Hiragana and the Japanese Sound System

The neat thing about Kana is how closely it mimics the phonology (sound structure) of the spoken language. Because of this, we can tackle pronunciation and writing at the same time.

In this section, you’ll learn about the mora, the basis of both Hiragana and Katakana, and from there we’ll look at the organization and pronunciation of the basic 46 characters of Hiragana. In Part 2, we’ll cover the derived sounds and romanization. We’ll then finish up with a couple more topics in pronunciation: Pitch Accent and Vowel Devoicing.

If you’d rather just learn pronunciation for now, see A Guide to Japanese Pronuncation.

Recommended Background:

Introduction to the Japanese Writing System

Learning Hiragana

The one thing I don’t actually cover on this page is how to write the characters, that is, stroke order, but googling “hiragana stroke order” will yield plenty of animations showing you how to write the characters. Please note that the handwritten forms of several characters differ from the printed versions in most fonts (さ sa、り ri、ふ fu).

You’ll find print-out Kana charts, flash cards, and other goodies under Hiragana and Katakana resource page. You should definitely print out a Hiragana chart to look at as we go through the basic syllables.

Also, both this lesson and its follow-up are fairly long and involved, so you may want to read them in small chunks over the course of a week or so, while memorizing the Hiragana column by column and moving forward with the Beginning Lessons.

Katakana will be covered at the very end of the series on writing and pronunciation.

Linguisticy Stuff

You’ll see a lot of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols and other linguistic terms in this section as I try to describe the sounds of Japanese. These are included for those who might want to look them up in greater detail – feel free to ignore most of it if this doesn’t apply to you.

With that, let’s begin!

Syllable Structure

Each Hiragana character represents one mora (plura moras or morae), the basic unit of sound in Japanese. You can think of a mora as a sort of simple syllable. With a couple exceptions, each mora contains one vowel, and may start with a single consonant or a combination of a consonant followed by a ‘y’.

Mora Type Example
single vowel a
consonant + vowel se
consonant + ‘y’ + vowel kyo

Vowel length can differentiate words in Japanese – double length vowels are treated as a a sequence of two moras. Some consonants can be “doubled” as well, though only in the middle of a word; the extra consonant is also a separate mora. Both of these sets of sounds are covered in Part 2.

Finally, there is an independent nasal sound (ん ‘n’) that gets a mora of its own, but cannot be used to start a word. The moraic nasal will be covered below.

Note that the number of moras may or may not match the number of syllables in any given word.

Example # of Moras # of Syllables
wa 1 1
ho-n 2 1
nyu-u 2 1
ka-i 2 2
mata 2 2
ryo-ka-n 3 2
ga-k-ko-o 4 2

As you might guess, the total number of moras in Japanese is quite limited, about 100 in total. This is the basis of a syllabary like Hiragana – 46 mora each get a unique character, and the remainder are derived from these.

Basic Sounds

Standard Japanese has only 15 distinct consonants and 5 vowels. In other words, Japanese only distinguishes between 20 basic sounds. You’ll see what appear to be additional consonants as we go through the chart, but in Japanese these are really variant pronunciations of the basic 15. Please keep this in mind as we go through the Hiragana chart.

Basic Syllables (Gojuu-on)

Without further ado, I present to you the standard Hiragana chart.

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

*Syllables marked have a pronunciation that doesn’t quite follow the overall pattern. All of these be explained below.

The chart is ordered top-to-bottom, right-to-left, just like vertical writing in general. This “alphabetic” arrangement is called gojuu-on, meaning “50 sounds”, though the modern table has several gaps as well as an extra symbol off the end, for a total of 46.

There are columns for 10 of the 15 basic consonants and rows for each of the 5 vowels. Columns are called gyou (pron. “gyo-o” – I’ll explain this in a bit) and rows are called dan.

The ‘A’ Gyou: あ、い、う、え、お

The first column is the ‘a’ gyou, named after its first member, which contains the lone vowels: a, i, u, e, and o. The pronunciation is very similar to the Spanish vowels.

  • a = “ah”, between the ‘a’ in “father” and the one in “dad”
  • i = “ee”, as in “feet”
  • u is similar to the “oo” in “boot” but without *rounded lips
  • e is similar to “ay”, as in “hay”, but is  a pure vowel rather than a **diphthong
  • o is similar to “oh”, but is a pure vowel rather than a **diphthong

* Technically, ‘u’ should also be compressed (bringing the corners of the mouth in a bit without letting the the lips protrude), but this is not nearly as important as avoiding the rounding.

** English has several diphthongs (pronounced “diff-thong”), which start as one simple vowel and end as another, a kind of two-in-one combo. Notice how the tongue and lips move as you say the English “ay” and “oh”. Japanese, on the other hand, has only pure vowels.

Each of the remaining columns has a consonant paired with each vowel, except for the ‘ya’ and ‘wa’ gyou, which have several gaps.

The ‘Ka’ Gyou: か、き、く、け、こ

The ‘ka’ gyou is one of the simple ones. We have ‘ka’ in the ‘a’ dan, ‘ki’ in the ‘i’ dan and so on: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.

The ‘Sa’ Gyou: さ、し、す、せ、そ

Our first exception to the pattern comes in the very next column, the ‘sa’ gyou. Here we have sa, shi, su, se and so rather than ‘si’ as expected. This is an example of a phonological process call palatalization (moving the middle of the tongue closer to the hard palate), and in modern Japanese, し is always pronounced ‘shi’.

