Sunday, August 11, 2013

Japanese hiragana and katakana, part 1

The Japanese language makes use of three writing systems: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji are Chinese characters, while hiragana and katakana—collectively called kana—are symbols which were derived from kanji, and are original to the Japanese language. There are 46 basic hiragana symbols, and 46 basic katakana symbols. Besides these basic symbols, there are also the modifications and composites of these symbols, called dakuon, handakuon, and yoon.

Hiragana and katakana are the two syllabaries used in written Japanese. Each kana corresponds to a specific syllable, and the core of the two sets of syllabaries represent the same set of syllables. The katakana syllabary, however, has additional syllables which represent the pronounciation of syllables in foreign words that are not used in native Japanese words. Another difference between the two sets of syllabaries is their appearance—hiragana characters look rounded, while katakana characters generally appear angular. A third distinguishing characteristic is their use—hiragana are generally used to write native Japanese words, while katakana are used to write foreign loan words, names of plants and animals, and also onomatopoeic expressions, although they are not strictly restricted to these uses. In practice, a writer can sometimes choose to write a native Japanese word in katakana to add levity or emphasis to the writing, or to achieve a desired aesthetic form or balance in their sentence.

I learned the Japanese kana and how to write them using the following two books, written by the same author, Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura, and published by Kodansha International Ltd.:

I will describe each book in detail so that readers can make an informed decision as to whether or not these books might suit them. I will describe the first book, Let's Learn Hiragana, in this article, and I will give a description of the other book, Let's Learn Katakana, in my next blog post, along with my recommendations. By the way, Mitamura strongly recommends that a student learns hiragana before katakana.

Here is a summary of the table of contents of Let's Learn Hiragana:


Here, the author gives a short description of the structure of the book. Mitamura also points out that the book uses the Modified Hepburn System to romanize the writing of Japanese words.

Chapter 1: How to write syllables

This chapter makes up the bulk of this book. Mitamura first gives a brief introduction to the Japanese writing system and the five types of syllables in the Japanese language. This is followed by an explanation of the three different types of stroke endings that are used in writing kana.

Mitamura then gives a nice, one-page table of the hiragana symbols, systematically grouped according to type, i.e. the 46 basic hiragana symbols, 20 dakuon and 5 handakuon symbols, and 36 yoon symbols. That's a total of 107 hiragana symbols. Don't be daunted by this number, because once you learn the 46 basic hiragana symbols, the remaining modified and composite symbols are easy to learn.

In the next pages, the 46 basic hiragana symbols are subdivided into five groups, and each group is presented using a table where exemplar hiragana symbols are drawn in large script down one column, and the strokes needed to properly write each hiragana are drawn in the next few columns (see Figure 1). The corresponding romanized pronounciation is shown next to each hiragana symbol. There is space on this table for the student to practice writing the hiragana. On the reverse or opposite page, another table is given with the same set of hiragana symbols drawn down one column, and corresponding dashed symbols which can be traced are drawn in the next column (see Figure 2). The rest of the table columns are left blank for the student to fill in with practice writing.

Figure 1: Table presenting one set of hiragana symbols, with stroke order sequence. Click on the image to enlarge.

Figure 2: Table presenting one set of hiragana symbols, with space for writing practice. Click on the image to enlarge.

I'd like to point out that the hiragana symbols in this book are printed in a font which mimics handwritten symbols, as opposed to the font that one typically sees in electronically written text. In other words, you see hiragana characters as they are ideally supposed to look when handwritten. For me, this is a positive feature.

After a set of hiragana is presented using these tables, some exercises are presented where students are asked to write and read given Japanese words which are written using the hiragana symbols which have been learned so far. The English definitions of the words are also given, so one can also learn Japanese vocabulary along the way.

This pattern of presenting a set of hiragana, followed by writing and reading exercises, is repeated until the five different sets of basic hiragana have been presented. Along the way, Mitamura gives necessary notes on proper pronounciation and use, and other things, like archaic hiragana forms.

Mitamura finishes this chapter with a thorough presentation and explanation of dakuon, handakuon, and yoon hiragana syllables. These sections are also accompanied by writing and reading exercises.

Chapter 2: How to write words

This chapter explains the rules for writing Japanese words in hiragana, both in horizontal and vertical forms. Needless to say, knowing these rules is also important for reading Japanese. It covers the use of the syllabic consonant ん (n or m when romanized), double consonants, repeated syllables, and other hiragana symbols. The chapter also includes writing and reading exercises.

Chapter 3: How to write sentences

This is a short chapter which touches only very briefly on the use of the hiragana symbols は, へ, and を as particles in sentences. The chapter also presents the basic punctuations used in horizontal and vertical Japanese writing.

Chapter 4: Review exercises

In this chapter, Mitamura first points out common mistakes in writing or recognizing hiragana. Thankfully, this list is short. Then, Mitamura presents exercises which involve recognizing and writing hiragana.

Appendix A: Quiz Answers

This appendex contains the answers to the review exercises in Chapter 4.

Appendix B: The derivation of hiragana

This is a short but interesting appendix on the origin of hiragana symbols. It includes a table which gives the corresponding kanji characters from which the 46 basic hiragana symbols were derived.

Part two of this article can be found in my next blog post, where I will describe the second book, Let's Learn Katakana, and give my recommendations.


The dimensions of the book are approximately 8.25 by 11 inches. There are 72 pages.

Mitamura, Yasuko Kosaka. Let's Learn Hiragana. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International Ltd., 1985.


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