Learn Hiragana: The Ultimate Guide.

Source: Tofugu.com

To learn hiragana is to create a foundation for the rest of your Japanese. By learning hiragana, you will learn the basics of Japanese pronunciation. It will also open doors in terms of the Japanese resources you can use. There are no (good) Japanese textbooks or learning resources that don’t require you to know hiragana. In essence, it’s the first step to learn Japanese.

Many classes and individuals spend months learning hiragana. This is too long. You should be able to learn everything in a couple days. A week, tops. Some people have reported back that they could read all the hiragana after a few hours, using this method. How long it takes depends on you, but if you follow the steps laid out below, you’ll come out the other side with the ability to read hiragana.

To make this possible, you will employ a few important methods.

  1. Mnemonics: Due to hiragana’s relative simplicity (at least compared to kanji), image-based mnemonics are a perfect method for memorization. Each hiragana character has a memorable illustration that goes along with it. For a long time I believed that mnemonics were a waste of time. If this is you, I recommend you give it a serious try. It’s amazing what you are able to memorize when using a mnemonic method.
  2. No Writing: “WHAT? NO WRITING!?” you scream. I know what you’re thinking. But, think about it for a moment. When’s the last time you actually wrote something by hand? Probably the last time you had to sign your name on a receipt at a restaurant. The need to write by hand is going down. Most of your written communication comes in the form of typing. Learning to read can be done very quickly and is very useful. Learning to write doubles or triples how long it takes to learn hiragana, with very little real-life benefit. It will be important to learn eventually, but for now you have more important fish to fry.
  3. Exercises: As I mentioned earlier, there are exercises for you to go through. They also happen to be very well thought out, too. If you do them, and you don’t cheat (yourself), you will learn hiragana. In these exercises, you should do your best to force yourself recall items, even when you don’t think you can come up with the answer. The more effort and strain you put into recalling something, the stronger of a memory your brain will end up building (as long as you actually recall it, that is).

For the most part, if you follow along and do everything that this hiragana guide says, you will learn the hiragana. It will be difficult not to.

HIRAGANA CHART

To begin, download this hiragana chart.

If you have a printer, print it out. If not, you can follow along digitally too.

HIRAGANA PRONUNCIATION

Before you begin learning to read the hiragana, you have to learn how to pronounce the hiragana. Since hiragana pronunciation is such a listening and speaking thing, we made a video to cover this topic. Follow along.

A いI うU えE おO

This is the first (and most important!) column in hiragana. It sets the pronunciation of every other column coming after it, because every other column is basically just the a-i-u-e-o column with consonants attached to them. The same basic sound repeats over and over and over, with a consonant plus these five vowel sounds, so make sure you have the right pronunciation for these five right from the start.

Shall we? No, that’s okay, after you.

あ hiragana mnemonic

 is pronounced like the “a” in “car” or the “a” in “awful.”

To remember this kana, find the capital “A” inside of it. This “A” will tell you that this kana is also “a” aka あ. There is another similar kana, お, but that one doesn’t have an “A” in it, which is how you can differentiate them.

い hiragana mnemonic

 is pronounced like the “ee” in “eel.”

To remember this kana, just think of a couple of eels (i) hanging out. They’re upright because they’re trying to mimic the letter “i” which also stands upright and also happens to be the way you spell out this character in romaji.

う hiragana mnemonic

 is pronounced like the “oo” in “oooo… ahhh!” when you’re watching fireworks. It also sounds like the “ou” in “You.”

To remember this kana, notice the “U” shape right in it! It’s sideways but it’s there, telling you what this kana is.

え hiragana mnemonic

 is pronounced like the “e” in “exotic” or the “e” in “egg.”

To remember this kana, think of it like an exotic bird. The big feathery thing on its head gives it away that it’s exotic and not normal. It also lays exotic eggs, because it’s an exotic bird, after all.

お hiragana mnemonic

 is pronounced like you’re saying “oh.” It also sounds like the “o” in “original.”

Can you see the letter “o” in here, two times? This one looks similar to あ, except for its one key difference: there are two letter “o” symbols visible in there. Make sure you use this to differentiate this kana (お) and that similar kana (あ). This is one area of hiragana where a lot of people trip up, but by using this mnemonic you will be able to figure them out every time.

あいうえお Tasks

Now that you’ve put these kana into your brain (at least somewhat shakily) it’s time to pull them out. Recall is the foundation of memory, and you’re going to start doing just that. For each “tasks” section make sure you follow along perfectly. Skipping these steps may cause you to fail later on in the future. Having a strong base to build off of is important with each section.

