How would you like to be able to read Japanese? Would you enjoying being able to read Manga in its native language? Well I sure hope you said yes to both of those questions, because I’m going to show you How To Learn Hiragana!
Hiragaga is the first of the three (yes, I said 3!) native Japanese writing systems and it is the one that Japanese children learn first. Technically you could say that Rōmaji is a fourth Japanese writing system, but since it’s just Japanese words written in the English alphabet, it doesn’t really count.
But getting back to the topic at hand, as soon as you learn Hiragana you will be able to read children’s books since they are entirely written in that one script.
Also, with knowing Hiragana will help you to learn new Kanji, since a lot of it is written with Furigana above it. Furigana is small Hiragana characters written above Kanji to show its pronunciation.
Later on we will tackle both Katana and Kanji, but for now let’s learn us some 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 Katanata (#2 writing system) were invented to “fill in the gaps” left by Kanji. Both of these “Kana” scripts were created by taking parts of Kanji and modifying them. Hiragana in particular are very abbreviated, cursive forms of Kanji that typically serve as a grammatical function to Kanij. But there are also a lot of words that you rarely ever see written in Kanji, and instead you see them written entirely in Hiragana.
I once read that Hiragana used to only be used by women and the men wrote in Kanji and Katakana. Thankfully that’s not the case anymore, since you have to know all three in order to be literate in Japanese.
There are 46 basic Hiragana that you will need to learn first. After that there are 61 modified ones that are just the basic ones with some slight changes to them. Now that you know a little about how Hiragana came to be about, let’s take a look at…
The Learning Methods Available
When it comes to learning Hiragana, I am reminded of the quote from the legendary rounin Myiamoto Mushashi who said: “You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.”
I know of three very common ways that people learn Hiragana:
- Writing it down
- Flash cards
(1) Writing it down
This is how Japanese children learn Hiragana in school. And it’s also probably the most common way that other, non-Japanese people have learned it. You simply learn the correct stroke order for each kana, and then practice it a few times to memorize it.
If it sounds complicated, don’t worry. It’s actually pretty simple and the rules for writing 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. A lot of people knock it, but there are a couple of really good reasons for learning Hiragana this way, which I’ll come back to in a minute.
(2) Flash cards
These also work pretty well when you incorporate a Spaced Repetition System into the mix. What that means is that it repeats the ones that you have the most trouble with more often than the easy ones.
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 can do this for free and pretty easily 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, I will provide some links to them at the end of this article.
Mnemonics are like the new, cool kid on the block. They work pretty well for learning new words in any language, and for Kanji in particular. In case you don’t know, Kanji is the third Japanese writing system that is based on pictographs (picture of the things it represents).
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 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.
Also, and this is just me personally, I think that learning Hiragana is actually pretty easy. 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. Again, 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. First of all, when you write anything down you are engaging your physical motor skills. Add to that the fact that you can see it and hear it in your head (that’s called sub-vocalizing) and you are doing what is known as “multi-sensory learning.”
Basically how it works is 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 and it makes it easier to recall.
Recall is the ability to draw information out of your memory and use it. It’s a different from recognition, which is the ability to see something and then know 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 though.
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.
Having said all of that though, Manga is 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 like two or three days. When you write them out, be sure to say them out loud to help lock it in.
Luckily for you, Japanese is easy to pronounce for native English speakers. If you’re not familiar with the correct way to pronounce Japanese vowels and consonant, then click here to learn how to speak Japanese.
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. After you’re done with this one, take a look at the example words below to see some vocabulary in Hiragana.
Here are some words from each of the basic Hiragana categories. Try writing each on of them out on a piece of paper to help get them into your long term memory.
Yes (primarily used by women)
The bill or check (typically at a restaurant)
Alcohol in general. Can also refer specifically to Japanese rice wine.
The food sushi (raw fish on rice).
no; or not.
To step aside
Hot water (usually referring to hot springs).
Middle of the night
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. Careful, as this little guy can lose you a game of shiritori. Also note that ん is usually pronounced like the English “ng” sound in the word “song.”
wan o kau.
Meaning: I’ll buy a bowl.
Was that last example a little confusing? Guess what, Japanese doesn’t use spaces! But you can see that the object marker を clearly shows where the noun わん ends. With these particles (and later on Kanji) you can clearly see where one word ends and the next begins. No spaces needed!
And as a final note, you can click on this link to see an animated page of the stroke order for Hiragana.
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 Kanas!
Now 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 un-voiced 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. But if you watch a lot of anime, then you will most likely have seen づ used right at the end before the credits start rolling in the word つづく (tsuzuku) which means “to be continued.”
The final group of modified Hiragana are actually a contraction of two separate Kanas, morphed into one new one. You always take one of the consonant “I” Kana and combine it with one of the three “Y” Kanas.
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.
I figured that you would also want to know about these common grammatical constructs since you will undoubtable see them in written Japanese. I’ll only go over the ones that are different from English.
-The period is written as 。
-The comma is written as 、
-Quotation marks are written as 「」
-The “stop sound” is written as a small つ which looks like っ
-The squiggly line ~ is sometimes written at the end of a word to give it an undulating sound
Tests and Reading and Games, Oh My!
Did I mention the second part to the method I use? No? My bad!
Once you’ve imprinted the Hiragana in your brain through the use of writing (or any other method), you gotta’ start using them to solidify them in your memory. It will also increase the speed at which you can recognize them on sight, and therefore read them.
So if you’re struggling a little at first, don’t worry. Everything is hard before it is easy. Just stick to it!
And you can use these resources below to help lock them into your long term memory. I’ve got a few tests, some reading examples, and also a game for you to use. Afterwards, I’ll provide you with some further resources if you want even more ways to practice.
1 – Match the correct sound with the correct Kana! Click the picture below to print out!
2 – Practice Reading! For these particular readings, don’t worry at all about what the words actually mean. I just want to you get used to seeing Hiragana and correctly identifying them. I’ve provided audio below them so that you can verify your results.
3 – Find the words in the puzzle below! Click the picture below to print out!
(1) Let’s Learn Hiragana (how I learned). Click on the picture below to check it out.
(2) Want some flash cards to help learn? Try these:
(3) Interested in trying out mnemonics to learn? 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 our Alphabet. You pronounce them exactly the same way, but you use them for different reasons.
That makes learning Katakana easier and faster than learning Hiragana, as long as you’ve already done the work on Hiragana that is 😉
And there’s more good news! There are quite a few Katakana that look almost identical to their Hiragana counterparts! That means you’re going to learn them instantly 🙂
But wait, there’s also some bad news… Since Katakana is used to transcribe foreign words, there are also a few totally new Kanas that you will have to learn 🙁
But just like the modified Hiragana you learned above, these new Katakana are simply modified off of the basic version. So you should be able to logically figure out the sound, even if I don’t just flat out tell you what it is.
Don’t worry though, I will!
Now I want to hear from you! Leave me a comment and let me know if that was helpful! Hey, do you know how to leave me a word or two in Hiragana?