Kana - Hiragana and Katakana

Japanese is written using a combination of "kanji" and "kana" characters. Kanji are Chinese symbols, and are used to represent words or ideas - either on their own, or in groups. "Kana" are more like the alphabet used by English speakers, in that they represent sounds, not concepts.

Just as the alphabet is made up of upper and lower case, kana is split into hiragana and katakana. Katakana is mainly used for words of foreign origin (though it does have other uses too):

KatakanaRomajiTranslation
アメリカAmerikaAmerica
バナナBananaBanana
ピンクPinkuPink

Hiragana is used for everything else, including "native" Japanese words and grammatical particles. It can even be used as an alternative to kanji if a writer (or their intended audience) doesn't know the kanji symbol(s) used to represent a word; books for young children will often use kana in place of "advanced" kanji for this reason.

KanjiHiraganaRomajiTranslation
日本語にひんごNihongoJapanese Language
大学生だいがくせいDaigakuseiUniversity Student
外来語がいらいごGairaigoLoanword

A third way to represent kana characters is "romaji", i.e. "roman" characters. There are a few different ways to transliterate Japanese kana characters into romaji; we'll be using the Hepburn system because it's the most popular method in use today, but language nerds might be interested to know about alternative conversion systems such as Kunrei-shiki.

Basic Kana (Unvoiced)

Most syllables in Japanese follow a "consonant + vowel" format, except for the vowels themselves and the special-case "n" syllable. Syllables are organised into groups of five based on the consonant sound, as shown in the table below:

-kstnhmyrw
a
a
ka
sa
ta
na
ha
ma
ya
ra
wa
i
i
ki
shi
chi
ni
hi
mi
ri
wi
u
u
ku
su
tsu
nu
fu
mu
yu
ru
 
e
e
ke
se
te
ne
he
me
re
we
o
o
ko
so
to
no
ho
mo
yo
ro
wo
-
n

Hiragana Katakana

You'll notice that there are a few instances which don't quite fit in with the general pattern:

This is simply how those syllables are pronounced when spoken aloud, hence why the Hepburn system converts them slightly differently from how you may expect. Note that some alternative transliteration systems do convert these characters to fit in with the expected pattern, but (as mentioned above) this is rather less common than the Hepburn method.

There are also noticeable gaps where you'd expect yi, ye, and wu to be. These sounds don't really exist in Japanese, so there aren't any kana characters to represent them (well, "ye" does kind-of exist - see the notes further down). Additionally, the "wi" and "we" characters are officially obsolete, and so are no longer generally used; they're included for completeness, but feel free to ignore them if you'd rather not memorize more than you need to.

Basic Kana (Voiced)

TODO: Add more detail to this section...

gzdbp
a
ga
za
da
ba
pa
i
gi
ji
ji
bi
pi
u
gu
zu
zu
bu
pu
e
ge
ze
de
be
pe
o
go
zo
do
bo
po

Hiragana Katakana

Compounds (Unvoiced)

TODO: Add more detail to this section...

kishichinihimiri
yaきゃ
kya
しゃ
sha
ちゃ
cha
にゃ
nya
ひゃ
hya
みゃ
mya
りゃ
rya
yuきゅ
kyu
しゅ
shu
ちゅ
chu
にゅ
nyu
ひゅ
hyu
みゅ
myu
りゅ
ryu
yoきょ
kyo
しょ
sho
ちょ
cho
にょ
nyo
ひょ
hyo
みょ
myo
りょ
ryo

Hiragana Katakana

Compounds (Voiced)

TODO: Add more detail to this section...

gijijibipi
yaぎゃ
gya
じゃ
ja
ぢゃ
ja
びゃ
bya
ぴゃ
pya
yuぎゅ
gyu
じゅ
ju
ぢゅ
ju
びゅ
byu
ぴゅ
pyu
yoぎょ
gyo
じょ
jo
ぢょ
jo
びょ
byo
ぴょ
pyo

Hiragana Katakana

Miscellaneous Notes

If you've read through the above sections, then you should now have a general grasp of how hiragana and katakana work. The following sections cover things such as pronunciations or "missing" sounds in greater detail.

Pronunciations

Since all syllables (except "n") are based around the five vowel sounds, it's important to understand how to pronounce those vowels correctly. The following table serves as a rough pronunciation guide for native English speakers:

Sound (Short) Sound (Long) Example (Short) Example (Long)
a ah as in cat ウサギ
usagi
Rabbit
サービス
saabisu
Service
i ih as in rabbit ee as in martini きんぱつ
kinpatsu
Blonde Hair
たのしい
tanoshii
Enoyable, Fun
u oo as in lute クマ
kuma
Bear
ふうせん
fuusen
Balloon
e eh as in reject せかい
sekai
World
エーカー
eekaa
Acre
o ogh as in bonfire owe as in lone こんど
kondo
Now, This Time
おおきい
ookii
Big
n nh as in stung おんがく
ongaku
Music
N/A

Note that the special "n" syllable is unrelated to the na/ni/nu/ne/no kana. It should be considered to be a separate sound; んあ is not the same as な.

