In addition to the seemingless infinite number of kanji, or Chinese characters, Japanese uses two sets of phonic characters
called hiragana and katakana. During the Heian Period (794~1185), poetry written by aristocratic ladies used kanji
(then referred to as Manyogana) to express the Japanese language. Over time, these ladies developed
a simpler and more fluid style of writing which became known as
onnade (woman's hand) and later as hiragana. This form of writing gained
full acceptance in the early 10th century when it was used to
write the Imperial anthology of waka (Japanese verse) known as the Kokin Wakashu. Katakana were developed as a way of phonetically writing Chinese
Buddhist texts and were standardized in the 10th century. Anthologies
of waka were written in katakana from this time. These days, romaji (roman letters) and English words can be seen quite often.
Hiragana are cursive characters usually used with kanji to add
inflectional endings or other suffixes (such as to conjugate verbs
and create adjectives); as a replacement or supplement for kanji
which are difficult to read (particularly for children); for grammatical
particles and function words; or simply for visual or graphic
effect. (See examples below)
The non-cursive katakana are used to write loan words from other
languages, especially English; to write onomatapoeic words (similar
to the use of italics in English); or for visual or graphic effect.
(See examples below).
The tables below show the hiragana and katakana alphabets and
their romanized syllables. In each case, the upper left character
is the hiragana and the upper right character is the katakana.
There are five basic vowel sounds: a, i, u, e and o, which are pronounced pretty much the same as in Italian or Spanish.
The other sounds are formed by combining the vowels with various
Table 1 shows the 46 basic kana forms in use today. Table 2 shows
simple compounds formed by adding the kana for 'ya', 'yu' and
'yo' to other kana. Table 3 shows basic kana altered by the addition
of two short strokes (to make a voiced consonant, such as 'ga')
or a circular stroke (to make an unvoiced p-like bilabial stop,
such as 'pa') to the upper right. Table 4 is a combination of
Tables 2 and 3. Double consonants, such as in the word 'rokku'
(rock music), are written with a small 'tsu' character between
the 'ro' and 'ku' characters. In recent years, as more and more
loanwords are introduced to Japanese, new kana symbols are being used to represent the pronunciation of
such English letters as v (confused with b) and f (confused with
h), although they are not official.
Some examples of words using hiragana and katakana
Some examples of words using unofficial hiragana and katakana
See also these related pages:
Learning Japanese | Kanji | Useful Expressions | "New" Japanese