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The first step we will take on your journey through


MangaLand will be to learn a little about the
Japanese writing system: we are obviously talking
about those inscriptions which many of you may
have encountered. In these few first lessons you will
need to put forth a great effort in order to learn the
two syllabaries.

Lesson 1: Hiragana

The syllabaries
The syllabaries are essential for the correct learning of the
Japanese language. Most Japanese textbooks use rmaji that is, the
Romanized alphabet to teach the begin- ner. However, rmaji
eventually becomes inadequate, as knowing only spoken Japanese is
the same as being illiterate. If you wish to learn Japanese at all
levels and, especially, if you wish to be able to read magazines or
comic books, your study must include learn- ing how to read and
write the two Japanese syllabaries. This will be the first step
towards a sound learning of the language. You must get used to
Japanese characters as soon as possible, so we will start with the
writing basics. In Japanese there is no such thing as an
alphabet as we know it. Instead, there are two syllabaries
called hiragana and katakana. A Japanese character usually equals a
two-letter syllable in our language (that is why they are called
syllabaries.) Thus, the character
is read ka. There is only
one exception: the sound n, the only consonant sound that can go
on its own.
Both hiragana and katakana have 46 syllabic symbols, each
equivalent to its corres- ponding symbol in the other syllabary
in pronunciation but written differently. For instance, the
hiragana character
and the katakana character
are both read
chi.
It may seem strange or unnecessary, but less so when you consider
that we have a very similar system: upper case and lower case
letters. Try thinking on the purely formal similitude between a
and A, or between g and G. Do they look the same?
Japanese has kanji as well, ideograms taken from Chinese during
the period from the 3rd century to the 6th century AD, which
represent concepts rather than sounds. There are many kanji (an
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1
Lesson 1

estimated number of more than 50,000) but only 3,000 (more or


less) are usually and frequently used, out of which 1,945 are
considered common use (l.3) and must compulsorily be studied at
school.
The subject in this first lesson is the hiragana syllabary,
undoubtedly the most basic and essential to learn the basis of
the Japanese language.

Hiragan
a

1
On Japanese
writing
Before we get started, its worth knowing a few basic aspects
of Japanese writing. As you must know, Japanese can be written
using the traditional style (vertically and from right to left),
but it can also be written the way we write, using the Western
style (hori- zontally and from left to right).
Although newspapers and manga, for example, tend to use the
traditional style, both methods are generally used in Japan
nowadays, perhaps with a slight predominance of the Western
style over the traditional. Therefore, it is essential to
become familiar with both.
Indeed, many books, magazines, comic books and printed
material in general are read backwards. Then, in Japanese
books, the cover is placed where we would usually find the back
cover, and that is why they are read left to right, just the
opposite of Western books. If you think about it, this is not so
odd; Arabic books, for that matter, are opened the same way.
Japanese punctuation marks are also different. A period is
written with a small circle ( ) and comas point upwards, the
opposite from what we are used to ( ). In addition, Japanese has
opening ( ) and closing (
) square brackets, which are
equivalent to our quotation marks. However, there are several
other punctuation marks which we all know and are exactly the
same, such as question marks ( ), exclamation marks ( ), etc.

Hiragana
After this general introduction to Japanese writing, we will
fully go into the subject we are dealing with in this first
lesson: the hiragana syllabary. Pay attention to the table on
the following page, because you will need to learn it very
well: it is essential to learn how to read and write hiragana
fluently as soon as possible.
Bear in mind you must follow a particular stroke order to write
each one of the cha- racters (it may not seem so, but stroke
order is very important.) At the end of this same lesson you will
find a writing guide for each of the basic hiragana characters,
where each stroke order is specified.
The hiragana syllabary is the most used of the two, because it is
used to write strictly Japanese words, unlike katakana, which is
mainly used for words of foreign origin (as we will see in l.2).
Hiragana is used when a word cant be written in kanji, the kanji
character is not officially recognized as a kanji of common use,
or if the writer doesnt remember the corresponding kanji.
Likewise, particles (l.16) and verb endings are writ- ten using the
signs in this syllabary.
Hiragana is what Japanese children learn first when they study
how to write; there- fore, all childrens reading books are

entirely written in this syllabary. Later, as children increase


their knowledge, katakana and kanji are introduced.

