Hiragana vs Katakana – All You Need to Know

Hiragana and Katakana are key features of the Japanese writing system. So, if you’re learning to write Japanese script, you need to understand these concepts well. While the symbols might look daunting to a beginner at first, learning to write Japanese is actually easier than you may think.

Unlike Chinese symbols, Japanese symbols can be thought of as an alphabet, rather than unique symbols conveying concepts. Learning Japanese is not easy, but this aspect makes learning the characters much easier than learning Chinese symbols.

In this post, we’ll show you:

– The main differences between Hiragana and Katakana.
– How to make learning Hiragana and Katakana much easier.
– The quickest way to learn Japanese script.

Hiragana vs Katakana: Where They’re Used

When learning the basics of Japanese writing, Hiragana is what you will focus on first. It is considered the standard form of Japanese writing and therefore your starting point. Hiragana can either be used on its own or alongside kanji to form words.

Japanese children will start by learning Hiragana before working their way through to Katakana, so it makes sense to begin by learning this form before moving onto a more complex form of writing.

However, writing Hiragana without kanji will make your writing seem childlike and very simple – too simple for some native speakers to understand, in fact. While writing only in Hiragana is fine for beginners, you don’t just want to stop there when learning.

Japanese people understand that learning to read and write Japanese is difficult for non-natives, and therefore accommodate accordingly. For example, most children’s books and well-known games, such as Pokemon, are only written in Hiragana to make it easier for non-natives to understand.

You may be wondering why to bother with learning Katakana when Hiragana can be mostly understood just fine. The reason why you need to learn both is due to the fact that Japanese loans words from other languages all the time, adding them into their vocabulary with different symbols and pronunciation.

For this reason, the number of words written in Katakana that you’ll see on a daily basis is more impressive than you first might think. Katakana is also used in Japanese writing when they want to convey onomatopoeia, which is a common writing technique used in Japanese writing.

So, while you think that learning Hiragana is enough to write Japanese symbols, you’ll have a very difficult time understanding Japanese texts without understanding Katakana as well.

Hiragana vs Katakana: The Characters

Now let’s focus more on the characters of Hiragana and Katakana. Looking at Hiragana, the symbols are curly and look similar to English written in cursive. That being said, the symbols function like print and make for an easier reading experience.

On the other hand, Katakana looks more like print with blocky and sharp symbols. However, it is used to show that the word has been translated from another language to Japanese and adapted to fit the writing structure. Katakana can be used for emphasis within the writing, making it automatically more comprehensive and emotive.

The Alphabet: Hiragana vs Katakana

Both the Hiragana and Katakana alphabet are written in charts made of rows and columns. The vertical columns showcase the consonants while the horizontal rows showcase the vowels. All Japanese characters will have a consonant and a vowel. The exception is ん (‘n’ or ‘m’), or single vowel sounds.

Below are the charts for both the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets so that we can break down both charts.

Take a look at both of these charts and you’ll see that they both have a column for the vowel sounds – あ / ア (a), い / イ (i), う / ウ (u), え / エ (e), お / オ (o) – as well as lots of rows for different consonant sounds. For example, the second row is for K sounds – か / カ (ka), き / キ(ki), く / ク(ku), け / ケ(ke), こ / コ(ko).

You can use these charts to simplify the words that you might need to conjugate when you begin learning all about grammar. Below we will break down these sounds to make them a little easier for you to learn. Pay attention to the sections of the words in bold to get the pronunciation correct.

Row One / Vowels

  • あ / ア (a) – ‘ah’, pronounced ‘ahhh’.
  • い / イ (i) – ‘ee’, pronounced ‘see
  • う / ウ (u) – ‘oo’, pronounced ‘booth’.
  • え / エ (e) – ‘eh’, pronounced ‘bed’.
  • お / オ (o) – ‘oh’, pronounced ‘boat’.

Row Two / K

  • か / カ (ka) – ‘kah’, pronounced ‘can’.
  • き / キ (ki) – ‘kee’, pronounced ‘key’.
  • く / ク (ku) – ‘koo’, pronounced ‘coo’.
  • け / ケ (ke) – ‘keh’, pronounced ‘kettle’.
  • こ / コ (ko) – ‘koh’, pronounced ‘cola’.

Row Three / S

  • さ / サ (sa) – ‘sah’, pronounced ‘sanity’.
  • し / シ (si) – ‘shi’, pronounced ‘shin’.
  • す/ ス (su) – ‘soo’, pronounced ‘soothe’.
  • せ / セ (se) – ‘seh’, pronounced ‘senate’.
  • そ / ソ (so) – ‘soh’, pronounced ‘soda’.

You can see that there is an irregularity in the pronunciation of the S column – し / シ (si) which is pronounced ‘shi’. There are a few other irregularities on the tables, like ち (“chi”), つ (“tsu”), ふ (“fu”), and ん (“n” or “m”). However, the majority of the symbols are straightforward to learn.

So, once you memorize the vowel sounds you’ll be able to pronounce the majority of the Hiragana and Katakana alphabet without any issues. You can add Y characters to make new sounds and to make conjunctive sounds to make the word flow better. For example, とうきょ う can be read as ‘Toe-Key-Yoh’, but the Y character allows it to be read ‘Toh-Kyo’ instead.

There is much more to learn about the alphabet for both Hiragana and Katakana. However, above we have given you an insight into the basics that you’ll be learning when it comes to researching how to read and write Japanese characters correctly.

Reading and Understanding Japanese Writing

Luckily for beginners learning how to understand Japanese writing, both Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic and therefore always read the same way. This means that, unlike English where letters can be pronounced differently according to different words, Japanese symbols are always pronounced the same way.

You can put a Hiragana or Katakana symbol within 100 words and it will always be read the same way, with no exceptions. If you were to read Kanji the readings will change depending on the word. However, this is something to look forward to once you’ve learned how to read and write Hiragana and Katakana.

The fact that learning the Japanese alphabet is easier to learn than the English alphabet should bring some solace to you as you embark on this journey of learning Japanese symbols. By no means do we mean that this journey will be easy. However, it can be considered marginally simpler than English.

There’s more…

Another feature that you will find helpful is that Katakana almost always sounds like a word that you already know. For example, オレンジジュース translates to orange juice. You might be very confused at the point that we are trying to put across right now – but bear with us.

If you can read Katakana symbols, you’d be able to see オレンジジュース as orenjijūsu. As you can see, orenjijūsu looks similar to orange juice. So, if you can read the symbols you’d be able to translate many of the words into English. This makes it easier to read Japanese symbols.

The Japanese language takes words from all over the world, for example from French, Portuguese, and many other languages. However, the Japanese language almost never takes words from the English language.

If you are bilingual you might have a much easier time with reading Japanese than if you were to only know English.

How To Learn Hiragana and Katakana

When learning how to read and write Japanese symbols, you should learn both Hiragana and Katakana together. Learning them separately is possible, but it can be difficult to remember two symbols for one sound when you learn them separately.

Luckily for you, there are plenty of useful resources online that you can use to learn these two writing structures.

JapanesePod101.com is an excellent resource that has free workbooks, eBooks, and videos for you to watch. Once you’re finished learning about these languages, you can then use this resource to learn the spoken language as well!

Summary

We hope that this post focusing on ‘Hiragana vs Katakana’ was useful and informative. We also hope it has convinced you to learn Japanese, just as you may have been considering before. Obviously, learning Japanese writing can be challenging and long-winded, but the results will be incredibly bountiful and impressive.

Don’t forget to check out our full list of Japanese language resources to help you learn Japanese, no matter your level. Good luck!

 

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