same way as English.
That is, it starts at the top-left of the page and goes to the right.
The red cross is where you you start writing in both of these examples. The Western style is on the left, and the traditional Japanese style is on the right:
Having said all of that though, manga and Japanese novels are still primarily written the classical way of top to bottom, starting in the top right corner.
Alright, enough talking ABOUT hiragana, let’s jump right into learning it!
Learning the Basic 46 Hiragana
I want you to take a moment to look over this complete chart of hiragana below, and pay particular attention to the basic ones, since that’s what you’ll be learning first.
Click on the chart below to load it in a separate tab and download it for your personal studies!
As you can see, each kana represents a single syllable. It is usually a combination of a consonant and a vowel, but there are a few that are only vowels.
The way that I learned hiragana was simply to take a row of five at a time, learn how to write them out and then write them out a few times a day.
Once I felt that I had a group locked in, I would move on to the next.
Doing it this way I was able to learn all of the hiragana in three days. When you write them out, you can also say them out loud to help lock their pronunciation in.
Here is another hiragana chart that you can download and use to learn the correct stroke order for each kana.
It was created by user Pmx and can be found on the WikiCommons by clicking here. Note that this one is written in the traditional Japanese way of starting at the top right, and going down.
I have to make a side note here: The two hiragana ゐ (WI) and ゑ (WE) are outdated. You will not see them used in modern Japanese, but if you read an old book they might show up. You can safety ignore learning those two for now.
These next three hiragana deserve a couple notes.
First off is わ (wa) which is used to spell words and not as the topic particle. The topic particle, that is the thing that identifies what the topic of the conversation is about, is actually the Hiragana は which is normally pronounced “ha” but changes to “wa” when it’s a used to mark the topic.
Secondly is を ([w]o) which is the object marker (another spoken particle). It is often taught to students as “wo” but since most Japanese people just pronounce it as “o” it’s fine if you do too.
And finally is ん (n) which is the only Kana that is a single consonant. It never begins a word. It is only used in the middle or the end of a word. Also note that ん is usually pronounced like the English “ng” sound in the word “song.”
Learning the Modified 61 Hiragana
Now we get to the fun part of learning hiragana, which is learning about all the all the different modified characters!
You may be a little intimidated about having to learn 61 new symbols, but once you understand the reason why they are called “modified” you’ll realize that learning them is actually a piece of cake.
The first group of modified hiragana are known as Daku-on. What the Japanese people noticed when they were creating their writing systems is that in order to create certain sounds, a person has to put their mouth and tongue into a certain position.
Try saying “TA” and then “GU” and you will notice that you have to move your mouth muscles into different positions in order to make each of those sounds.
But what if you say the sound “TA” and then the sound “DA”? It’s not your mouth that changes, it’s actually your vocal chords.
This brings us to the difference between unvoiced consonants and voiced consonants. Any kana that starts with a “K, S, T, or H” sound is what is known as an “unvoiced consonant.” You will notice that all of these are included in the basic hiragana.
Each one of these groups has a “voiced consonant” counterpart. You will use the exact same muscles and mouth position to pronounce these sounds, but you will engage your vocal chords this time.
So instead of creating a complete new set of hiragana, the Japanese decided to just add two small dashes to the upper right part of each kana.
か き く け こ turn into が ぎ ぐ げ ご
(ka-ki-ku-ke-ko) → (ga-gi-gu-ge-go)
さ し す せ そ turn into ざ じ ず ぜ ぞ
(sa-shi-su-se-so) → (za-ji-zu-ze-zo)
た ち つ て と turn into だ ぢ づ で ど
(ta-chi-tsu-te-to) → (da-ji-zu-de-do)
は ひ ふ へ ほ turn into ば び ぶ べ ぼ
(ha-hi-fu-he-ho) → (ba-bi-bu-be-bo)
And finally, in order to get the “P” sound in Japanese, they just took the “H” group and drew a small circle in the top right, instead of the two small dashes. Here they are now:
は ひ ふ へ ほ turn into ぱ ぴ ぷ ぺ ぽ
(ha-hi-fu-he-ho) → (pa-pi-pu-pe-po)
This last one is pretty simple!
Take a look again at the complete hiragana chart and this time pay attention to the second column and their relationship to their respective counterparts in the first column.
Also, note that there are two separate Hiragana for both the “ji” sound (じ and ぢ) and for the “zu” sound (ず and づ).
Even though there are two ways to write each of these sounds, you will almost always see じ for “ji” and ず for “zu.” It is not very common to see ぢ or づ used.
The final group of modified hiragana are actually a contraction of two separate kana, morphed into one new one. You always take one of the consonant “I” kana and combine it with one of the three “Y” kana.
ki + ya = kya (き + や = きゃ)
shi + yo = sho (し + よ = しょ)
mi + yu = myu (み + ゆ= みゅ)
You will notice that the “Y” kana is written smaller than a normal size kana.
Also, this new syllable is a single syllable. It should be pronounced “kya” and not “ki-ya.”
Take a look again at that chart provided above and check out all of these contracted hiragana.
(1) Check out the book Let’s Learn Hiragana on Amazon.
(2) Want some flash cards to help learn? Try out Tinycards.
(3) Interested in using mnemonics? Tofugu has a pretty cool post on it.
You don’t necessarily have to master hiragana 100% before moving on. I’d say if you are getting it right about 80% of the time or more, then you’re ready to move on to katakana.
The two kana scripts (hiragana and katakana) are kind of like our upper and lower case letters in the English alphabet. You pronounce them exactly the same way, but you use them for different reasons.
That makes learning katakana pretty easy once you already know hiragana.
Now I want to hear from you!
Leave me a comment and let me know if this was helpful or if you still have questions.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: