平仮名と片仮名

Hiragana and Katakana
There is only one thing one can do to master the Japanese phonetics systems of Hiragana and Katakana, and that is to drill, drill, and drill some more. Drill until you have Hiragana and Katakana symbols floating around in your dreams. It's useful to make it a habit of drilling whenever you have a spare moment in your day. Just take a piece of paper and a writing utensil where ever you go. You can do it when you're idly waiting at a restaurant or during a commercial while watching television.

The importance is not the quantity of the study in one sitting but keeping them constantly appearing in your mind until they become as natural as the Roman characters that dominate our society. You want to discontinue the notion that they are foreign, and become intimate with them if you are to truly master them. The same goes for Kanji but that comes later.

The Base Characters

So that it's not such a drag, try to make a game out of drilling. Each time see how many characters you can remember and how fast you can write them down. Then try writing them as neatly as you can and compare them to authentic characters, making sure to take mental notes every time you make a mistake so that you can get it right the next time you recall them from memory. Drill them and they will become more familiar. Here's one way, start with the vowels along the top then continue with the consonant-vowel pairs for each consonant working your way down the list like so:

a i u e o
ka ki ku ke ko
sa shi su se so
ta chi tsu te to
na ni nu ne no
ha hi fu he ho
ma mi mu me mo
ya     yu     yo
ra ri ru re ro
wa     n     (w)o

Piece of cake huh? Those are the base Hiragana characters. There are a few things you should know about these characters however.

When は is a particle it is pronounced "wa" not "ha." When へ is a particle it is pronounced "e" not "he." を is always used as a particle and is pronounced "o." ん is the only character that represents a consonant sound without a vowel.

The Remaining Characters

You can represent new sounds by adding " or º to は, ひ, ふ, へ, and ほ or by adding " to さ, し, す, せ, そ, か, き, く, け, こ, た, ち, つ, て, and と. Very rarely you may find the foreign sound "v" represented in Katakana by ウ plus " and a subscript vowel. However most loan words that use the "v" sound would be pronounced using the "b" sound in Japanese (バイオリン- violin, サービス - service). Observe the following chart for elucidation.

ba bi bu be bo
pa pi pu pe po
za ji zu ze zo
ga gi gu ge go
da ji zu de do
ヴァ va ヴィ vi vu ヴェ ve ヴォ vo

All that remains are the following sounds composed of the consonant plus い combinations with subscripts や, ゆ, and よ.

きゃ kya きゅ kyu きょ kyo   みゃ mya みゅ myu みょ myo
ぎゃ gya ぎゅ gyu ぎょ gyo りゃ rya りゅ ryu りょ ryo
しゃ sha しゅ shu しょ sho   ひゃ hya ひゅ hyu ひょ hyo
じゃ ja じゅ ju じょ jo びゃ bya びゅ byu びょ byo
ちゃ cha ちゅ chu ちょ cho   ぴゃ pya ぴゅ pyu ぴょ pyo
ぢゃ ja ぢゅ ju ぢょ jo にゃ nya にゅ nyu にょ nyo

There are a few more minor variations but these are the major ones. Of course for now, one need only drill the base characters for Hiragana and Katakana.  The Katakana characters directly correspond in pronunciation to the Hiragana characters.  Hiragana is used for particles, verb and adjective conjugations and some uniquely Japanese words.  Katakana is used for foreign loan words, foreign names and some onomatopoeic words.  Here are the Hiragana and Katakana base character charts:

平仮名
片仮名

When drilling Hiragana and Katakana characters on paper, it helps to compare them to different font types to give a broader view of how they are rendered. It would be best to consult a character dictionary or Japanese language textbook for more insight on stroke order as well since this plays a big part in how the rendered characters will look when you write them on paper.
Hiragana and Katakana base characters in three different fonts: font 1|font 2|font 3

A Minor Side Note

To make a vowel long use う when using Hiragana and - when using Katakana like so:
Example Hiragana: きょ (kyo) becomes きょう (kyou).
Example Katakana: キョ (kyo) becomes キョー (kyou).

To make a double consonant use subscript つ when using Hiragana and ツ when using Katakana:
Example Hiragana: まて (mate) becomes まって (matte).
Example Katakana: マテ (mate) becomes マッテ (matte).

Lastly you will find some loan words that use sounds not normally found in the Japanese language such as the "tee" sound in "party" are accommodated in Katakana using subscript vowels:

ティ = "tee" as in パーティー (party)
スィ = "see" as in スィーソー (seesaw)
トゥ = "too" as in トゥーム (tomb)


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