Learn Hiragana Fast! Master the Basics of the Most Common Japanese Writing System

If you’re new to learning Japanese, then I know what you’re probably thinking. “How on earth am I supposed to learn hiragana?? It looks like a bunch of squiggly lines.”

I mean, you’re not wrong. But so does English cursive… and you still read that!

In fact, I’d say hiragana is one of the easiest writing systems to learn to read. I may be a bit biased, but there are plenty of tricks to master Japanese hiragana fast.

The hiragana alphabet — more accurately called a “syllabary” — is the basic foundation to learning Japanese.

By learning how to read hiragana, you’re learning proper Japanese pronunciation. And you’re learning how to read almost anything, including kanji! Because kanji are often written with furigana, small hiragana characters that tell you how to read the kanji.

Learning hiragana also allows you to use better learning resources. Because let me be frank, if a Japanese resource or textbook is not using at least hiragana… well, then it’s not a very good resource to be using. That’s because they use poor pronunciations when writing Japanese with English characters. And the very best Japanese resources come from Japan. Even if they’re for foreigners, they expect you to learn hiragana, and quickly. They transition to exclusive hiragana after only a week or so of textbook study.

I remember back when I was in first-year Japanese class in college. We used the Genki textbooks, which are considered the best. The first chapter is in romaji, or English characters. Chapter 2? All hiragana and katakana. My classmates were so overwhelmed and felt they couldn’t learn the kana in only one week — many dropped the class.

But the truth is, you could learn the hiragana in a few hours if you put your mind to it.

I’ve included a full hiragana chart, resources for hiragana practice, and more below.

I’m also sharing with you my best tips for mastering all the hiragana in a matter of hours. These are tips I used myself to memorize them one evening while I was in high school, and never have forgotten them since.

Learn Hiragana — The Basics

Hiragana is called a “syllabary” because instead of each character representing one “letter” it corresponds to a whole syllable. These syllables are usually a consonant and a vowel or just a vowel, with some exceptions. For instance, the character for “n” is a lone consonant.

So, what does that mean exactly?

Well, let’s look at the word てんき. Each of those characters represents a sound: て = te, ん = n, き = ki. So てんき reads as “tenki.” That means “weather” in Japanese, by the way.

Hiragana characters represent every possible sound in the Japanese language in this way.

While I know that learning to write Hiragana can take time, and we spend most of our time typing nowadays… It’s still very crucial to learn how to write hiragana and the proper stroke order. If you only learn one Japanese writing system, let it be hiragana.

Stroke order may seem strange, but we have stroke order in English, too. When we teach kids how to write, we teach them the correct order of strokes. It helps make the characters look more legible and consistent so everyone can read handwriting. The same is true with Japanese hiragana.

The general stroke order for hiragana is top to bottom, left to right.

Hiragana Pronunciation

Since most syllable sounds in Japanese are a consonant + vowel combo, the easiest way to learn how to pronounce them is to start with vowels.

Unlike English, vowel sounds never change in Japanese. Each of the vowels have only one sound. So, once you learn them, you connect them with consonants and you always know how to pronounce the sound!

The Japanese vowels are:

  • あ – a, pronounced “ah” like “car”
  • い – i, pronounced “ee” like “bee”
  • う – u, pronounced “oo” like “shoo”
  • え – e, pronounced “eh” like “egg”
  • お – o, pronounced “oh” like the exclamation, “Oh!”

From there, you’ll combine the vowels with consonants to form syllable sounds. You can combine “a” with “k” to make “ka,” which is pronounced “kah.” You can put “e” with “t” to make “te” — said “teh.”

The vowel sound never changes. It only gets added to other sounds!

Now, let’s talk about memorizing these first few hiragana.

Hiragana Practice: Vowels

Memorizing the hiragana quickly takes mnemonics and writing practice. The first step is to create an association between the hiragana and something in English.

For instance, あ looks like someone yawning with closed eyes. When they yawn, they make a loud sound, “yAHHHHHHHwn.”

い looks like two こい (koi) fish swimming in a Japanese pond. (“Koi” has the “i” sound.)