  1. Head over to the website Drag n’ Drop Hiragana. All I want you to do is to find the five kana you just learned (a-i-u-e-o) and drag them to their correct spot. That’s it! It’s an exercise in recognizing the kana you learned as well as matching them to the correct sounds. When you’ve done it once hit the refresh button and do it again and again until you’re able to get it done in 10 seconds.
  2. Print out, copy, or download this worksheet. You’ll need to go through it, filling in the boxes with the romaji for the kana. Try your best not to cheat – even if you spend a while trying to remember a kana it will be beneficial to your memory (as long as you’re able to recall it on your own). Looking up the answer doesn’t help your memory at all, but struggle (with accomplishment) tells your brain that this is a thing worth remembering. Try using the mnemonics when you need to recall something you can’t figure out right away. This should be fairly easy with only five kana (and maybe a little boring too), but when you’re done move on to the next five hiragana.

かKA きKI くKU けKE こKO

The next set of hiragana is from the “k-column.” This is just the “k” sound plus the vowel sounds you learned above, making it ka-ki-ku-ke-ko. There are no weird exceptions in this column either, so enjoy it while you can.

か hiragana Mnemonic

 is just the “K” sound plus あ, making a "ka" sound.

♫ Cannn, can you do the can can, can you do the can can… ♪

  • KA

To remember this, think of someone who’s doing the “Can-Can” (ka) dance. The か kana even looks like someone doing the Can-Can.

き hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “K” sound plus い, making a “ki” sound.

In fact, it sounds just like the word “key” which is the mnemonic we end up using.

  • KI

To remember this, notice how much it resembles a key (ki).

く hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “K” sound plus う, making a “ku” sound.

  • KU

To remember this, think of this kana being the mouth of a coo-coo/cuckoo (ku) bird popping out saying “ku ku, ku ku!”

け hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “K” sound plus え, making a “ke” sound.

  • KE

You’ll have to use your imagination here, but this kana looks a lot like a keg. The three dimensional shape that it makes is somewhat keg-like, right?

こ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “K” sound plus お, making a “ko” sound.

  • KO

Ko is a couple of co-habitation (ko) worms. They’re so happy together, co-habitating the same area! Alternatively, you could imagine a couple of short cords laying on the ground next to each other.

かきくけこ Tasks

More tasks! This time we’ll include the あいうえお column along with this “K-column” you just learned.

  1. Using Drag n’ Drop Hiragana, find the あいうえお and かきくけこ hiragana and drag them to their correct spots. How quickly can you identify and place these ten hiragana characters? When you can do it in under 25 seconds, or you’ve completed this task at least five times, move on to the next step.
  2. Print out, copy, or download this worksheet. Complete it by filling in the blanks with the romaji for each of the kana. This time it will be both of the columns that you’ve learned (so far) so it should be a little more interesting (and half familiar).

Once again, when you get stuck just think back to the mnemonic before you cheat. When you’re done you can move on to the next group.


さSA しSHI すSU せSE そSO

Now that you have the “K-column” under your belt it’s time for the “S-column.” There is one weird exception in this row, and that’s for “si” aka “shi.” It’s pronounced just like the word “she” in English, and doesn’t quite follow the pattern you’ve seen up until now. You’ll want to use “sa-shi-su-se-so” for this column.

さ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “S” sound plus あ, making a “sa” sound.

  • SA

This kana looks like a weird sign (where the “si” of “sign” is pronounced like “sa”) stuck in the ground. Focus on the pronunciation, not the spelling, from this mnemonic.

し hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “Sh” sound plus い, making a “shi” sound. Take note that this is the first “exception” kana where it doesn’t follow the patterns that show up everywhere else. Instead of being “si” it’s “shi” (though you will see it written both ways when dealing with romaji. One more reason why you ought to just learn hiragana already).

  • SHI

This kana looks like a giant hook you’re dipping into the water. What do you catch? A poor seal (shi).

す hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “S” sound plus う, making a “su” sound.

  • SU

See the swing (su) doing a loop-dee-loop throwing that poor kid off of it? Imagine him screaming “I’M GONNA SUE SOMEBODY FOR THIIIIIiiiissss” as he flies off into the distance.

せ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “S” sound plus え, making a “se” sound.

  • SE

This kana looks like a mouth with a big fang in it. What would someone like this say (se)? How sexy is that tooth, btw?

そ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “S” sound plus お, making a “so” sound.

  • SO

This kana is just a songbird (so), flapping its little wings while singing a little tune! “So so so soooo!” ♪

さしすせそ Exercises

Now that we’ve done three sets of five, it’s time for exercises! As usual, these exercises will help you to practice kana you’ve previously learned plus the ones you just learned.

  1. Back to our best buds Drag n’ Drop Hiragana. Identify and place the あ, か, and さ columns into their spots. Do this several times and see if you can do it all in under 30 seconds (or just complete the task 5 times). Once you’re able to do either of those, move on.
  2. Using this worksheet, print out, copy, or download it and fill out the boxes with the correct romaji. If you can’t remember something try to think back to the mnemonic first before cheating.

When you’re able to do these two tasks move on to the next five kana.

P.S. Have you noticed how in the worksheets you’re being asked to wait 5 minutes then 10 minutes? Waiting is actually an important part of building memory. By waiting and then recalling something as it’s fading away, you’re telling your mind that it shouldn’t forget that item. But, if you keep bringing it up over and over again in a short period of time your brain will just keep it in its short term memory, meaning you probably won’t remember it later. Don’t skip the waiting periods! In fact, if you think you can wait longer without forgetting much that’s even better!


たTA ちCHI つTSU てTE とTO

Time for the fourth column, the “T-column.” Now you have a lot to remember! Hopefully mnemonics and the reasons for using them are starting to make sense now. If not, that should happen soon.

Like the さ column, you’ll find an exception in the た column. In fact, you’ll find two exceptions, them being ち (chi) and つ (tsu). So, for this column we’ll have “ta, chitsu, te, to.”

た hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “T” sound plus あ, making a “ta” sound.

  • TA

This looks just like the romaji that spells it out: “ta

ち hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “Ch” sound plus い, making a “chi” sound.

  • CHI

This is the second “exception” hiragana. Instead of a “ti” sound, it is a “chi” sound. Try not to forget this.

This kana looks like a man’s face… except it’s missing something: the chin!

つ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “Ts” sound plus う, making a “tsu” sound.

  • TSU

This is another “exception” hiragana. Instead of saying “tu” you say “tsu.” Try not to forget this.

Do you remember the kana し? It’s a hook that’s dipped straight down into the water. This didn’t work very well (you caught a poor seal!), so now you’re trying a new strategy: pulling the line behind you in a boat. This way the hook is facing sideways. It works, too! You pull up your line and you have two (tsu) fish!

て hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “T” sound plus え, making a “te” sound.

  • TE

This kana looks like the uppercase letter “T” where “T” is for “Ten.” How many kana can you learn at one time? I bet at least ten of them (let’s start with the next set!)

と hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “T” sound plus お, making a “to” sound.

  • TO

This kana looks just like someone’s toe (to) with a little nail or splinter in it. Imagine how much this would hurt if it was your toe!

たちつてと Exercises

Now that we have a few kana under our belt we’ll be adding a third resource to our arsenal. Still, we’ll start with something familiar. Just follow along.

  1. With Drag n’ Drop Hiragana, complete the four columns that you know (あ, か, さ, た). When you are able to do this fairly quickly (let’s say 40 seconds) or you’ve done it 5 times, move on to the next step.
  2. Time for the new resource. Now go to RealKana. Check off the first four columns (the ones you’ve learned). Uncheck any columns in the katakana tab (you don’t know any of these yet). Now click on the “extra” tab. Choose all the typefaces. Just like in English, sometimes there are slightly different ways to write things, and it’s good to know what those differences are so you don’t get confused later on (when you read someone’s handwriting and it’s a bit different). For example, in English the letter “a” can be written in a couple of different ways. I don’t imagine you write your lowercase “a” the way you see it when typed out usually, right? Same with Japanese. き and さ, for example, often don’t have that little round line in the bottom left connected to the main part – there’s a space in there. You’ll start to see these differences by using RealKana. When you’ve drilled the four columns for 5-10 minutes move on to the worksheet.
  3. Copy, download, or print out this worksheet. Fill in all the blanks with romaji. Pay special attention to “exception” kana, like し, ち, and つ and write them out the way I showed you above to make sure that you know the proper reading. Not all romaji-styles will write these kana like this (you’ll see “si, ti, and tu” too), but for now write “shi, chi, and tsu” just for the sake of associating the correct pronunciation with each of these particular kana.

When you’ve completed everything and feel like you can recall all 20 of these kana, move on to the next section. Now it’s time to try 10 at a time. You’re getting better at this, after all!


なNA にNI ぬNU ねNE のNO

This is your first “more than 5 things to learn” group. In fact, it’s a whole ten things! But you’ll be just fine. You’re getting better at learning the hiragana with all this practice. Too bad there’s not 150 hiragana for you to practice on.

な hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “N” sound plus あ, making a “na” sound.

  • NA

The naughty (na) nun is praying in front of the cross, asking for forgiveness of her naughty ways.

The cross up in the air like this should be the main giveaway that this is な.

に hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “N” sound plus い, making a “ni” sound.

  • NI

Do you see the needle (ni) pulling the thread?

ぬ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “N” sound plus う, making a “nu” sound.

  • NU

This kana looks like some noodles (nu). There are several other kana that are similar to this one (れ, め, ね, わ) but you know this one is noodles because there are no sharp sides in it. It’s 100% smooth and bendable, like noodles! It even has an extra loop at the back, because it is a noodle.

ね hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “N” sound plus え, making a “ne” sound.

  • NE

This is Nelly the cat. There are other kana very similar to this one (ぬ, れ, め, わ) but you know this is different because it has a loop at the end for the tail and it’s not super bendable like ぬ (noodles) is (see those sharp corners on the left?).

To top things off, Nelly is a necromancer. Why? I have no idea, you’d have to ask her. It must have something to do with the undead cat army she’s creating.

Also, if you know the word “neko” (Japanese for “cat”) you can use that too. This is a ねこ.

の hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “N” sound plus お, making a “no” sound.

  • NO

See the big pig nose (no) there? You can also think of this as a “No smoking” sign (the ones with the cigarette and the big red circle and slash through it). Pick the one that sticks with you the best.

はHA ひHI ふHU/FU へHE ほHO

Now let’s look at the next five in this set. If you’re feeling really shaky you can jump over to RealKana or Drag n’ Drop Hiragana to practice, but you don’t have to (yet)!

は hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “H” sound plus あ, making a “ha” sound.

  • HA

This kana looks like the uppercase letter “H” plus the lowercase letter “a.” What does that spell? “Ha!”

Why are you laughing? Stop that. Make sure you can see the H+a in the kana.

ひ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “H” sound plus い, making a “hi” sound.

  • HI

He (hi) has a big nose. See that big nose? Now say it out loud. “He has a big nose.”

ふ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “F/H” sound plus う, making a “fu/hu” sound.

  • FU

Usually this kana is pronounced with an “f” (fu) in hiragana, so we’re going to go with that. However, this kana does look a lot like a hula dancer too, so keep the “hu” in mind as well. If you want, you can think of this hula dancer as a “fu-reaky hula dancer” to remember the fu.

へ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “H” sound plus え, making a “he” sound.

  • HE

Do you know the famous mountain Mt. Saint Helens? This kana isn’t totally flat like Helens is, but it’s pretty squat looking. That’s why this one is Helens.

ほ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “H” sound plus お, making a “ho” sound.

  • HO

The left side line is a chimney. The right side is a mutated Santa Claus. He has four arms, a snake tail, and no head. Out of his neck he’s uttering “ho ho ho… ho ho ho…”

Hopefully he doesn’t come down your chimney.

なにぬねのはひふへほ Exercises

Time to practice ten at a time! It’s a lot, but you’re getting better at learning these things, right?

  1. Using Drag n’ Drop Hiragana, find the hiragana from the あ, か, さ, た, な, and は columns and place them in their correct spots. When you’re completed this five times, or when you’re able to complete this fairly quickly (let’s say in ~1 minute), move on to the next task.
  2. Using RealKana, check the あ, か, さ, た, な, and は, uncheck any katakana columns, and check all the different typefaces. Then, drill the above kana for 5-10 minutes until you are consistently getting the answer right and you feel comfortable with the different fonts that they present.
  3. Copy, print out, or download this worksheet and fill in all the boxes. As always, use the mnemonics and try not to cheat. If this is starting to feel easy, try to time yourself to see how long it takes to complete each section and try to beat yourself each time.

When you are done with these exercises it’s time to move on to the next set of hiragana.


まMA みMI むMU めME もMO

Not quite ten in this set (before the exercises), but close enough. Let’s start with the “M-column.”

ま hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “M” sound plus あ, making a “ma” sound.

  • MA

Removing your head? Doubling your hands and arms? What sort of evil magic is this? What makes it weirder is that your mama is the one doing this magic. Imagine your ma looking like this. Aghh!

み hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “M” sound plus い, making a “mi” sound.

  • MI

Looks like lucky number 21. Who just hit the blackjack? Me (mi)! Who just turned 21 as well? Me (mi)!!

む hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “M” sound plus う, making a “mu” sound.

  • MU

Moooooo” (mu), says the cow. “MOOOOOOO.”

め hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “M” sound plus え, making a “me” sound.

  • ME

Look at that beautiful eye! It’s so beautiful because of the makeup (me) on it. Gotta look pretty in those eyes!

If you also happen to know the word for “eye” in Japanese, that will help too. The word for “eye” in Japanese is just  (me).

も hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “M” sound plus お, making a “mo” sound.

  • MO

You want to catch more (も) fish so you add more worms to your hook. This is the third “hook” one, so make sure you can differentiate the mnemonics in your head: し, つ, and now も.

やYA ゆYU よYO

This column is a little strange. There are only three items in here, and “ye” and “yi” are seemingly missing. Actually, they used to exist but now they don’t (instead people use い or え, because it sounds pretty similar). Because of that, you only have to learn three kana for this section!

や hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “Y” sound plus あ, making a “ya” sound.

  • YA

Do you see the yak in this kana?

ゆ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “Y” sound plus う, making a “yu” sound.

  • YU

This kana is a very unique (yu) looking fish! It looks like a big eyeball swimming in the water.

よ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “Y” sound plus お, making a “yo” sound.

  • YO

The hitchhiker has his arm and thumb out. He’s yelling “YO! yo!” at all the cars that go past him. Why won’t they pick him up?

まみむめもやゆよ Exercises

Time to practice these eight hiragana (and the previous ones as well). Once again, go through the steps to make sure you know everything well!

  1. Using Drag n’ Drop Hiragana, drag the あ, か, さ, た, な, は, ま, and や columns into their spots. You’re dragging more kana than you’re leaving now, and that’s pretty cool! Once you’ve done this three times, or you’re able to get this all done fairly quickly (1:30 or so?) move on to step 2.
  2. Using RealKana, choose the あ, か, さ, た, な, は, ま, and や columns, unchecking any katakana columns, and choosing all the typefaces, drill the kana for 10-15 minutes.

When you’re all done, it’s time to tackle the last “main hiragana” section. You’re almost there! Not so hard, right?


らRA りRI るRU れRE ろRO

Welcome to the last main set! It’s only eight characters just like the last set, so hopefully it’s not too bad. It does include the infamous ra-ri-ru-re-ro column though, which does tend to give some people trouble pronunciation-wise.

ら hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “R” sound plus あ, making a “ra” sound.

  • RA

The rapper is rapping at the DJ table.

り hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “R” sound plus い, making a “ri” sound.

  • RI

The reeds (ri) are swaying in the wind.

This kana can also be written without the connection in the middle, too, which makes it more reedlike in that case (I wanted to present the more difficult of the two versions here, though).

る hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “R” sound plus う, making a “ru” sound.

  • RU

The is like ろ (you’ll learn it in a second) except it has a loop at the end. る is a crazier route (ru). There is a loop (ru) at the end. Are there no rules on this road?

れ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “R” sound plus え, making a “re” sound.

  • RE

This looks like a guy kneeling on the ground, retching up his dinner.

This kana is similar to め, わ, ぬ, and ね. What makes this one different is the curve at the back. You can identify this as the guy’s knees bending, which makes it so you know he’s keeled over retching his guts out.

ろ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “R” sound plus お, making a “ro” sound.

  • RO

This is the counterpart to る, except this one doesn’t have a loop at the end (there are rules here!). So, this kana is just a plain old road (ro).

わWA をWO んN

And finally, the last group. This is a weird one. It includes わ (which is quite normal), を (which is pronounced just like お, but is primarily used as a particle), and ん (which is the only consonant-only character in all the kanaa). Let’s go through them one by one.

わ hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “W” sound plus あ, making a “wa” sound.

  • WA

This kana looks like a wasp flying straight up.

It looks similar to れ, ぬ, ね, and め. It looks especially similar to ね. You know ね is Nelly the cat because of the curl of a tail on the end. So, you can imagine the cat chasing this wasp, which is why it’s flying straight up to get away. Its but is also a straight sharp line. This is its stinger.

を hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “W” sound plus お, though it sounds more like “oh” than it does “wo.”

  • WO

The “w” is pretty silent, though it’s still a tiny bit there. You can pretty much just pronounce it like お.

Whoa!” (wo) yells the guy with no chin (ち). Someone threw a boomerang into his mouth, so of course he’s going to yell something. “WHOA!”

ん hiragana mnemonic

 is just the “N” sound, that’s it. It’s the only kana that consists of a single consonant.

This kana looks just like the lowercase “n” in English. They happen to be the same sounds, as well. How convenient! nnn んんん.

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