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Japanese Alphabets

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 consonants.

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.

Katakana/hiragana 1
Table 1
Katakana/hiragana 2
Table 2

Katakana/hiragana 3
Table 3

Katakana/hiragana 4
Table 4

Kana words
Some examples of words using hiragana and katakana

Unofficial kana words
Some examples of words using unofficial hiragana and katakana

We have a selection of the best Japanese-English
electronic dictionaries in our Japan Store

See also these related pages:
Learning Japanese | Kanji | Useful Expressions | "New" Japanese

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