Hiragana (平仮名, lit. “smooth kana”) are a Japanese syllabary, one of four Japanese writing systems (the others are katakana, kanji and rōmaji).

Hiragana are used for:
  • Japanese words for which there are no kanji, for example, particles such as kara から and suffixes such as ~san さん.
  • Japanese words for which the kanji form is not known to the writer, not expected to be known to the readers, or too formal for the writing purpose.
  • Verb and adjective inflexions, for example in tabemashita 食べました (used in such way, hiragana are called okurigana 送り仮名).
  • Giving the pronunciation of kanji for readers who may not know them (used like this, hiragana are called furigana).
Each hiragana represents one syllable (technically, one mora), and is either a vowel on its own (such as aあ), a consonant followed by a vowel (such as ka か), or ん, which sounds like the English “m” or”n”.

The presence of hiragana among Chinese characters is usually sufficient to identify a text as Japanese.


Both hiragana and katakana were derived from kanji. The first kana system called man’yōgana was invented in the Heian period (9th century), reportedly by the Buddhist priest Kūkai who brought the Siddham script to Japan on his return from China in 806. He believed that Japanese would be better represented by a phonetic alphabet than by the kanji.

Hiragana was often used by female writers, who were denied the education in Chinese classics afforded to men and, as a result, hiragana came to be known as onnade (女手, “women’s hand”). Interestingly, this development resulted in an explosion of literature authored by Japanese women reaching its zenith with Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) by Lady Murasaki.

Initially, all syllables had more than one hiragana. In 1900, the system was simplified, so each syllable had only one hiragana.

The hiragana writing system

The hiragana consist of a basic set of characters, the gojūon (五十音, literally “fifty sounds”, but only 45 are in everyday use today), which can be modified as follows:

  • Adding a dakuten (濁点) marker ゛ turns an unvoiced consonant into a voiced consonant, in particular, it changes kg, td,sz, and hb.
  • Adding a handakuten (半濁点) marker ゜changes hp.
  • Adding a small version of the hiragana for ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょrespectively) changes a preceding i vowel sound to a glide palatalisation.
  • A small tsu っ indicates a glottal stop. Typically this only appears before consonants that are fricatives or stops. This is represented in romaji by doubling the following consonant. Occasionally, this will follow the last vowel in a word to indicate surprise.

There are ways to represent other sounds with hiragana, using minuscule versions of the five vowel kana. This is not generally used in formal writing but is occasionally used with loanwords in katakana in an attempt to approximate more closely the source word’s pronunciation.

There are a few hiragana which are not in the standard modern set. wi ゐ and we ゑ are obsolete.vu ゔ is modern and is pronounced as bwu to approximate the “v” sound in foreign languages such as English (it is rarely seen because transliterated words are usually written in katakana).

If you have a font including Japanese characters, you can view the following chart of hiragana together with their Hepburn romanisation. Obsolete kana are shown in green.

Hepburn Romanization of Hiragana

kakikukekoきゃ kyaきゅ kyuきょ kyo
sashisusesoしゃ shaしゅ shuしょ sho
tachitsutetoちゃ chaちゅ chuちょ cho
naninunenoにゃ nyaにゅ nyuにょ nyo
hahifuhehoひゃ hyaひゅ hyuひょ hyo
mamimumemoみゃ myaみゅ myuみょ myo
rarirureroりゃ ryaりゅ ryuりょ ryo
gagigugegoぎゃ gyaぎゅ gyuぎょ gyo
zajizuzezojaじゅ juじょ jo
babibubeboびゃ byaびゅ byuびょ byo
papipupepoぴゃ pyaぴゅ pyuぴょ pyo

Spelling rules

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

Note that there are two hiragana pronounced ji (じ and ぢ) and two hiragana pronounced zu(ず and づ). These pairs are not interchangeable. The exact spelling rules are referred to as kanazukai (かな使い, “kana use”). In general, the rules are:

  • If the first two hiragana of a word are the same, but the second one has a dakuten, use the corresponding hiragana as the first one, for example, chijimeru is spelt ちぢめる.
  • For compound words where the dakuten has added due to compounding, use the original hiragana. For example, chi (血 “blood”) is spelled ち, so hanaji (鼻血, “bloody nose”) is spelledはなぢ, and tsukau (使う; “to use”) is spelt つかう, so kanazukai (かな使い; “kana use”, “kana orthography”) is spelledかなづかい. (However, this does not apply when the second element is not considered to be a meaningful, separable element: in these cases, use the default spelling given below. Thus, even though inazuma(稲妻, “lightning”) is written using the kanji tsuma 妻 (“wife”), that is not considered a separable suffix and so inazuma is spelt いなずま and not *いなづま.)
  • ji (痔, “haemorrhoids”) is written ぢ. (Actually, according to dictionaries it should be writtenじ, but a commercial for haemorrhoid medicine popularised the incorrect version.)
  • Otherwise, use the default: write ji as じ and zu as ず.

n ん can never be at the beginning of a Japanese word. This fact is at the basis of the word game shiritori. However, n is sometimes directly followed by a vowel. For example, ren’ai 恋愛 is spelt れんあい, and den’atsu 電圧 is spelledでんあつ.


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