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 is a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system, along with katakana, kanji, and the Latin alphabet (Rōmaji.) Hiragana and katakana are both kana systems, in which each character represents one mora. Each kana is either a vowel such as "a" (); a consonant followed by a vowel such as "ka" (); or "n" (), a nasal sonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng ( ), or like the nasal vowels of French.

Hiragana are used for words for which there are no kanji, including particles such as kara から "from", and suffixes such as ~san さん "Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms." Hiragana are also used in words for which the kanji form is not known to the writer or readers, or is too formal for the writing purpose. Verb and adjective inflections, as, for example, be-ma-shi-ta (べました) in , are written in hiragana. In this case, part of the root is also written in kanji. Hiragana are also used to give the pronunciation of kanji in a reading aid called furigana. The article Japanese writing system discusses in detail when the various systems of writing are used.

There are two main systems of ordering hiragana, the old-fashioned iroha ordering, and the more prevalent gojūon ordering.

Writing system

The hiragana consist of a basic set of characters: five singular vowels, 39 distinct consonant-vowel unions and one singular consonant. Additionally, を wo is included (although pronounced the same as vowel お o, ), bringing up the total count of common use characters to 46.

These basic characters can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten marker ( ゛), a voiceless consonant is turned into a voiced consonant: kg, sz, td, and hb. Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker ( ゜) changing the h to a p.

A small version of the hiragana for ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ respectively) may be added to hiragana ending in i. This changes the i vowel sound to a glide (palatalization) to a, u or o. Addition of the small y kana is called yōon.

A small tsu っ called a sokuon indicates that the following consonant is geminated (doubled). For example さっか sakka 'author'. It also sometimes appears at the end of utterances, where it denotes a glottal stop. However, it cannot be used to double the na, ni, nu, ne, no syllables' consonants - to double them, the singular n (ん) is added in front of the syllable. For example さんにん sannin 'three people'.

Hiragana usually spells long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana. The chōon (long vowel mark) (ー) used in katakana is rarely used with hiragana, for example in the word らーめん, rāmen, but this usage is considered non-standard. In informal writing, small versions of the five vowel kana are sometimes used to represent trailing off sounds (はぁ , ねぇ ).

Table of hiragana

The following table shows hiragana together with their Hepburn romanization and IPA pronunciation in the gojūon order. Hiragana with dakuten or handakuten follow the gojūon kana without them, with the yōon kana following. Obsolete and normally unused kana are shown in gray. For all syllables besides ん, the pronunciation indicated is for word-initial syllables, for mid-word pronunciations see below.

In the middle of words, the g sound (normally ) often turns into a velar nasal and less often (although increasing recently) into the velar fricative . An exception to this is numerals; 15 juugo is considered to be one word, but is pronounced as if it was juu and go stacked end to end: .

Additionally, the j sound (normally ) can be pronounced in the middle of words. For example すうじ suuji 'number'.

The singular n is pronounced before t, ch, ts, n, r, z, j and d, before m, b and p, before k and g, at the end of utterances, before vowels, palatal approximants (y), consonants s, sh, h, f and w, and finally after the vowel i if another vowel, palatal approximant or consonant s, sh, h, f or w follows.

In kanji readings, the diphthongs ou and ei are today usually pronounced (long o) and (long e) respectively. For example とうきょう toukyou is pronounced 'Tokyo', and せんせい sensei is 'teacher'. However, とう tou is pronounced 'to inquire', because the o and u are considered distinct, u being the infinitive verb ending. Similarly, している shiteiru is pronounced 'is doing'.

For a more thorough discussion on the sounds of Japanese, please refer to Japanese phonology.

Spelling rules

With a few exceptions for sentence particles は, を, and へ (pronounced as wa, o, and e), and a few other arbitrary rules, Japanese is spelled as it sounds. This has not always been the case: a previous system of spelling, now referred to as historical kana usage, had many spelling rules; the exceptions in modern usage are the legacy of that system. The exact spelling rules are referred to as .

There are two hiragana pronounced ji (じ and ぢ) and two hiragana pronounced zu (ず and づ). These pairs are not interchangeable. Usually, ji is written as じ and zu is written as ず. There are some exceptions. If the first two syllables of a word consist of one syllable without a dakuten and the same syllable with a dakuten, the same hiragana is used to write the sounds. For example chijimeru ('to boil down' or 'to shrink') is spelled ちぢめる and tsuzuku ('to continue') is つづく. For compound words where the dakuten reflects rendaku voicing, the original hiragana is used. For example, chi ( 'blood') is spelled ち in plain hiragana. When hana ('nose') and chi ('blood') combine to make hanaji 'nose bleed'), the sound of 血 changes from chi to ji. So hanaji is spelled はなぢ according to ち: the basic hiragana used to transcribe . Similarly, tsukau ( ; 'to use') is spelled つかう in hiragana, so kanazukai ( ; 'kana use', or 'kana orthography') is spelled かなづかい in hiragana.

However, this does not apply when kanji are used phonetically to write words which do not relate directly to the meaning of the kanji (see also ateji). The Japanese word for 'lightning', for example, is inazuma ( ). The component means 'rice plant', is written いな in hiragana and is pronounced: ina. The component means 'wife' and is pronounced tsuma (つま) when written in isolation—or frequently as zuma (ずま) when it features after another syllable. Neither of these components have anything to do with 'lightning', but together they do when they compose the word for 'lightning'. In this case, the default spelling in hiragana いなずま rather than いなづま is used.

