Hiragana(平仮名, ひらがな, Japanese pronunciation: [çiɾaɡana]) is a Japanesesyllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system, along with katakana, kanji, and in some cases rōmaji (Latin script). It is a phonetic lettering system. The word hiragana literally means "ordinary" or "simple" kana ("simple" originally as contrasted with kanji).
Hiragana and katakana are both kana systems. With one or two minor exceptions, each sound in the Japanese language (strictly, each mora) is represented by one character (or one digraph) in each system. This may be either a vowel such as "a" (hiragana あ); a consonant followed by a vowel such as "ka" (か); or "n" (ん), a nasalsonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng ([ŋ]), or like the nasal vowels of French. Because the characters of the kana do not represent single consonants (except in the case of ん "n"), the kana are referred to as syllabaries and not alphabets.
Hiragana is used to write okurigana (kana suffixes following a kanji root, for example to inflect verbs and adjectives), various grammatical and function words including particles, as well as miscellaneous other native words for which there are no kanji or whose kanji form is obscure or too formal for the writing purpose. Words that do have common kanji renditions may also sometimes be written instead in hiragana, according to an individual author's preference, for example to impart an informal feel. Hiragana is also used to write furigana, a reading aid that shows the pronunciation of kanji characters.
There are two main systems of ordering hiragana: the old-fashioned iroha ordering and the more prevalent gojūon ordering.
The modern hiragana syllabary consists of 46 base characters:
- 5 singular vowels
- 40 consonant–vowel unions
- 1 singular consonant
These are conceived as a 5×10 grid (gojūon, 五十音, "Fifty Sounds"), as illustrated in the adjacent table, read あ (a),い (i),う (u),え (e),お (o),か (ka),き (ki),く (ku),け (ke),こ (ko) and so forth, with the singular consonant ん (n) appended to the end. Of the 50 theoretically possible combinations, yi and wu do not exist in the language, and ye, wi and we are obsolete (or virtually obsolete) in modern Japanese. wo is usually pronounced as a vowel (o) in modern Japanese, and is preserved in only one use, as a particle.
Romanization of the kana does not always strictly follow the consonant-vowel scheme laid out in the table. For example, ち, nominally ti, is very often romanised as chi in an attempt to better represent the actual sound in 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, ts/s→z, t→d, h→b and ch/sh→j. For example, か (ka) becomes が (ga). Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker ( ゜) changing the h to a p. For example, は (ha) becomes ぱ (pa).
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. For example, き (ki) plus ゃ (small ya) becomes きゃ (kya). Addition of the small y kana is called yōon.
A small tsu っ, called a sokuon, indicates that the following consonant is geminated (doubled). In Japanese this is an important distinction in pronunciation; for example, compare さかsaka "hill" with さっかsakka "author". The sokuon 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 these, the singular n (ん) is added in front of the syllable, as in みんな (minna, "all").
Hiragana usually spells long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana; for example, おかあさん (o-ka-a-sa-n, "mother"). 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 Japanese; the Okinawan language uses chōonpu with hiragana. 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.
Table of hiragana
The following table shows the complete hiragana together with the Hepburn romanization and IPA transcription in the gojūon order. Hiragana with dakuten or handakuten follow the gojūon kana without them, with the yōon kana following. Obsolete and normally unused kana are shown in gray. For all syllables besides ん, the pronunciation indicated is for word-initial syllables, for mid-word pronunciations see below.
In the middle of words, the g sound (normally [ɡ]) often turns into a velar nasal[ŋ] and less often (although increasing recently) into the voiced velar fricative[ɣ]. An exception to this is numerals; 15 juugo is considered to be one word, but is pronounced as if it was jū and go stacked end to end: [d͡ʑɯːɡo].
Additionally, the j sound (normally [d͡ʑ]) can be pronounced [ʑ] in the middle of words. For example, すうじsūji[sɯːʑi] 'number'.