う looks like the letter U tipped over. When it fell over, it said “ShOOt, how うるさい (urusai, “annoying”).”

え looks like someone running to catch the えき (eki), the “train.” They sure are getting their Exercise.

お looks like a baby crying. See the baby’s eyes are closed with a tear coming out, and his mouth is so big from crying loudly. He’s crying for his おかあさん (okaasan, or “mom”), going “OH WAAAAAH.”

I like to tie together both how the hiragana look with something I can picture, as well as tying the sound to both an English and Japanese word. With え, I tied the look of the hiragana to a person running. I then associated the “eh” sound with “exercise” (an English word) and えき (eki), a Japanese word.

Does this take a bit of time? Yes. But, there aren’t that many characters. And I promise, if you put in the time and do this once, you’ll never forget them again.

Hiragana Alphabet — Japan’s Hiragana Chart

Now let’s take a look at the entire Japanese hiragana chart so we can get an idea for how things look.

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

Like we talked about, one of the writing systems for the Japanese alphabet, Hiragana, is actually a “syllabary” system. If you look at the chart, you see that it goes like a-i-u-e-o, then ka-ki-ku-ke-ko, and so on.

For the most part, the syllables follow the same pattern throughout the chart. That’s why memorizing the vowel sounds is so important. While some sounds do change a bit – like し (“shi”) and つ (“tsu”) – they still follow the “i” row and “u” row for vowels. Meanwhile, the “y” row only has three vowel sounds.

I encourage you to come up with your own mnemonics because that’s the best way for them to stick in your mind forever. But to get you started and give you some ideas, here are some of mine:

  • き looks like an old-fashioned skeleton key
  • こ is a coin
  • ま looks like a mama holding her baby
  • み looks like the cursive script for “21” — I remember this one, “As for me (“mi”), I’m 21”
  • む is a cow’s face — “moo”
  • め is an Olympic goal MEdal
  • も is a fish hook to catch MOre fish
  • そ looks like a sewing machine stitch (SEw – “so”)
  • つ is a TSUnami wave
  • と looks like a big TOe
  • ら is a cheerleader jumping in the air, going “ra ra ra!”
  • れ is Shaggy and Scooby running away, going “REt’s get out of here!”
  • に looks like a KNEE (“ni”)
  • ぬ is a ramen NOOdle.
  • ひ looks like a smile, “hee hee”
  • ん looks a lot like the letter “n”
  • や looks like a YAk, horns an all.

What other mnemonics can you come up with for the characters? Make sure it’s something you can remember, that reminds you of something in English and the Japanese sound! Bonus points if you can tie it with a Japanese word, too.

Special Hiragana Characters — Dakuten, Handakuten, and More

Next, let’s look at the full hiragana chart.

    k s t n h m y r w  
a あ (a) か (ka) さ (sa) た (ta) な (na) は (ha) ま (ma) や (ya) ら (ra) わ (wa) ん (n)
i い (i) き (ki) し (shi) ち (chi) に (ni) ひ (hi) み (mi)   り (ri)    
u う (u) く (ku) す (su) つ (tsu) ぬ (nu) ふ (fu) む (mu) ゆ (yu) る (ru)    
e え (e) け (ke) せ (se) て (te) ね (ne) へ (he) め (me)   れ (re)    
o お (o) こ (ko) そ (so) と (to) の (no) ほ (ho) も (mo) よ (yo) ろ (ro) を (wo)  
                       
