hiragana katakana

Differences Between Hiragana and Katakana and Which to Learn First?


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Hi, I am Cindy Fan. I majored in Japanese for four years in undergraduate school and spent 7 months in Tokyo as an exchange student. There, I fell in love with Japanese culture. Currently, I am studying for an LLM degree at BFSU.

When you make up your mind to learn Japanese, the first question that pops into your head may be: What are these?!

Why do Japanese characters look so different from each other? In fact, Japanese has three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Kanji, or Chinese characters, is famous for its level of difficulty. Then what are those two with funny names, hiragana and katakana? What are the differences between hiragana and katakana? After reading this article, you will find the answers. 

What Are Hiragana and Katakana?

Generally speaking, hiragana and katakana can be seen as two sets of Japanese alphabets or syllabaries. They do not represent unique meanings as kanji do. They are phonetic letters representing one of the 46 unique syllables. 

 

What’s the difference between Kana and Romaji?

Romaji is the romanization of the Japanese written language. It shows the pronunciation of kana as well as kanji. When you’re first starting to learn Japanese, you may tend to rely on romaji to learn the pronunciation of Japanese words. However, the best way to master Japanese pronunciation is to master the pronunciation of kana and use kana to learn new words.

What Are the Differences between Hiragana and Katakana?

The Similarities between Hiragana and Katakana

Before distinguishing hiragana and katakana, let’s first explore a few of their similarities.

First, they represent the same sounds, with each system consisting of 46 characters, one for each syllable.

Second, they may look similar because some kana derive from the same Chinese character. For example, う and ウ both derive from 宇. The hiragana へ and katakana ヘ, which developed from 部, are almost identical.

Kana Development Chart
Credit: Kana-Wikipedia

Hiragana and Katakana Have Different Usages

You may be wondering how Japanese people use hiragana and katakana separately in daily life. In this part, we will introduce the situations in which different kinds of kana are used.

  1. First, when looking at vocabulary, you will find that katakana is more frequently used in loan words, while hiragana is used for native words. Also, hiragana is used to write okurigana (kana suffixes following a kanji root) to form words with kanji. When the kanji form appears obscure or too formal, these kanji could also be written in hiragana instead. In comparison, katakana is frequently used in scientific words, animal names, foods, and company names.
  2. Second, katakana is more frequently used as phonetic notation while hiragana is more frequently used as grammar notation. Various grammatical and function words, such as particles, are written in hiragana. When writing in Japanese, especially in a formal setting, you should only use hiragana to write grammatical words.
  3. Third, hiragana is a more basic and common way of writing, while katakana is sometimes used for emphasis and various stylistic purposes. For example, when you use katakana where hiragana is supposed to be used, you are emphasizing the written word for literal or stylistic purposes.

Hiragana and Katakana Have Different Appearances 

Hiragana is curly like English cursive. Katakana, on the other hand, is more like the print fonts in its appearance: more block-ish and sharp. This is because katakana is based on the regular script (kaisho) form of Chinese characters, while the cursive script (sōsho) form of the kanji was the origin of hiragana. Also, hiragana originates from the entire kanji, while katakana develops from parts of kanji. 

Interestingly, because of its curly form, hiragana was once and is even now regarded as a feminine form of writing. On the other hand, katakana and kanji were mostly used by men in ancient times.

ATTENTION: You should never mix hiragana and katakana in one word in formal writing. Make sure you can distinguish which is hiragana and which is katakana.

Lingodeer suggests you watch this short video to learn some basic words written in katakana and get a clear explanation of the differences between hiragana and katakana.

How to Memorize Japanese Kana Fast?

There are mainly two different ways to memorize kana, and you can choose whichever you like.

Some prefer to use mnemonics, which means seeing each symbol as a picture. For example, ぬ: “Nu” for “noodle”, because the character looks like a squiggly pile of noodles. This may sound fun and interesting. However, it could add an extra burden to your memory, and there is a  possibility that you only remember the story you created but forget what the kana is.

image source: learn Japanese adventure

The other way is to simply write it out as much as you can. As you write them, sound out the pronunciation in your head or actually voice them out. It might be a bit boring, but the process will not last very long. Be sure to remember that once you make it, you will be able to read all Japanese words with the help of kana, and that will be fascinating!