Officially, ぢ and づ do not occur word-initially. There were words such as ぢばん jiban 'ground' in the historical kana usage, but they were unified under じ in the modern kana usage in 1946, so today it is spelled exclusively じばん. However, づら zura 'wig' (from かつら katsura) and づけ zuke (an obscure sushi term for lean tuna nigiri) are examples of word-initial づ today. Some people write the word for hemorrhoids as ぢ (normally じ) for the sake of emphasis.

No standard Japanese words begin with the kana ん (n). This is the basis of the word game shiritori. ん n is normally treated as its own syllable and is separate from the other N based kana. A notable exception to this is the colloquial negative verb conjugation; for example わからない wakaranai meaning "[I] don't understand" is rendered as わからん wakaran. It is however not a contraction of the former, but instead comes from the classic negative verb conjugation ぬ nu (わからぬ wakaranu).

ん is sometimes directly followed by a vowel (a, i, u, e or o) or a palatal approximant (ya, yu or yo). These are clearly distinct from the na, ni etc. syllables, and there are minimal pairs such as きんえん kin'en 'smoking forbidden', きねん kinen 'commemoration', きんねん kinnen 'recent years'. In Hepburn romanization, they are distinguished with an apostrophe, but not all romanization methods make the distinction. For example past prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's first name is actually じゅんいちろう Jun'ichirō pronounced

There are a few hiragana which are rarely used. Wi ゐ and we ゑ are obsolete. Vu ゔ is a modern addition used to represent the /v/ sound in foreign languages such as English, but since Japanese from a phonological standpoint does not have a /v/ sound, it is pronounced as /b/ and mostly serves as a more accurate indicator of a word's pronunciation in its original language. However, it is rarely seen because loanwords and transliterated words are usually written in katakana, where the corresponding character would be written as ヴ. ぢゃ, ぢゅ, ぢょ for ja/ju/jo are theoretically possible in rendaku, but are practically never used. For example 日本中 'throughout Japan' could be written にほんぢゅう, but is practically always にほんじゅう.

The みゅ myu kana is extremely rare in originally Japanese words; linguist Haruhiko Kindaichi raises the example of the Japanese family name Omamyūda (小豆生田) and claims it is the only occurrence amongst pure Japanese words. Its katakana counterpart is used in many loanwords, however.


Hiragana developed from man'yōgana, Chinese characters used for their pronunciations, a practice which started in the 5th century.. Man'yōgana was from Baekje who transferred Old Chinese to Japan . The forms of the hiragana originate from the cursive script style of Chinese calligraphy. The figure below shows the derivation of hiragana from manyōgana via cursive script. The upper part shows the character in the regular script form, the center character in red shows the cursive script form of the character, and the bottom shows the equivalent hiragana.

When they were first created, hiragana were not accepted by everyone. Many felt that the language of the educated was still Chinese. Historically, in Japan, the regular script (kaisho) form of the characters was used by men and called , "men's writing", while the cursive script (sōsho) form of the kanji was used by women. Thus hiragana first gained popularity among women, who were not allowed access to the same levels of education as men. From this comes the alternative name of "women's writing". For example, The Tale of Genji and other early novels by female authors used hiragana extensively or exclusively.

Male authors came to write literature using hiragana. Hiragana, with its flowing style, was used for unofficial writing such as personal letters, while katakana and Chinese were used for official documents. In modern times, the usage of hiragana has become mixed with katakana writing. Katakana is now relegated to special uses such as recently borrowed words (i.e., since the 19th century), names in transliteration, the names of animals, in telegrams, and for emphasis.

Originally, all syllables had more than one hiragana. In 1900, the system was simplified so each syllable had only one hiragana. Other hiragana are known as

The pangram poem Iroha-uta ("ABC song/poem"), which dates to the 10th century, uses every hiragana once (except n ん, which was just a variant of む before Muromachi era).

How to write hiragana

The following table shows how to write each hiragana character. It is arranged in the traditional way, beginning top right and reading columns down. The little numbers and arrows indicate the stroke order and direction.

Hiragana in Unicode

In Unicode, Hiragana occupies code points U+3040 to U+309F:

The Unicode hiragana block contains precomposed characters for all hiragana in the modern set, including small vowels and yōon kana for compound syllables, plus the archaic wi and we and the rare vu. All combinations of hiragana with dakuten and handakuten used in modern Japanese are available as precomposed characters, and can also be produced by using a base hiragana followed by the combining dakuten and handakuten characters (U+3099 and U+309A, respectively). This method is used to add the diacritics to kana that are not normally used with them, for example applying the dakuten to a pure vowel or the handakuten to a kana not in the h-group.

Characters U+3095 and U+3096 are small か (ka) and small け (ke), respectively. U+309F is a digraph of より (yori) occasionally used in vertical text. U+309B and U+309C are spacing (non-combining) equivalents to the combining dakuten and handakuten characters, respectively.

There are currently no characters at code points U+3040, U+3097, or U+3098.

See also


  1. Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese 1st edition McGraw-Hill, page 13 "Linguistic Note: The Origins of Hiragana and Katakana"
  2. [1] John R. BENTLEY, "The origin of Manyogana", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (2001), 64: 59-73, Cambridge University Press.

  • "The Art of Japanese Calligraphy", Yujiro Nakata, ISBN 0-8348-1013-1, gives details of the development of onode and onnade.

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