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ひらがな (hiragana)
    Meaning: Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic alphabet.
    JLPT Level: 4
    Category: lesson
    Author: TaeKim

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What is Hiragana?

Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic alphabet. It represents every sound in the Japanese language. Therefore, you can theoretically write everything in hiragana. However, because Japanese is written with no spaces, this will create nearly indecipherable text.
Here is a table of hiragana and similar-sounding English consonant-vowel pronunciations. It is read up to down and right to left, which is how most Japanese books are written. In Japanese, writing the strokes in the correct order and direction is important, especially for kanji. Because handwritten letters look slightly different from typed letters (just like how 'a' looks totally different when typed) you will want to find a source such as a website or textbook that will show you how to write the characters. I must also stress the importance of correctly learning how to pronounce each sound. Since every word in Japanese is composed of these sounds, learning an incorrect pronunciation for a letter can severely damage the very foundation on which your pronunciation lies.

Hiragana Table 1
n w r y m h n t s k



ゑ* e
* = obsolete (ie no longer used)

Hiragana is not too tough to master or teach and as a result, there are a variety of web sites and free programs that are already available on the web. I strongly urge you to go to this web site to hear the pronunciations of each character. The relevant sections are 2.1 to 2.11. I also suggest recording yourself and comparing the sounds to make sure you're getting it right.

When practicing writing hiragana by hand, the important thing to remember is that the stroke order and direction of the strokes matter. There, I underlined, italicized, bolded, and highlighted it to boot. Trust me, you'll eventually find out why when you read other people's hasty notes that are nothing more than chicken scrawls. The only thing that will help you is that everybody writes in the same order and so the "flow" of the characters is fairly consistent. I strongly recommend that you pay close attention to stroke order from the beginning starting with hiragana to avoid falling into bad habits. Go to this web site to see little animated gifs of stroke order and practice from there.

※ As an aside, an old Japanese poem called 「いろは」 was often used as the base for ordering of the hiragana alphabet until recent times. The poem contains every single letter of the hiragana alphabet except for 「ん」 which probably did not exist at the time it was written. You can check out this poem for yourself in this wikipedia article. As the article mentions, this order is still sometimes used in ordering lists so you may want to spend some time checking it out.
  1. Except for 「し」、「ち」、「つ」、and 「ん」、you can get a sense of how each letter is pronounced by matching the consonant on the top row to the vowel. For example, 「き」 would become / ki / and 「ゆ」 would become / yu / and so on.
  2. Go to this web site to hear the pronunciations of each hiragana character. The relevant sections are from 2.1 to 2.11.
  3. As you can see, not all sounds match the way our consonant system works. As written in the table, 「ち」 is pronounced "chi" and 「つ」 is pronounced "tsu".
  4. The / r / or / l / sound in Japanese is quite different from any sound in English. It involves more of a roll and a clip by hitting the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Pay careful attention to that whole column.
  5. Pay careful attention to the difference between / tsu / and / su /.
  6. The 「ん」 character is a special character because it is rarely used by itself and does not have a vowel sound. It is attached to another character to add a / n / sound. For example, 「かん」 becomes 'kan' instead of 'ka', 「まん」 becomes 'man' instead of 'ma', and so on and so forth.
  7. You must learn the correct stroke order and direction! Go to this web site to learn.

The Muddied Sounds

Once you memorize all the characters in the hiragana alphabet you're done learning the alphabet but not all the sounds. There are five more possible consonant sounds that are possible by either affixing two tiny lines similar to a double quotation mark called dakuten (濁点) or a tiny circle called handakuten (半濁点). This essentially creates a "muddy" or less clipped version of the consonant (technically called a voiced consonant or 「濁り」, which literally means to become muddy).
All the possible combinations of muddied consonant sounds are given in the table below.

Muddied Consonant Sounds
p b d z g



  1. Go to this web site again to hear the pronunciations of these new sounds. The relevant parts are at end of sections 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, and 2.6.
  2. Notice that 「ぢ」 sounds essentially identical to 「じ」 and both are pronounced as / ji /, while 「づ」 is pronounced like / dzu /.

