The Difference Between Hiragana and Katakana

The Japanese Alphabets

Unlike many other languages you may wish to learn, Japanese is unique. It is also considered one of the hardest languages to learn.

While English is considered hard for non-English speakers, due to its unusual word formations and “silent letters”, Japanese is harder for another reason. 

They have 3 Alphabets., Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Kanji is an alphabet adopted from China, however, the other two, Hiragana and Katakana are primary Japanese Alphabets. 

Hiragana Vs Katakana

Both Hiragana and Katakana are syllabic alphabets that contain 47 characters. Each character represents a sound. Some of the characters are like each other, you may find similarities in a character in Katakana to one in Hiragana.

The biggest difference between these two is that Hiragana is primarily used for Japanese-born words, whereas Katakana is used for foreign-based words. Since Japanese borrows many words, Katakana is there to alert the reader that this word is an imported one.

Talking about Japanese, we cannot ignore Kanji. Which is the primary alphabet of the language, made up of more than 8,000 characters, each of which represents a concept, word, or name. Using these characters, you could create phrases much like you would in English.

Unlike some languages, Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic. This means that the characters tell you how you should pronounce the word, so Japanese is in many ways, said as it is written. (Unlike pesky English).

Hiragana is used most, as a standard form of Japanese writing. It is often used either on its own or with Kanji to form words. It is often the first form of writing Japanese children will learn. When Hiragana is like the Japanese version of cursive, functioning more like print, used for easy reading, and is a great way to convey clarity.

Katakana is more like print; it is blockier and harder. It is a signal that the word is not Japanese in origin. It can also be used for emphasis or even onomatopoeia, brands may also use Katakana.

So, while their differences are quite vast, it is important still to learn both, as they come in very handy in day-to-day life in Japan.

Which should you learn first?

It may seem like Hiragana is the best of these to learn, as it is what children first learn. This is true.

If you need a starting place to begin your education in the Japanese language, we suggest Hiragana as a starting point. Hiragana is Japan’s version of the English alphabet. It is where everything begins, for new speakers and school children.

While Katakana and Kanji are also vital to learning and speaking in Japanese. Hiragana is the first step and will give you that extra packing punch to becoming better at Japanese.

It is also the foundation of good pronunciation and understanding why the Japanese language sounds like it does and will help you develop a more native-sounding accent.

Visualizing the Alphabets

Here we want to show you how these two Alphabets look. Broken down into rows and columns as you can see below. The vertical column marks a vowel whereas the horizontal column marks a consonant sound. All Japanese characters will have a consonant sound and a vowel, with one exception.

You get a column for each vowel sound and then a row for the consonants. Which means that the vowel sounds are mixed with the consonants. Seeing these charts can help you understand how the characters sound and helps to simplify changing words to conjugate.

Examples of Hiragana and Katakana Words

Earlier we mentioned that Hiragana and Katakana are used for different reasons, namely that Hiragana is the choice for Japanese native words and Katakana is for foreign words.

A good example of what we mean here is that; ‘Tofu’, ‘chopsticks’, ‘delicious’, Japanese native peoples names, and Japanese places, would all be written in Hiragana as these are all native words.

Words that would be written in Katakana, however, would be things such as ‘coffee’, ‘burger’, ‘kimchee’, ‘baguette’, as well as names of people that are not Japanese, these are words not native to Japan and therefore are written in Katakana. Katakana can also be used for sounds such as ‘knock knock’, ‘meow’, ‘woof’. And so on.

Understanding the contexts that the two alphabets are used for can help you to get a better grasp on the language so that you can learn faster with more understanding of in what contexts they are used.

Recognizing the Two, Based on Appearance

As well as their differences in use, and importance when learning. They also look different as we have mentioned before. Hiragana is a lot more ‘swirly’, based on Chinese calligraphy-styled characters.

It is very curly and has many brushstrokes. Katakana is hard, lined, more angular than Hiragana. If you look at Hiragana and Katakana charts you can see this, Hiragana looks soft and gentle and is very effeminate in its elegance, Katakana is harder and more rigid.

If you have any trouble getting your head around which is which as you learn, you can always refer to either the style of print or whether or not the word is Japanese-originated or foreign in origin.

Tips for Learning Japanese

The best thing you can do when trying to learn Japanese, is to practice as much as possible, taking on Hiragana first and then tackling Katakana when you feel more confident.

You can always keep a handy notebook with you with a chart inside and practice drawing the characters, lining up consonants and vowels.

Doing this can help you spot any areas in which you might be struggling and doing so will help you get to know the characters without any intense focus or struggle.

You can also seek practicing writing right to left, and vertically. Since it is will take some time to get used to it can be incredibly beneficial to start practicing this early.

While practicing Katakana and Hiragana is a great step in furthering your Japanese learning and language knowledge, it can be well worthwhile to watch Japanese television and movies and read some of their books or comics, to help you get used to seeing the letters more often and hearing the accent.

You would be surprised what you could pick up just from doing that.