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Lesson 1

Syllabary description
There are 46 basic sounds, which you can see in the first column
of the above syl- labary. First learn these characters, because
later on you will find it infinitely easier to learn by heart the
so-called impure or derivative sounds.
Note: You have probably noticed that there are two ji sounds ( and
) and two zu sounds ( and
.) These are, indeed, pronounced
exactly the same way, but their usage is different. For the time
being, lets say that we will almost always use
and
, and
hardly ever the other two.

Hiragan
a

1
In the second column we see the list of impure sounds derived
from other sounds. Note that the ka ( ) syllable is the same as
ga ( ), but ga has two small lines on the top right-hand corner
of the sign (the voicing or muffling mark); the same applies
when we go from the s line to the z one, from t to d, and from h to
b.
Notice, too, how to obtain the p sounds we must only place a
small circle (the occlusive mark) on top of the characters in the
h line. Ex. (ha)
(pa).
In the third column, we finally find the diphthongs,
combinations of the characters in the i column ( ki, shi,
chi, ni,
hi,
mi) with those in the y line (
ya, yu,
yo), the later ones written in a smaller size. These combinations
are
used to represent more complex sounds, such as
cha,
hyo or
gyu.
There is no l sound in Japanese. So, whenever we need to write
or pronounce a fo- reign word with the letter l in it, we will
have to replace it with a soft r. Lance, for example, would be
pronounced Ransu. No, this is not wrong, nor have you misread
anything. Because of this pronunciation difficulty, many Japanese
seem to find them- selves misunderstood when they travel abroad.
Words such as right and light, or fry and fly, tend to
sound the same, or even worse, please sit may become please
shit! This can cause som startling or awkward conversations.
Dont worry about it for the moment, because we will never use
hiragana to tran- scribe our names into Japanese. (We will see
more about this in lessons 2 and 8.)

Pronunciation
Japanese is pronounced with very few sounds, all of them very
simple and basic. Thus, it can pose a problem for English speakers
because sounds in our language are rather complicated or
twisted. Lets have a look at the pronunciation of the
Japanese vowels:
The a as in
father. The i
as in machine.
The u as in
recuperate. The e
as in set.
The o as in cooperate.
The g is always pronounced as in get and never as in gentle.
The r is always in pronounced in the Spanish fashion (not the
rolling trill, dont worry). Its somewhat between the l and
the r and can be the most difficult sound to get right.
Examples in Spanish: Sonora, Merida.
The ch as in church.
The tsu as the tz-u part of Ritz Uruguay

Manga-examples
We are now going to see some examples of hiragana
usage. In this course we will always see examples
inspired by real Japanese manga to illustrate what
has been explained in the theory pages. As they
say, a manga- example is worth a thousand words.

Studio Ksen

a) Yawn

Katsuko:

This first example shows us Katsuko waking up and saying:


fuwaa...
fuwaa... The drawing and the characters pose make this
(Onomatopoeia for a yawn.)
onomatopoeias meaning obvious, so we dont need to expand on
this.
This manga-example shows just how easy it is to practice reading
hiragana with any Japanese manga you can get hold of.
Onomatopoeia and sound effects written in the hiragana syllabary
abounds in the pages of manga; recognizing them and starting to
read them, although you may not clearly understand their
meaning, is already a very satisfactory first step and good
motivation to pursue your Japanese studies with enthu- siasm.
(You have a glossary of onomatopoeia in Appendix iii.)
Note: You may have noticed the small, curious tsu ( ) character at
the end of
the exclamation. This means the sound stops
abruptly; that is, it ends sharply. You will often find the
small tsu ( ), indicating a sharp ending, in comic books, where

it is profusely used. However, you will hardly find this sound


effect in any other type of text.

