Hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな or ヒラガナ?) is a Japanese syllabary, one basic component of the Japanese writing system, along with katakana, kanji, and the Latin alphabet (rōmaji). Hiragana and katakana are both kana systems, in which each character represents one mora. Each kana is either a vowel such as “a” (あ); a consonant followed by a vowel such as “ka” (か); or “n” (ん), a nasal sonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng ([ŋ]), or like the nasal vowels of French.
Hiragana is used to write native words for which there are no kanji, including particles such as から kara “from”, and suffixes such as さん ~san “Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms.” Likewise, hiragana is used in words for which the kanji form is obscure, not known to the writer or readers, or too formal for the writing purpose. Verb and adjective inflections, as, for example, be-ma-shi-ta (べました) in tabemashita (食べました?, “ate”), are written in hiragana, often following a verb or adjective root (here, “食”) that is written in kanji. Hiragana is also used to give the pronunciation of kanji in a reading aid called furigana. The article Japanese writing system discusses in detail how the various systems of writing are used.
The complete hiragana syllabary consists of 48 characters:
- 39 distinct consonant-vowel unions
- 5 singular vowels
- 1 singular consonant
- 1 particle that is pronounced as a vowel in modern Japanese
- 2 consonant-vowel unions that are pronounced as vowels and are obsolete in modern Japanese
These basic characters can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten marker ( ゛), a voiceless consonant is turned into a voiced consonant: k→g, s→z, t→d, h→b and ch/sh→j. Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker (° ) changing the h to a p.
A small version of the hiragana for ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ respectively) may be added to hiragana ending in i. This changes the i vowel sound to a glide (palatalization) to a, u or o. Addition of the small y kana is called yōon. を wo is included (although pronounced the same as vowel お o, [o]).
A small tsu っ, called a sokuon, indicates that the following consonant is geminated (doubled). For example, compare さか saka “hill” with さっか sakka “author”. It also sometimes appears at the end of utterances, where it denotes a glottal stop, as in いてっ! ([iteʔ] Ouch!). However, it cannot be used to double the na, ni, nu, ne, no syllables’ consonants – to double them, the singular n (ん) is added in front of the syllable.
Hiragana usually spells long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana. The chōonpu (long vowel mark) (ー) used in katakana is rarely used with hiragana, for example in the word らーめん, rāmen, but this usage is considered non-standard. In informal writing, small versions of the five vowel kana are sometimes used to represent trailing off sounds (はぁ haa, ねぇ nee). Standard and voiced iteration marks are written in hiragana as ゝ and ゞ respectively.
The following table shows the method for writing each hiragana character. It is arranged in the traditional way, beginning top right and reading columns down. The numbers and arrows indicate the stroke order and direction respectively.