In archaic forms of Japanese, there existed the kwa (くゎ[kʷa]) and gwa (ぐゎ[ɡʷa]) digraphs. In modern Japanese, these phonemes have been phased out of usage and only exist in the extended katakana digraphs for approximating foreign language words.
The singular n is pronounced [n] before t, ch, ts, n, r, z, j and d, [m] before m, b and p, [ŋ] before k and g, [ɴ] at the end of utterances, and some kind of highnasal vowel[ɰ̃] before vowels, palatal approximants (y), fricative consonantss, sh, h, f and w.
In kanji readings, the diphthongs ou and ei are today usually pronounced [oː] (long o) and [eː] (long e) respectively. For example, とうきょう (lit. toukyou) is pronounced [toːkʲoː] 'Tokyo', and せんせいsensei is [seɯ̃seː] 'teacher'. However, とうtou is pronounced [toɯ] 'to inquire', because the o and u are considered distinct, u being the infinitive verb ending. Similarly, しているshite iru is pronounced [ɕiteiɾɯ] 'is doing'.
For a more thorough discussion on the sounds of Japanese, please refer to Japanese phonology.
See also: Kanazukai
With a few exceptions for sentence particles は, を, and へ (normally ha, wo, and he, but instead pronounced as wa, o, and e, respectively), and a few other arbitrary rules, Japanese, when written in kana, is phonemically orthographic, i.e. there is a one-to-one correspondence between kana characters and sounds, leaving only words' pitch accent unrepresented. This has not always been the case: a previous system of spelling, now referred to as historical kana usage, differed substantially from pronunciation; the three above-mentioned exceptions in modern usage are the legacy of that system.
There are two hiragana pronounced ji (じ and ぢ) and two hiragana pronounced zu (ず and づ), but to distinguish them, particularly when typing Japanese, sometimes ぢ is written as di and づ is written as du. These pairs are not interchangeable. Usually, ji is written as じ and zu is written as ず. There are some exceptions. If the first two syllables of a word consist of one syllable without a dakuten and the same syllable with a dakuten, the same hiragana is used to write the sounds. For example, chijimeru ('to boil down' or 'to shrink') is spelled ちぢめる and tsuzuku ('to continue') is つづく. For compound words where the dakuten reflects rendaku voicing, the original hiragana is used. For example, chi (血 'blood') is spelled ち in plain hiragana. When 鼻hana ('nose') and 血chi ('blood') combine to make hanaji (鼻血 'nose bleed'), the sound of 血 changes from chi to ji. So hanaji is spelled はなぢ according to ち: the basic hiragana used to transcribe 血. Similarly, tsukau (使う/遣う; 'to use') is spelled つかう in hiragana, so kanazukai (仮名遣い; 'kana use', or 'kana orthography') is spelled かなづかい in hiragana.
However, this does not apply when kanji are used phonetically to write words that do not relate directly to the meaning of the kanji (see also ateji). The Japanese word for 'lightning', for example, is inazuma (稲妻). The 稲 component means 'rice plant', is written いな in hiragana and is pronounced: ina. The 妻 component means 'wife' and is pronounced tsuma (つま) when written in isolation—or frequently as zuma(ずま) when it features after another syllable. Neither of these components have anything to do with 'lightning', but together they do when they compose the word for 'lightning'. In this case, the default spelling in hiragana いなずま rather than いなづま is used.
Officially, ぢ and づ do not occur word-initially pursuant to modern spelling rules. There were words such as ぢばんjiban 'ground' in the historical kana usage, but they were unified under じ in the modern kana usage in 1946, so today it is spelled exclusively じばん. However, づらzura 'wig' (from かつらkatsura) and づけzuke (a sushi term for lean tuna soaked in soy sauce) are examples of word-initial づ today. Some people write the word for hemorrhoids as ぢ (normally じ) for emphasis.
No standard Japanese words begin with the kana ん (n). This is the basis of the word game shiritori. ん n is normally treated as its own syllable and is separate from the other n-based kana (na, ni etc.). A notable exception to this[clarification needed] is the colloquial negative verb conjugation; for example わからないwakaranai meaning "[I] don't understand" is rendered as わからんwakaran. It is however not a contraction of the former, but instead comes from the classic negative verb conjugation ぬ nu (わからぬwakaranu).