The Small 「や」、「ゆ」、and 「よ」

You can also combine a consonant with a / ya / yu / yo / sound by attaching a small 「や」、「ゆ」、or 「よ」 to the / i / vowel character of each consonant.

All possible small や、ゆ、and よ combinations
p b j g r m h n c s k
ぴゃ びゃ じゃ ぎゃ りゃ みゃ ひゃ にゃ ちゃ しゃ きゃ ya
ぴゅ びゅ じゅ ぎゅ りゅ みゅ ひゅ にゅ ちゅ しゅ きゅ yu
ぴょ びょ じょ ぎょ りょ みょ ひょ にょ ちょ しょ きょ yo
  1. The above table is the same as before. Match the top consonants to the vowel sound on the right. Ex: きゃ = kya.
  2. Go to this web site again to hear the pronunciations of these new sounds. The author has decided to include 「ぢゃ」、「ぢゅ」、and 「ぢょ」 but these combinations are actually never used in favor of 「じゃ」、「じゅ」、and 「じょ」.
  3. Also note that since 「じ」 is pronounced / ji /, all the small 「や」、「ゆ」、「よ」 sounds are also based off of that, namely; / jya / jyu / jyo /.
  4. The same thing also applies to 「ち」 which becomes / cha / chu / cho / and 「し」 which becomes / sha / shu / sho /. (Though arguably, you can still think of it as / sya / syu / syo /.)

The Small 「つ」

A small 「つ」 is inserted between two characters to carry the consonant sound of the second character to the end of the first. For example, if you inserted a small 「つ」 between 「び」 and 「く」 to make 「びっく」, the / k / consonant sound is carried back to the end of the first character to produce "bikku". Similarly, 「はっぱ」 becomes "happa", 「ろっく」 becomes "rokku" and so on and so forth. I have provided by own simple the sound difference between 「もと」 and 「もっと」. And in case you're wondering, both are actual words and yes, both mean different things.
  1. A small 「つ」 is used to carry the consonant sound of the second character to the end of the first. Ex: 「がっき」 = "gakki".
  2. The addition of another consonant almost always creates the characteristic clipping sound. But make sure you're clipping with the right consonant (the consonant of the second character).

The Long Vowel Sound

Whew! You're almost done. In this last portion, we will go over the long vowel sound which is simply extending the duration of a vowel sound. You can extend the vowel sound of a character by adding either 「あ」、「い」、or 「う」 depending on the vowel in accordance to the following chart.

Extending Vowel Sounds
Vowel SoundExtended by
/ a /
/ i / e /
/ u / o /

For example, if you wanted to create an extended vowel sound from 「か」, you would add 「あ」 to create 「かあ」. Other examples would include: 「き → きい」, 「く → くう」, 「け → けい」, 「こ → こう」, 「さ → さあ」 and so on. The reasoning for this is quite simple. Try saying 「か」 and 「あ」 separately. Then say them in succession as fast as you can. You'll notice that soon enough, it just sounds like you're dragging out the / ka / for a longer duration than just saying / ka / by itself. You can try this exercise with the other vowel sounds if you like. Try to remember that you are, in fact, saying two characters with blurred boundaries. In fact, you may not even have to consciously think about long vowels and simply pronounce the letters together quickly to get the correct sound. In particular, while the / ei / can be considered to be a long vowel sound, I think the pronunciation comes out better if you just simply sound out the / e / and / i / sound.

It's important to make sure you hold the vowel sound long enough because you can be saying things like "here" (ここ) instead of "High School" (こうこう) or "middle-aged lady" (おばさん) instead of "grandmother" (おばあさん) if you don't stretch it out correctly!

There are rare exceptions where an / e / vowel sound is extended by adding 「え」 or an / o / vowel sound is extended by 「お」. Some examples of this include 「おねえさん」、「おおい」、and 「おおきい」. Pay careful attention to these exceptions, there aren't many.

Copyright © 2003-2006 Tae Kim (
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