Hiragana and Katakana


Japanese has 2 syllabaries, hiragana and katakana with their origin dating back to the 8th and 9th centrury A.D.. The systematic arrangement of these alphabets is similar, but the use and the graphic representation of the syllables are different. The source and the time of origin are different, too. Hiragana was created by simplifying whole Chinese characters, whereas katakana comes from simplifying parts of characters.

The basic function of these alphabets is to adapt texts written in Chinese characters to the Japanese grammar and word order. Kanji alone proved not to be enough for written Japanese, so the origin of the Japanese syllabaries is the product of a long historical process that resulted in a unique graphic system. It was not officially codified until 1946.


Hiragana is used for writing grammatical affixes and particles. Simply put, everything that cannot be written by kanji is written by hiragana. We also use it to indicate how to read complicated or lesser-known kanji (in this case, small hiragana symbols are written above the kanji in horizontal texts and on the right in vertical texts; this is called furigana). If the writer or the intended reader does not know the proper kanji for certain words, hiragana can be used instead. For instance, books for small children have mostly hiragana in them.

On the other hand, katakana is mainly for writing foreign loan words, which cannot be written in kanji, or for phonetic transcription of foreign geographical names or people’s names. Katakana is also used to write onomatopoeic interjections. Apart from these uses, katakana can also distinguish words in the text, just as the cursive does.


For better understanding, we recommend working with both alphabets. You can find a brief overview for both of them in the DOWNLOAD section.

Basic syllables

There are 46 basic syllables in each syllabary. Syllables are combinations of consonants and vowels. There are 9 consonants (K, S, T, N, H, M, Y, R, W) and 5 vowels (A, I, U, E, O). Modern Japanese does not contain the following syllables any more: YI, YE, WI, WU, WE. The only consonant that can stand alone and has its own symbol is N.
There are a few pronunciation irregularities in the system: S + I is pronounced [ʃi], T + I is [tʃi], T + U is [tsʊ], H + U is [fʊ] and W + O is [ɒ].

The following table only contains hiragana, but katakana mimics the same system.

vowels あ (A) い (I) う (U) え (E) お (O)
vowels combinations with K か (KA) き (KI) く (KU) け (KE) こ (KO)
vowels combinations with S さ (SA) し (SHI) す (SU) せ (SE) そ (SO)
vowels combinations with T た (TA) ち (CHI) つ (TSU) て (TE) と (TO)
vowels combinations with N な (NA) に (NI) ぬ (NU) ね (NE) の (NO)
vowels combinations with H は (HA) ひ (HI) ふ (FU) へ (HE) ほ (HO)
vowels combinations with M ま (MA) み (MI) む (MU) め (ME) も (MO)
vowels combinations with Y や (YA) ゆ (YU) よ (YO)
vowels combinations with R ら (RA) り (RI) る (RU) れ (RE) ろ (RO)
vowels combinations with W わ (WA) を (WO)
independent consonant ん (N)

Voiced syllables

The basic syllables can be modified and this way new sounds can be created. The first way of modification is adding two short lines called dakuten or nigori to the upper right corner of the character’s graphic space, e.g. が. Not every syllable can be changed with nigori. It only applies to the ones that start with K, S, T and H. By adding nigori, we get syllables starting with G, Z, D and B respectively.

There is one more way of modification and it is only used with H- syllables. Putting a small circle called handakuten or marunigori in the upper right corner will create P- syllables, e.g. ぱ.

vowel combinations with voiced K か ̏ (GA) き ̏ (GI) く ̏ (GU) け ̏ (GE) こ ̏ (GO)
vowel combinations with voiced S さ ̏ (ZA) し ̏ (JI) す ̏ (ZU) せ ̏ (ZE) そ ̏ (ZO)
vowel combinations with voiced T た ̏ (DA) ち ̏ (JI) * つ ̏ (ZU) * て ̏ (DE) と ̏ (DO)
vowel combinations with voiced H は ̏ (BA) ひ ̏ (BI) ふ ̏ (BU) へ ̏ (BE) ほ ̏ (BO)
vowel combinations with semi-voiced H は ̊ (PA) ひ ̊ (PI) ふ ̊ (PU) へ ̊ (PE) ほ ̊ (PO)
* these syllables are rarely used


Digraphs are also alterations of the basic syllables. To make a digraph, we need a syllable ending with I and a half-sized YA, YU or YO. These new syllables are pronounced as one, because the vowel I is omitted, e.g. KI + small YA is pronounced KYA.

There are some exceptions. Digraphs deriving from SHI, CHI and JI also lose the Y sound, so the resulting digraphs are pronounced as SHA, SHU, SHO, CHA, CHU, CHO, JA, JU and JO. Digraphs can be made from voiced syllables ending with I.

digraphs starting with K/G きゃ (KYA) | き ̏ ゃ (GYA) きゅ (KYU) | き ̏ ゅ (GYU) きょ (KYO) | き ̏ょ (GYO)
digraphs starting with S/Z しゃ (SHA) | し ̏ ゃ (JA) しゅ (SHU) | し ̏ ゅ (JU) しゅ (SHO) | し ̏ょ (JO)
digraphs starting with N にゃ (NYA) にゅ (NYU) にょ (NYO)
digraphs starting with T ちゃ (CHA) ちゅ (CHU) ちょ (CHO)
digraphs starting with H/B ひゃ (HYA) | ひ ̏ ゃ (BYA) ひゅ(HYU) | ひ ̏ ゅ (BYU) ひょ (HYO) | ひ ̏ょ (BYO)
digraphs starting with P ひ ̊ゃ (PYA) ひ ̊ゅ (PYU) ひ ̊ょ (PYO)

Special syllables

The previous tables represent the standard set of Japanese syllables. However, katakana contains special syllables to transcribe foreign words and these do not exist in hiragana. To create a new digraph that is not a standard syllable, we usually use a half-sized vowel. For example, to achieve a CHE sound we need a CHI syllable and a half-sized E. The result is チェ and we can use it to write the Japanese name for the Czech Republic which is チェコ .