Differences between Hiragana and Katakana: kana wallpaper
KANA wallpaper. Practice makes perfect!

The important thing is to find a method that you can stick with and use. Here is an idea for you. Download this wallpaper and listen to our free kana audio online. Time to get ready for your first step in learning Japanese! 

Which Should I Learn First, Hiragana or Katakana?

Which is more useful, Hiragana or Katakana?

Both are useful, and you cannot truly master Japanese without either of the two.

It’s stating the obvious to say that katakana is useful. Many Japanese loan words, including those borrowed from English, are written out in katakana, so learning katakana will give you access to hundreds of words that sound familiar to you. More importantly, since a considerable amount of menus are written in katakana, it will help you in restaurants and supermarkets. 

(Check this video to learn more katakana words: Wasei-eigo (Japanese-language expressions based on English words.)

However, though katakana always forms independent words (without kanji), a long row of katakana without any kanji or hiragana could be hard to understand since there are no spaces between Japanese words.

In a sense, hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. Japanese vocabulary usually tends to be written in hiragana as opposed to katakana. Also, hiragana is used to write furigana, a reading aid that shows the pronunciation of kanji characters, which is sure to be helpful.

Logos of Uniqlo, Burger King, Coca Cola and Sprite in katakana

Which One is Easier, Hiragana or Katakana?

You may say it’s hiragana. In fact, “hira” in Japanese literally means “simple” or “ordinary”. You have more chances of encountering hiragana than katakana when reading texts or video subtitles, which will familiarize you with those letters. Also, most children’s books are written in hiragana, so you will have plenty of good resources to practice. Most importantly, katakana characters look more similar in shape to one another than hiragana, so memorizing katakana could be more difficult.

However, some may argue that hiragana is too difficult to write. Katakana is easier to “draw” because the structure of the katakana character is usually more simple. In addition, katakana words sound familiar to English speakers, so imitating the sound is easier.

When Do Japanese People Begin to Learn Hiragana and Katakana?

It depends on the family. Since hiragana is used as furigana for children’s books, parents may choose to teach children hiragana first, but some parents feel hiragana is more difficult to write, so they teach katakana first.

Nowadays, hiragana is taught first in school. However, before 1948, many schools taught katakana before hiragana. At that time, katakana was still used in most formal writings like official documents, but now it is mostly used in loan words.

The History of Hiragana and Katakana

Both hiragana and katakana originated in the 9th century and are believed to have been invented by the Buddhist priest Kūkai. The birth of kana (the general term for these two syllabaries) is important in Japanese history for it is the first original writing system created by Japanese people. Both kana systems originate from man’yōgana, which are Chinese characters used for Japanese pronunciations. 

Fun fact: hiragana first gained popularity among women and was then used for unofficial writing such as personal letters. Meanwhile, katakana and Chinese were used for official documents.

A portrait of Kūkai
Credit: Japan Reference

Why does Japanese writing need three different sets of characters?

Prior to the 4th or 5th century, Japan only had a spoken language but no writing system. Then kanji was introduced to Japan and became the first writing system used there. The Japanese matched the kanji characters to represent words in their own language. Kanji did not disappear after kana was invented because the Japanese language has a very limited number of sounds. If there were no kanji, there would be too many homonyms for readers to understand the text. 

As explained in “The History of Hiragana and Katakana”, hiragana and katakana were created separately out of different needs, and for quite a long time they were used for two different purposes by two groups of people.

Definition of "homonym" in Oxford Advanced Learner Dictionary
Definition of “homonym” in Oxford Advanced Learner Dictionary

Should I Learn Hiragana or Katakana First? Final Verdict

The answer is that you should master both of them within a short period of time. So, starting with either one is OK!

Once you have learned one system, you can start remembering another one immediately after. Learning the corresponding columns within a short time may help you associate them more strongly with each other. In fact, kana is not as difficult as you think; you could learn both syllabaries within a couple of days. Therefore, the sequence does not really matter.

Wondering how long it takes to learn Japanese? Click here.


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