Japanese consists of three writing systems. The first two are the kana alphabets known as hiragana and katakana. The third is the more complicated system of kanji. It is important to learn hiragana and katakana first before trying to learn kanji.
Hiragana and katakana are made up of forty-six basic symbols that stand for syllables instead of letters. The exceptions to this rule are the consonant “n” and all vowels. These letters all have their own symbol even though they are Romanized as only one letter. Vowels and “n” can count as their own syllable, although this is not always the case. Vowels can be paired with consonants to form different syllables.
All Japanese words can be broken up into syllables. For example, the word for I is “watashi.” If we were to break this word up into the correct syllables, we would have wa/ta/shi. Even though there are vowels in this word, they are paired with consonants because only the consonant “n” can stand alone. All other consonants must be paired with a vowel. In some cases, syllables can be three or four characters if more consonants exist. For example, “shi” in “watashi” is its own syllable, even though there are two consonants and a vowel. Neither “s” nor “h” can stand alone, so they must be paired with a vowel. Dividing Japanese words into syllables becomes much easier after hiragana and katakana are mastered. Take a look at these examples.
Arigatou = a/ri/ga/to/u
Ohayou gozaimasu = o/ha/yo/u go/za/i/ma/su
Konnichiwa = ko/n/ni/chi/wa
Notice how some vowels are syllables on their own and how “n” sometimes stands alone.
The basic symbols of hiragana and katakana can be altered slightly with diacritical marks. The diacritical marks are added in the top right-hand corner of a symbol and can look like two small dash marks (“) or a small circle (。).
The first chart shows the basic hiragana characters while the second details the extra symbols created with diacritical marks. Notice the small circle mark is only used on the “h” symbols in order to indicate a “p” sound.
*Note: All tables read vertically from right to left with Romanizations under the correct symbols.
**This symbol is Romanized as “wo” but pronounced as “o.”
*じ and ち” are pronounced the same. ずand つ” are also pronounced the same.
Hiragana also has contractions. These symbols are formed by adding a small や,ゆ, orよsymbol to the regular hiragana symbol. These contractions count as one syllable. The following charts detail all of the contractions in hiragana.
It should also be noted that double consonants can occur in hiragana. This is indicated by a small つsymbol. When pronounced, the small つsymbol indicates a slight pause in the word. These words are Romanized with repetitive consonants.
For example, katta is the word for writer. Katta is written かった in hiragana, where the smallつsymbol acts as a second “t.”
Katakana works the same way hiragana works. The only difference is that the symbols change. The sounds that exist in hiragana also exist in katakana. Hiragana is only used for native Japanese words and katakana is only used for loan (foreign) words.
Katakana treats double consonants the same way hiragana does. A small ツ character is used instead. Diacritical symbols remain the same. Long vowels are represented in katakana by a long dash after the vowel. Hiragana does not use a dash for long vowels; if a long vowel is present, another vowel character is added after the first vowel.
The following charts detail the basic katakana, the katakana as altered by the diacritical marks, and the katakana contractions.
*This symbol is Romanized as “wo” but pronounced as “o.”
*ジ and チ” are pronounced the same. ズand ツ” are also pronounced the same.