Curly-Qs: A Crash Course in Reading Japanese, Part 1: Hiragana

Hey there! I thought I’d use some my weeb powers to teach y’all some Japanese.

Last year, I went to Tokyo for three months and attended an intensive Japanese language school. What I learned there was that Japanese is a difficult but a super fun language. I still have a long way to go, but I wanted to share what I know with you guys so we can learn together.

Hiragana (ひらがな)

Hiragana is the standard writing system in Japanese. You can write everything in hiragana if necessary. Each character makes a specific sound and has its own syllable. For example, か makes the sound “ka” and it says “ka” no matter what combination it’s in.

Hiragana chart courtesy of Tes Teach, a great place to find lessons on all sorts of things. Go check them out!

Note: Just as English letters have a specific order you’re supposed to write them in, hiragana does as well. There’s a great video that shows the correct stroke order for these characters by Kay Jay. Definitely check it out. The stroke order is super intuitive, but it’s still easier to learn something right the first time instead of having to relearn it. Link to Kay Jay’s vid.

Also note: Just like in English, some of the characters are different written than they are typed. Pay special attention to さ and き.

Exercise: Sound these words out using the hiragana chart (answers at the end of this post): 1. なに  2. いぬ   3. ねこ   4. にほん

Particles は and を:

There are a few characters in hiragana that are only used as particles (i.e. mini-words that show how the words in the sentence connect). The first is the particle を. を and お both say “oh,” but を (sometimes called “wo”) is only used as a particle. It is used to mark a direct object: for example, if the sentence says “I ate a burrito,” を is there to show what it is that you ate.

The other particle is a little trickier, because depending how you pronounce it will determine whether it’s a particle or just a regular character. I’m talking about は. Ordinarily, は says “ha” and is just used as part of words such as はな (flower). But sometimes it is pronounced “wa” and used to show what the subject of the sentence is. It comes at the beginning of the sentence right after the subject and shows who’s speaking, who’s eating that burrito. For example, I ate a burrito would begin: わたし (I) + は (“wa”, marks the subject).

Changing Sounds:

Japanese has a cool thing where you can soften or change the sound of a character by adding one of these symbols to a consonant: dakuten (だくてん) and handakuten(はんだくてん).

The first is called a dakuten, which means “muddy sound.” If you add it to an “s” it becomes a “z”, a “shi” becomes a “ji”, a “t” becomes a “d”, an “h” becomes a “b”. There’s no easy way to remember it, except that it usually softens the sound.

The second is called a handakuten, or a “half-muddy sound” and it changes all “h” sounds to “p”. That’s it.

The Mini-Characters:

Sometimes you want to combine characters to get a different sound. You do this by adding one of the three y characters, や、ゆ、and よ、to other consonants. You take the main consonant and then write one of the y characters smaller and in front, for example, しゃ (sha). Now, you can’t just add these willy-nilly to whatever consonants you want. You can use them on almost all the characters, but they’re most commonly used with し , じ, き, and ち. When you do, it makes a hybrid sound.

When added to し, you get the sounds しゃ (sha), しゅ (shu), and しょ (sho).

When added to じ you get the sounds: じゃ (ja), じゅ (ju), and じょ (jo).

When added to ち you get the sounds: ちゃ (cha), ちゅ (chu), and ちょ (cho).

When added to き, you get the sounds きゃ (kya), きゅ (kyu), and きょ (kyo).

Exercise Time! How would you write these in hiragana: 5) kyou (today), 6) jaa (well then), 7) Tokyo (hint: it’s pronounced “toukyou”), 8) chuugoku  (China)

Long Sounds and Pauses in Hiragana:

Some sounds in Japanese are held out, and some have a pause in the middle.

Sometimes vowels are drawn out. This is most common with う and い, but any of the vowels can be drawn out. To draw out the length of a vowel, you just add one more of that vowel. For example: おかあさん, which means “mother” and is pronounced “oka–san” with two a’s. Or かわいい, which means “cute” is pronounced “kawaii” with a drawn-out “i” sound.

As you read more Japanese, you’ll notice that, sometimes, the extra vowel doesn’t match the first. In words like せんせい (teacher) and おはよう (good morning). I wouldn’t trouble yourself too much about this. If you sound out the words, you’ll get a feel for how they sound and why the vowel changes. A rule of thumb is: if there’s a long え sound, it’s usually lengthened with い, and if it’s a long お sound, it’s usually lengthened with う. There are exceptions to this rule, but 9 times out of 10, this rule holds.


This is almost the opposite of the lengthened vowel feature of hiragana. Instead of adding a vowel on the end of a word to draw it out, you add a shrunken つ before a consonant to make a pause. The best way I’ve found to describe it is it’s like a rest in music. Instead of a syllable taking one beat to say, it now takes two beats because you hesitated at the front of it.

For example, わかった (“Understood”) is pronounced: wakat…ta. Written in romaji as “wakatta.” It’s a double consonant but because consonants don’t have any extending principles themselves, the sound cuts off.

Here’s another: いってらっしゃい (“Take care”, said when someone is leaving). It’s pronounced “it…terash…shai,” written in romaji as “itterasshai.”

This is one of those things that makes more sense when you hear it. So break out the anime and it’ll start to make sense right away.

Hiragana seems like a lot to swallow all at once, but the good news is that katakana follows 99% of the same rules. So once you’ve got this down, you’ll be able to write in hiragana and katakana. Next time, we’ll go over katakana briefly and then get right to reading, aka the fun stuff!

Hiragana is tough to get used to at first, but just keep at it and you’ll find Japanese will stick in your brain easier.

Here are a few practice questions I cooked up for you guys to help you practice your hiragana. The answers are at the end. Let me know if you have any questions!

れんしゅう (Practice):

Read these sentences out loud. Translate them to romaji.

9. えき は どこ です か。(Where is the train station?)

10. ここ です。(It is right here.)

11. ああ! ありがとうございます! (Ah! Thank you!)

12. おちゃ は すっぱい じゃ ありません。(Tea isn’t sour.)

Write these sentences in hiragana.

13. onamae wa nan desu ka (What is your name?)

14. Yamada desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu. (I’m Yamada. Nice to meet you.)

15. hon ga suki desu ka. (Do you like books?)

16. hai, totemo suki desu. (Yes, I like them a lot.)


A/N:  There are 3000 hiragana tutorials out there so I didn’t want to write one myself, but I knew that I had to, because there’s not much point to learning Japanese in romaji (the English letter system). The rules of Japanese grammar and sentence structure rely heavily on using the correct alphabet, so trying to learn it while still using the English system of writing makes it unnecessarily complicated.

Want some more Japanese? I wrote a post about kanji a while ago: Kanji Isn’t as Scary as It Looks. Feel free to give it a read! It’ll help with understanding stroke order for hiragana as well.

1. nani (what)
2. inu (dog)
3. neko (cat)
4. nihon (Japan)

5. きょう
6. じゃあ
7. とうきょう
8. ちゅうごく

9. eki wa doko desu ka.
10. koko desu.
11. aa! arigato gozaimasu!
12. ocha wa suppai ja arimasen.
13. おなまえは なんですか。
14. やまだです。よろしくおねがいします。
15. ほんが すきですか。
16. はい、とてもすきです。


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