ん is sometimes directly followed by a vowel (a, i, u, e or o) or a palatal approximant (ya, yu or yo). These are clearly distinct from the na, ni etc. syllables, and there are minimal pairs such as きんえんkin'en 'smoking forbidden', きねんkinen 'commemoration', きんねんkinnen 'recent years'. In Hepburn romanization, they are distinguished with an apostrophe, but not all romanization methods make the distinction. For example, past prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's first name is actually じゅんいちろうJun'ichirō pronounced [d͡ʑu͍ũ͍it͡ɕiɾoː]
There are a few hiragana that are rarely used. ゐ wi and ゑ we are obsolete outside of Okinawan orthography. 𛀁 e was an alternate version of え e before spelling reform, and was briefly reused for ye during initial spelling reforms, but is now completely obsolete. ゔ vu is a modern addition used to represent the /v/ sound in foreign languages such as English, but since Japanese from a phonological standpoint does not have a /v/ sound, it is pronounced as /b/ and mostly serves as a more accurate indicator of a word's pronunciation in its original language. However, it is rarely seen because loanwords and transliterated words are usually written in katakana, where the corresponding character would be written as ヴ. ぢゃ, ぢゅ, ぢょ for ja/ju/jo are theoretically possible in rendaku, but are practically never used. For example, 日本中 'throughout Japan' could be written にほんぢゅう, but is practically always にほんじゅう.
The みゅmyu kana is extremely rare in originally Japanese words; linguist Haruhiko Kindaichi raises the example of the Japanese family name Omamyūda (小豆生田) and claims it is the only occurrence amongst pure Japanese words. Its katakana counterpart is used in many loanwords, however.
See also: Man'yōgana and Old Japanese § Sources and dating
Hiragana developed from man'yōgana, Chinese characters used for their pronunciations, a practice that started in the 5th century. The oldest examples of Man'yōgana include the Inariyama Sword, an iron sword excavated at the Inariyama Kofun in 1968. This sword is thought to be made in year of 辛亥年 (which is A.D. 471 in commonly accepted theory). The forms of the hiragana originate from the cursive script style of Chinese calligraphy. The figure below shows the derivation of hiragana from manyōgana via cursive script. The upper part shows the character in the regular script form, the center character in red shows the cursive script form of the character, and the bottom shows the equivalent hiragana. Note also that the cursive script forms are not strictly confined to those in the illustration.
When it was first developed, hiragana was not accepted by everyone. The educated or elites preferred to use only the kanji system. Historically, in Japan, the regular script (kaisho) form of the characters was used by men and called otokode(男手), "men's writing", while the cursive script (sōsho) form of the kanji was used by women. Hence hiragana first gained popularity among women, who were generally not allowed access to the same levels of education as men. And thus hiragana was first widely used among court women in the writing of personal communications and literature. From this comes the alternative name of onnade(女手) "women's writing". For example, The Tale of Genji and other early novels by female authors used hiragana extensively or exclusively.
Male authors came to write literature using hiragana. Hiragana was used for unofficial writing such as personal letters, while katakana and Chinese were used for official documents. In modern times, the usage of hiragana has become mixed with katakana writing. Katakana is now relegated to special uses such as recently borrowed words (i.e., since the 19th century), names in transliteration, the names of animals, in telegrams, and for emphasis.
Originally, for all syllables there was more than one possible hiragana. In 1900, the system was simplified so each syllable had only one hiragana. The deprecated hiragana are now known as hentaigana(変体仮名).
The pangram poem Iroha-uta ("ABC song/poem"), which dates to the 10th century, uses every hiragana once (except n ん, which was just a variant of む before the Muromachi era).
Stroke order and direction
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.
Main articles: Hiragana (Unicode block) and Kana Supplement (Unicode block)
Hiragana was added to the Unicode Standard in October, 1991 with the release of version 1.0.
