1.1 Introduction to Hiragana

In this module, we will cover the fundamentals of hiragana, focusing on effective reading techniques.

What is hiragana?

Hiragana is one of the three scripts in the Japanese writing system, as shown below:

Hiragana (ひらがな)

Katakana (カタカナ)

Kanji (漢字)


Hiragana is often the starting point in learning Japanese, primarily serving to provide grammatical context and connect kanji characters in sentences.


You can think of it as the ‘glue’ that holds words and sentences together, making it easier to read in Japanese.


In modern Japanese writing, all three scripts are used together in sentences. For example:


Watashi wa kyou Nihongo no kurasu de hiragana o benkyou shimasu.

I will study hiragana in a Japanese class today.


Note: The punctuation mark ‘、’ is equivalent to the English comma ‘ ,  ‘. You will learn more about Japanese punctuation in Module 2.6.

Here’s a brief overview of the distinct roles each script plays in the Japanese language. Please note that these are guidelines and exceptions do exist:

  • Kanji characters are used to represent certain words or parts of words. They are usually content words such as nouns, adjective stems and verb stems. Each kanji character has its own meaning and one or more readings (ways to pronounce it), which you will learn in Chapter 7. For example, 勉強 is a noun-verb compound made of two kanji characters, 勉 (meaning ‘exertion’) and 強 (meaning ‘strong’). Together, they represent the concept of ‘study’ or ‘learning’. In Japanese, many verbs are formed by combining a kanji noun with the verb する (suru: to do), making it a verb phrase.
  • Hiragana characters are used to provide grammatical information and fill in the gaps between kanji characters.
  • Katakana characters are  primarily used for transcribing foreign words from languages other than Chinese and are sometimes employed for emphasis.You will learn katakana in Module 4.1.


Keep in mind that hiragana is phonetic, which means the same sentence can be written entirely in hiragana like this:


Hiragana is the starting block for learning Japanese, offering a simpler way to get the hang of reading and writing before diving into the intricate kanji characters. However, reading sentences fully in hiragana can be tough as it lacks the clear word boundaries kanji and katakana provide.

For example, deciphering ‘にわにはにわのにわとりがいる’ might seem daunting, but with kanji, it’s clearer: ‘庭には二羽の鶏がいる’ (niwa ni wa niwa no niwatori ga iru), translating to ‘There are two chickens in the garden’. Here, ‘niwa ni wa’ differentiates ‘in the garden’ (庭には) from ‘two chickens’ (二羽の鶏), making the sentence much easier to comprehend and highlighting the importance of using different scripts for clarity.

Kanji will be introduced later in the textbook; let’s focus on hiragana’s role in Japanese for now.


How many hiragana characters are there?

Hiragana consists of a set of 46 basic characters in the Japanese writing system. While there are additional hiragana characters, which we will explore later in Module 2.2, for now, let’s focus on these 46 fundamental ones.


How can I read words in hiragana?

Reading hiragana is not only straightforward but also quite enjoyable! Every hiragana character represents a syllable, akin to a small sound unit that forms words. These syllables can be just a single vowel sound (like the hiragana character あ for a) or a combination of a consonant and a vowel (like the hiragana character か for ka).

Now, for the fun part: when pronouncing these characters, treat each one as a mora, a phonological unit used in some languages, including Japanese. This approach ensures you give each character approximately the same amount of time and rhythm in your speech.

Take にほんご (Nihongo: Japanese language), for example, which comprises four moras (Ni-ho-n-go), each pronounced with equal duration. It’s similar to following a steady beat in music, adding a rhythmic aspect to speaking Japanese.

If you’re interested in learning more about moras and the pronunciation of Japanese vowels and consonants, I recommend checking out Module 2.1.


Some examples of Japanese syllables include:

  • ka in the word kami (hair or paper)

  • shi in the word shika (deer)

  • nu in the word inu (dog)

  • re in the word remon (lemon)

  • ho in the word hoshi (star)

Should I memorise all the hiragana characters now to read the book?