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Lesson 1

Guillermo March

b) Laughing

Mifu:

Tatsu:

Here we see Tatsu and Mifu the instant they meet. Their reaction
ahahahahahahahahahahahahehehehehehehehehehehehe
is most curious: what exactly do those giggles written in
(Onomatopoeia
for laugh.)(Onomatopoeia for laugh.)
hiragana
indicate?
Onomatopoeia for sounds produced by manga human characters
(laughs, doubts, screams...) are usually written in hiragana,
unlike sounds caused by human acts, things and animals (barks,
explosions, blows...), which are usually written in katakana,
as we will see in lesson 2.
However, dont take this as an inflexible rule; depending on the
author and his or her taste, the use of the syllabaries in manga can
vary
greatly.

c)Particles and desinences


In this third example we
find two of the most
characteristic uses of
the hiragana syllabary.
With this syllabary we
write the units which
constitute
the
true
skeleton
of
sentences. Gram- matical
particles, essential in
Kazuhiro:
Japanese grammar (as we
boku ga kowashita!?
will see in l.16), are
me sp break!?
always
written
in
I broke it?!
hiragana. Here we have an
example of one of them,
(ga), which is used to
mark the
subject in the sentence, that is, the person who is performing the
action. In this case,
boku (I), is who performs the action.
Verbal desinences are also written in
hiragana, through them we
know whether a verb is conjugated in the present tense, past
tense, etc. In this case, the hiragana
, indicating past tense
(l.20) has been added to the kanji . Thus,
(kowashita) means
I broke.

Hiragana

21

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Cohabitation of hiragana, katakana and kanji

J.M. Ken Niimura

d)

Tar:

washi yori hansamu na no wa sugimoto akira dake da


I more handsome than sugimoto akira only be

Only Akira Sugimoto is more handsome than me.


Sugimoto:

...

This
example
bears
any relation
the thanks!
rest of this
waailast
arigat
he hescarcely
he... wow!
thanks
he he he to
Well,
He, he, he
first lesson. It shows us one of the most curious characteristics
of the Japanese language. We are talking about the usage of the
three Japanese writing forms in the same sentence: the two
syllabaries (hiragana and katakana) and kanji.
Note the whole text is written in hiragana, the true skeleton of
sentences, apart from
hansamu which comes from English and
is, therefore, written in katakana (l.2) and
Sugimoto
Akira, written in kanji with the corresponding reading above
in small hiragana characters called furigana. Furigana is often used in
texts aimed at children or young people such as shnen comic
books (for boys) or shjo comic books (for girls) to give young
readers who still havent mastered kanji reading some help that
will enable them to comfortably read the text. Of course, these
kinds of manga can be very useful for reading practice for a
student of Japanese!
Note 1: Sugimotos T-shirt says aho, which means stupid (l.23).
Note 2: The structure for Japanese proper nouns for people is
surname + name, not the other way round. Here,
Sugimoto is
the surname and
Akira the name, so
we would call this person
Akira Sugimoto.
Vocabulary: Washi = I (used mainly by older males, l.7) | yori =
more than | hansamu-na = handsome (from the English word) |
dake = only | da = verb to be, simple form (L.7) | arigat =
thanks).

Strictly speaking, does the


Japanese language use an alphabet? How
Western letters is a hiragana
sign usual- ly equivalent to
when transcribed?

many

What types of script do we use to

write

Japanese? (3 kinds)
How is manga usually written:
horizon3 tally and from left to right
(Western style) or vertically
and
from
right
to
left
(traditional style)?
What do we use the hiragana

syllabary

for?

Write in Japanese the


following
mu, i and sa.sylla- bles: te,

Transcribe

into

hiragana signs: ,

English
,

the

and

following
.

Write in Japanese the impure

syllables
de, pi, da and za.

Transcribe

into

hiragana: , ,

and

English
.

the

E
x
e
r
ci

following

How
do
we
form complex
sounds (diphthongs) such as
cha, hyo, jo? Write
them in Japanese.
How do we pronounce in Japanese the

10

g in Sugimoto? Like the g in get or


like the g in
gentle?

Hiragana

23

u ke ko

sa

shi

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1
Lesson 1

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Hiragana

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