The Unicode block for Hiragana is U+3040–U+309F:
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
The Unicode hiragana block contains precomposed characters for all hiragana in the modern set, including small vowels and yōon kana for compound syllables, plus the archaic ゐ wi and ゑ we and the rare ゔ vu; the archaic 𛀁 ye is included in plane 1 at U+1B001 (see below). All combinations of hiragana with dakuten and handakuten used in modern Japanese are available as precomposed characters, and can also be produced by using a base hiragana followed by the combining dakuten and handakuten characters (U+3099 and U+309A, respectively). This method is used to add the diacritics to kana that are not normally used with them, for example applying the dakuten to a pure vowel or the handakuten to a kana not in the h-group.
Characters U+3095 and U+3096 are small か (ka) and small け (ke), respectively. U+309F is a ligature of より (yori) occasionally used in vertical text. U+309B and U+309C are spacing (non-combining) equivalents to the combining dakuten and handakuten characters, respectively.
Historic and variant forms of Japanese kana characters were first added to the Unicode Standard in October, 2010 with the release of version 6.0, with significantly more added in 2017 as part of Unicode 10.
The Unicode block for Kana Supplement is U+1B000–U+1B0FF, and is immediately followed by the Kana Extended-A block (U+1B100–U+1B12F). These blocks include mainly hentaigana (historic or variant hiragana):
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
A way to look at the history of the modern Japanese language is to look at what came before and after 1903. This year represents a fundamental division in our understanding of the Japanese language and, by extension, Japanese culture. The reforms instituted in 1903 represented an effort by the Japanese Meiji government to promote a mutually comprehensible language. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were at least four different ways of rendering the language in the written form. It is easy to imagine that this was a serious impediment to the economic, political and cultural development of Japan. Indeed, it is hard to characterize Japan as a modern nation-state until it gained a common form of communication. Today, the Japanese language is a source of national pride and occupies a special position in the national consciousness of the Japanese. The purpose of this essay is to describe how a common form of communication—both in the written and spoken forms—came into existence in Japan. We will discuss what motivated the ruling elite of Japan to make such a change, how the various forms of the language were altered to create modern Japanese, and some of the prominent people and events which will assist us in more fully understanding the movement.
A Short History
Before describing how modern Japanese assumed its contemporary appearance around the turn of the 20th century, it might be best to describe the various prior forms and how they came to influence the modern form. Perhaps the most important concept to know is that the Chinese language was the single greatest influence on the Japanese language. Before the time that Japanese civilization was beginning to coalesce in the 6th and 7th centuries A.D., Japan had a spoken language, but no written language. As Japan's ruling elites learned more and more about the brilliance of China through their envoys abroad, they determined to adopt the written form of the Chinese language as a tool to help govern the Japanese people. After all, the Chinese language represented both a way to communicate in writing—something any government requires—and the glory of the Chinese Tang Dynasty—the world's greatest civilization at the time. The Japanese would later call this language kanbun—Chinese writing.
Kanbun became the language of officialdom and of the imperial household during the Nara period (A.D. 710-784). It was one of the means through which the ancient government sought to legitimize its rule and assert its authority. By bringing writing to a people who had none, kanbun also represented civilization. In time, it came to occupy much the same position in Japan as Latin did in Europe. Later, Chinese characters were also modified to serve as Japanese writing (syllabary). Initially, the Japanese imperial court employed immigrant scribes to act as chroniclers and to help conduct the business of state. Naturally, the need arose over time to train more people to read and write the language. However, the rigors of learning such a difficult foreign language led to the development of many variant forms. Often, sentence structure was modified to reflect a writing style that more closely approximated Japanese grammar. Even at this early stage of language development, the various shades of kanbun had begun to blur. Nonetheless, knowledge of the language offered access to power. Many strove to master it. Those who did so were revered as learned, erudite men. By the next historical period, the Heian era (A.D. 794-1185), kanbun had become the language of the elite, the cultured and the refined.