In a sense, the ‘i’ after the ‘s’ forces it to become ‘sh’ – you’ll see this in action when we get to verb conjugation, which follows a pattern based on the columns of the chart. Technically, the Japanese ‘sh’ (IPA ‘ɕ’) is more fully palatalized than the English ‘sh’ (IPA ‘ʃ’), but for our purposes you can consider them to be equivalent.

The ‘Ta’ Gyou: た、ち、つ、て、と

Two other out-of-place syllables are in the ‘ta’ gyou. In place of ‘ti’ and ‘tu’ we have ‘chi’ and ‘tsu’. The the ‘ch’ and ‘ts’ sounds are made by combining ‘t’ with ‘sh’ to make ‘ch’ and with ‘s’ to make ‘ts’. These kinds of combo sounds are call affricates.

Like ‘sh’, the Japanese ‘ch’ (IPA ‘tɕ’) is more fully palatalized than the English ‘ch’ (IPA ‘tʃ’), but this is a minor detail.

The ‘ts’ combo can be a bit awkward at first for English speakers, but is easy to learn.The sound is actually found at the end of words in English, like in “cats”, but in Japanese it’s used like a single consonant at the beginning of a mora. Try saying “cats”, then “tsunami”.

Here’s the thing to remember: ‘t’ followed by ‘i’ always becomes ‘chi’, and followed by ‘u’ always becomes ‘tsu’.

The ‘Na’ Gyou: な、に、ぬ、ね、の

The ‘na’ gyou contains no irregular pronunciations: na, ni, nu, ne, no.

The ‘Ha’ Gyou: は、ひ、ふ、へ、ほ

The ‘h’ in the Japanese ‘hi’ is another palatalized sound (IPA ‘ç’ vs IPA ‘h’), but the difference in this case is usually minor, and hard to hear since we sort of do it in English too. When you need a better approximation, act as if you were about to make a ‘y’ sound, move the middle part of your tongue up a bit, then say ‘hi’. This gives it a breathy sound like the German “ich”.

Your main concern in the ‘ha’ gyou is the ‘f’ in the Japanese ‘fu’ sound (IPA ‘ɸ’), which is made by blowing through unrounded lips, unlike the English ‘f’ which uses the top teeth and bottom lip. Think of it like blowing out a candle. It may not sound all that different from an ‘h’, which should make perfect sense considering it’s in the ‘ha’ gyou.

The ‘Ma’ Gyou: ま、み、む、め、も

The ‘ma’ gyou contains no irregular pronunciations: ma, mi, mu, me, mo.

The ‘Ya’ Gyou: や、ゆ、よ

The ‘ya’ gyou contains only three syllables: ya, yu, and yo. I’ll have more to say about this when we get to the ‘wa’ gyou.

The ‘Ra’ Gyou: ら、り、る、れ、ろ

The ‘ra’ gyou is the last full column.

The Japanese ‘r’ sound is most problematic of the Japanese consonants. It’s not really like the English ‘r’ at all, but sounds like something between an ‘l’ and a ‘d’. The actual sound is a flap, similar to the ‘t’ in “butter” or the ‘d’ in “buddy” spoken at normal speed.

The English flap is equivalent to the Spanish untrilled ‘r’ (IPA ‘ɾ’) in “para”, while the Japanese flap curls back a bit farther (IPA ‘ɽ’). This is an especially important sound to listen to carefully and try to mimic, because the even closest English equivalent is not used in many words.

The ‘Wa’ Gyou: わ、を

As you surely noticed, the ‘ya’ gyou (ya, yu, yo) and ‘wa’ gyou (wa, o) each have several gaps. Actually, there were kana for ‘wi’ and ‘we’ in use as late as World War II, but by this point they were pronounced identically to ‘i’ and ‘e’, so they were eliminated in the post-war spelling reform. ‘Ye’ was lost before the emergence of Kana and the sounds ‘yi’ and ‘wu’ may also have existed long ago.

を ‘wo’ is pronounced ‘o’ in modern Japanese, and is found only as a particle (short grammatical word). For the remaining わ ‘wa’, the ‘w’ is pronounced using lip compression rather than rounding, like the vowel ‘u’ (IPA ‘ɰᵝ’).

The Moraic Nasal: ん

The final Hiragana symbol, ん, also deserves special attention. It’s the moraic (syllabic) nasal sound, usually transcribed as ‘n’, or sometimes as ‘N’ in order to differentiate it from the ‘na’ gyou.

Before and ‘m’, ‘b’, or ‘p’, it’s pronounced as an ‘m’, before a ‘k’ or a ‘g’ in becomes an ‘ng’ sound like in English “sing”, and it’s pronounced as ‘n’ before ‘t’, ‘d’, and ‘n’. In all of these cases, the position of the tongue and lips in the pronunciation of the moraic nasal is the same as the following consonant.

Before ‘y’, ‘h’, ‘f’, ‘s’, ‘sh’, ‘w’ and all vowels, the pronunciation is somewhat different, since the tongue and lips do not touch anything. Instead, the sound is almost like a nasalized version of the previous vowel. French speakers will already know how to do this, but for everyone else, pretend as if you were making the English ‘n’ sound, but leave the tongue in place rather than touching the tip to the back of your teeth.

You can also get away with using an English ‘n’ before the consonants and still be understood, but between vowels you’ll sound like you are using a ‘na’ gyou mora. For example, きんえん/ki-n-e-n (non-smoking) will be heard as きねん/ki-ne-n (commemoration).

What Next?

Hiragana and the Japanese Sound System, Part 2 – voiced syllables, combination syllables, doubled vowels and consonants, a couple of spelling rules, and romanization


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