Additional sounds: k ► g s ► z t ► d n ► b h ► p          
a   が (ga) ざ (za) だ (da) ば (ba) ぱ (pa)          
i   ぎ (gi) じ (ji) ぢ (ji)* び (bi) ぴ (pi)          
u   ぐ (gu) ず (zu) づ (zu)* ぶ (bu) ぷ (pu)          
e   げ (ge) ぜ (ze) で (de) べ (be) ぺ (pe)          
o   ご (go) ぞ (zo) ど (do) ぼ (bo) ぽ (po)          
                       
    k s ch n h m r      
ya   きゃ (kya) しゃ (sha) ちゃ (cha) にゃ (nya) ひゃ (hya) みゃ (mya) りゃ (rya)      
yu   きゅ (kyu) しゅ (shu) ちゅ (chu) にゅ (nyu) ひゅ (hyu) みゅ (myu) りゅ (ryu)      
yo   きょ (kyo) しょ (sho) ちょ (cho) にょ (nyo) ひょ (hyo) みょ (myo) りょ (ryo)      
                       
    g j j/d b p          
ya   ぎゃ (gya) じゃ (ja) ぢゃ (ja)* びゃ (bya) ぴゃ (pya)          
yu   ぎゅ (gyu) じゅ (ju) ぢゅ (ju)* びゅ (byu) ぴゅ (pyu)          
yo   ぎょ (gyo) じょ (jo) ぢょ (jo)* びょ (byo) ぴょ (pyo)          

* These characters are not commonly used.

This hiragana table shows you all the traditional Japanese sounds. (There are a few exceptions where the Japanese have basically created a character to make it fit an English word or sound, but don’t worry about that for now.) It includes the special characters, created with tiny markings or smaller hiragana characters.

This chart can look overwhelming. But I promise it’s much easier than it looks. All these special characters are made up of the basic characters we already covered. And there’s a pattern to these characters. Once you learn it, it’s simple to remember. And best of all, you don’t need mnemonics to memorize these because they just build on what you already know.

First, let’s start with the dakuten. Dakuten are the tiny marks that look like quote marks (“). They attach themselves to the top right of the characters, but only the K, S, T, and H row characters. When you add dakuten, only the consonant sound changes. It goes like this:

  • K → G
  • S → Z (except “shi” becomes “ji”)
  • T → D (except “chi” and “tsu” become “ji” and “zu”)
  • H → B

So か, “ka,” becomes が, “ga.” さ (“sa”) becomes ざ (“za”). し, “shi,” changes to じ, “ji.” て (“te”) becomes で (“de”). And ほ, “ho,” changes to ぼ, “bo.”

Handakuten is a small circle that goes in the same place as the dakuten would. But handakuten only attach to H-row characters. So this one is super simple! It changes the H-row characters to “P.”

  • H → P

So, ほ (“ho”) becomes ぽ (“po”).

Now check out those hiragana that combine with small Y-row characters. These hiragana are called yoon characters. If you notice, the Y-row characters only attach to the I-row characters. So, や can attach to き, し, に, and み, but not, for instance, か or さ. You write these Y-row characters small and to the bottom right of the I-row characters.

We use the Y-row characters to create a “squished” syllable. The most common example is ときょう. In English, we often mispronounce it as “Toh-kee-yoh” with three syllables. But it’s actually two syllables: “toh-kyoh.” That’s because the small “yo” attached to the “ki” character “smushes” the sound of “ki” and “yo” to make “kyo.”

You can use this to create a lot of new sounds. き could also combine with ゆ or や to make “kyu” or “kya”. You could combine it with handakuten or dakuten characters as well, like じゃ for “ja” and ぴょ for “pyo.”

Last, there’s sokuon, or the small つ character. These characters create a double consonant when placed between two hiragana. The doubled consonant is whatever consonant is from the second syllable. For example, いらっしゃいませ is read “irasshaimase”. The double character comes from the し (“shi”) that follows the small つ. When you say this out loud, it makes a small “stop” sound in the middle of the word. “Irasshaimase”, by the way, means “welcome.”

Hiragana Quiz

Time to test your knowledge! If you want some hiragana practice, here are some resources to help you out and a hiragana test to see how you’re doing.

You CAN Learn Hiragana Fast!

Use these tips, resources, and quizzes to help you memorize the hiragana characters in a matter of hours — not weeks. There’s no need for the Japanese writing systems to hold you back and slow down your progress. With a few hours of focused efforts and the right study aids, you CAN do this!!

What other tips do you have for learning Hiragana? Would you like to learn how to read Katakana fast as well? Leave a comment let me know!

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