Doubled Consonants and Extended Vowels

It's possible to "double" the consonant part of a syllable by adding a small "tsu" (っ or ッ) before it:

KanaRomajiTranslation
ゆっくりyukkuriSlowly, Restfully
ざっしzasshiMagazine
ハットhattoHat

For words of foreign origin, it's possible to extend the duration of a vowel by adding ー after a katakana character. Native words generally add an extra vowel kana instead, so "yuuki" (bravery) is written as ゆうき rather than ゆーき.

KatakanaRomajiTranslation
チーズchiizuCheese
パーセント paasentoPercent
パークpaakuPark

It's important to note that extended consonants/vowels change the meaning of a word, just as the English words "loop" and "lop" are differentiated by a single extra "o" character. For example, ビル ("biru") means "building", but ビール ("biiru") means "beer".

L- and R- sounds

らりるれろ (or ラリルレロ) are used for both ra/ri/ru/re/ro and la/li/lu/le/lo; Japanese makes no distinction between "R" and "L" sounds.

More accurately, らりるれろ and ラリルレロ produce sounds half-way between what English speakers would call "R" or "L", so it's not true (in the strictest sense) to say that "R and L are the same letter in Japanese" - it's more like "neither R nor L exist in Japanese, but らりるれろ and ラリルレロ are pretty close approximations for the sound of either one".

F- sounds

TODO: Add more detail to this section...

The basic "fu" (ふ or フ) sound can be modified by a small vowel character:

RomajiKatakana
faファ
fiフィ
feフェ
foフォ

Examples: Family Mart

V- sounds

TODO: Add more detail to this section...

Usually replaced with B.

Alternatively, can be written as a "voiced" katakana U (ヴ), with a small vowel following it, similar to fa/fi/fu/fo hiragana counterpart ゔ exists but isn't actually used for anything.

Katakana characters for va/vi/ve/vo were defined, but never actually used. They are represented as "voiced" versions of the wa/wi/we/wo katakana characters.

RomajiKatakanaUnused
vaヴァ
viヴィ
veヴェ
voヴォ

Examples: Vocalist

Th- sounds

TODO: Add more detail to this section...

Usually replaced with S or Z.

Gareth = Garesu

The = Za

W- sounds

The "wa" kana (わ/ワ) are pretty much the only real "w" characters in Japanese. The "wo" kana (を/ヲ) are actually pronounced more like "o", and are rather less common than the usual お/オ kana.

The "wi" (ゐ/ヰ) and "we" (ゑ/ヱ) kana are obsolete and are almost never used. If they are used, it's generally for "effect" rather than pronunciation; they sound identical to "i" (い/イ) and "e" (え/エ) in modern Japanese. For example, ヱヴァンゲリヲン would be transliterated as "Evangelion", not "Wevangelion" (also, notice that ヲ is used instead of オ for the "o" sound - as with ゑ, the "w" isn't actually pronounced).

Instead, w- sounds (other than "wa") tend to be represented as a "u" followed by a small vowel:

RomajiKatakana
wiウィ
weウェ
woウォ

For example, "wetsuit" would be written as ウェットスーツ ("ue|tto|suu|tsu")

Yi and Ye

You may have noticed that "ya", "yu", and "yo" are represented by や, ゆ, and よ (or ヤ, ユ, and ヨ) but there are no "yi" or "ye" characters. A "ye" sound can be represented by a katakana "i" followed by small "e" character - for example, "yellow" would be written as イェロー ("ie|roo").

ん is the only "closed" syllable

All syllables except for ん (or ン) end with a vowel sound. As such, it's common for words to have vowels added on to the end when they're imported from other languages. For example, "test" becomes テスト ("te|su|to").

Another unusual thing about ん is that it cannot be the first syllable of a word - most likely because it's a "closed" syllable.

Using は and へ as particles

The particles "wa" and "e" are written using the kana for "ha" and "he" instead:

ParticleHiraganaWrong
wa
e

So, how can you tell whether は should be pronounced "ha" or "wa" in any given sentence? The answer is "context" - if it's clearly part of a word, then it's "ha", but if it's obviously meant to be a particle, then it's "wa" instead:

日本語 Romaji Translation
アメリカ人です。 Watashi wa Amerika-jin desu. I am American.
きものが好きだ。 Hakimono ga suki da. I like footwear.

The same applies to へ; look at how it's being used in relation to other nearby characters in the sentence, and you should be able to figure things out.