Japanese Hiragana Symbols

On this page you can learn more about the history and use of Japanese symbols called hiragana.

What symbols are used to write Japanese?

There are four kinds of symbols or characters that make up four Japanese "alphabets":

  • Kanji characters

    - complex symbols originally from Chinese

  • Hiragana characters

    - simple, rounded Japanese symbols developed in Japan

  • Katakana characters

    - simple, angular Japanese symbols derived from kanji in Japan

  • Roman characters

    - the English alphabet

How many hiragana characters are used in Japanese?
There are 46 hiragana symbols in Japanese, each with a particular sound but with no independent meaning.
How are hiragana symbols used in Japanese?
Each Japanese "alphabet" has a particular function. Hiragana characters play two major roles.
  • Creating grammatical structure

    A major funstion of hiragana is to add grammatical structure to sentences. One way is in the form of okurigana, the hiragana characters added to the end of words to modify meaning. For example, to change the tense of a verb such as "eat" into "ate".

    This means "eat". Japanese  for "eat"
    The red hiragana characters are different now, changing the tense and forming "ate". Japanese for "ate"

    Hiragana symbols are also used as particles (single character "words") to show the relationship between other words in a sentence. For example, in the sentence below the particle "o" indicates that the preceding noun "pizza" is the object that was eaten.

    Japanese sentence
    (You will notice that there is no subject in this sentence. So who did the eating? In Japanese is often inferred from the context.)

  • Showing pronunciation

    Hiragana characters are often written next to unusual kanji characters to show their pronunciation in the same way that we have added roman characters to the sentence above. In this case the hiragana characters are referred to as furigana or yomigana. In addition, hiragana is also used to write native Japanese words that have no kanji of their own.

  • Other uses

    Finally, hiragana are also widely used in books for children too young to be able to read many kanji symbols. They also give a feminine aesthetic to the words of female characters in fiction and video games.

What is the history of Japanese hiragana symbols?
Japanese is believed to be related to the Ural-Altaic family of languages, that includes Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu and Korean. An early form of Japanese existed from about the 3rd century AD. However, it wasn't until later that the Japanese gained the ability to write. The writing system they began to use was Chinese, imported from China and Korea along with a variety of technologies, political systems and Buddhism. It remains in the form of kanji symbols. The difficulty of adapting the Chinese kanji symbols to represent the phonetic sounds of the Japanese language resulted in the two phonetic "alphabets" of simplified Japanese symbols called katakana and hiragana.

Both hiragana and katakana were derived from kanji. The first step in the development of hiragana was the appearance of manyougana (or kanji characters used to indicate pronunciation rather than meaning) in the 8th Century. Hiragana characters were created near the beginning of the
Heian Period (794-1192) as simplified forms of whole kanji that conveyed sound rather than meaning. Hiragana was often used by women, who were denied the education in Chinese classics afforded to men and, as a result, Hiragana came to be known as onnade (or women's hand). Interestingly, this development resulted in the explosion of written expression among Japanese women that reached its zenith with Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) by Lady Murasaki
How to write Japanese hiragana

Click on the hiragana characters below and use the animated writing instructor to learn how to write hiragana.

(Macromedia Flash Player required. Click here to download it for free.)

* Note that these marks are not characters, but are used to modify the pronunciation of the character they are written after.
Related Information
(Please note that some sites require Japanese fonts installed. japanese-name-translation.com is not responsible for the content of external sites.) More information about hiragana and Japanese