The answer is ‘no’. There is no need to memorise all the hiragana characters to read this book at this stage. Instead, we will use the Roman alphabet, also known as romaji, to represent the Japanese sounds.

Romaji is a useful tool for writing and reading Japanese words phonetically, especially for those who are not yet familiar with the three scripts.

For example, in Japan, you will often see romaji on signboards at train stations, as shown in Figure 1:


Train station signboard with place names written in both romanji and hiragana
Figure 1: Hibarigaoka Station Signboard


Romaji helps English speakers  who are not familiar with the writing system to read and understand Japanese words more easily!

Here is a downloadable PDF chart of basic hiragana that you can utilise to enhance your everyday Japanese learning experience. The chart is read from top to bottom, and left to right.


Basic hiragana chart 

あ (a) か (ka) さ (sa) た (ta) な (na) は (ha) ま (ma) や (ya) ら (ra) わ (wa)
い (i) き (ki) し (shi) ち (chi/ti) に (ni) ひ (hi) み (mi) り (ri)
う (u) く (ku) す (su) つ (tsu) ぬ (nu) ふ (fu/hu) む (mu) ゆ (yu) る (ru) を (o)
え (e) け (ke) せ (se) て (te) ね (ne) へ (he) め (me) れ (re)
お (o) こ (ko) そ (so) と (to) の (no) ほ (ho) も (mo) よ (yo) ろ (ro) ん (n)

Exclamation Icon Please note that in this textbook, ち and ふ are represented as chi and fu, respectively, following the Hepburn system of romanisation. However, in some romanisation systems, they might be represented as ti and hu, respectively.

Basic Hiragana Chart Japanese Introductory 1 (PDF 62 KB)

Typing in Japanese chart 

Curious about typing in Japanese on your computer? Whether you’re a pro or just starting out, we’ve got you covered!

If you don’t have a Japanese keyboard or aren’t sure how to use one, don’t worry. Take a look at our easy-to-follow instructions below. They’ll guide you through setting up Japanese input on your computer and show you the basics of typing in Japanese.

How to Set Up Japanese Keyboard Input Japanese Introductory 1 (PDF 168 KB)

What are the key benefits of learning hiragana?

Here are some good reasons why learning hiragana offers a good foundation for your Japanese language studies:

  • Hiragana forms the core of the Japanese writing system. It is often used to represent sentence elements, for which there are no kanji characters. So, by mastering hiragana, you will mostly be able to read and write in Japanese.
  • Hiragana serves as a foundation for learning the two other scripts, katakana and kanji. Knowing hiragana will make it easier for you to build your reading and writing skills in Japanese.
  • Learning hiragana will help you to improve your pronunciation of Japanese words. Each hiragana character corresponds to a specific sound (or mora). So, by learning hiragana, you will be able to pronounce words clearly and appropriately.
  • Last, but not least, learning hiragana can give you a sense of accomplishment! It can be highly motivating and boost your confidence in your language-learning abilities.

In sum, learning hiragana is a great first step for those starting out in Japanese. It creates a solid base for comprehending, writing and reading the language, and it is crucial for communicating effectively in Japanese.


Further resources

To further enhance your understanding of the benefits of learning hiragana, you may find the following resource (about 3 minutes long) created by Tofugu to be useful. It also provides you with an overview of how hiragana functions, which will be covered in more detail in the subsequent modules in this chapter:


1. “Hibarigaoka Station Signboard” by Chuoterminal 02. Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC by SA 4.0.

2. Exclamation IconExclamation Sign Icon” (untitled) by Dave Gandy. Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC by SA 3.0.



Tofugu. “Learn Hiragana Today #1: Pronunciation.” YouTube video, 3:15. August 12, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-3opZIjwr0.




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Japanese Introductory 1 Copyright © 2024 by Iori Hamada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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