Difference between Katakana and Hiragana

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The Japanese language is an East Asian Language that is spoken by around 125 million people, mostly in Japan. Chinese documents from the 3rd century recorded a few Japanese words; however texts did not appear till the 8th Century. In fact, the Japanese language has many borrowed words.

Katakana and Hiragana are forms of Japanese syllabic writing, where each character represents a syllable. They are phonetic and hence, unlike Chinese kanji characters, they don’t have any direct connotations.


Katakana is used for spelling out foreign words so that a person of Japanese origin can understand words of another language. The word Katana means fragmentary as the characters of this syllable are derived from the complex syllable kanji. The katakana script was first developed in the 9th Century during the Heian period. It is the most complicated form of Japanese writing that was introduced by Buddhist monks around 1300 years ago.

In katakana, each character, or kana, is used to denote either a vowel, a consonant followed by a vowel or a nasal sound such as ‘n’. The katakana script consists of 48 characters in addition to functional and diacritic marks. There are five nucleus vowels. The script uses 42 core characters consisting of nine consonants used in conjunction with each of the five vowels. Three of these combinations are not used. In addition, a nasal stop (n) is used.

This form of writing is also used for emphasis, in the same way that italicized font is used in English. It is essential to learn katakana as it is prominent in Japan especially on menus.


Like katakana, hiragana uses characters to represent vowels, consonants followed by vowels or nasal sounds. However, hiragana is used to spell native Japanese words for which there are no kanji (Chinese characters).

Hiragana uses characters or symbols in a similar way to katakana: 5 nucleus vowels, 42 core characters and a nasal stop. The strokes of hiragana are cervical and these characters were derived from the Chinese cursive script developed by the Tang Dynasty calligrapher Sun Guoting from the 7th century. This script is useful for those who want to learn the Japanese language. Hiragana forms the base of Japanese grammar which includes prepositions, and conjunctions. Words of local origin are usually written in this script. If used out of its context, Hiragana usually has a softer nuance than Katakana and some even name their daughters in Hiragana. This is the Japanese first basic writing system.


Both katakana and hiragana are used to spell words phonetically. They use a 5 x 10 grid to organize the characters. This system of organizing written characters was inspired by the Sanskrit alphabet.

Both systems omit characters for the sounds of yi, ye and wu as these sounds are not used in Japanese.


Both katakana and hiragana use characters for the same set of language sounds. However they use different sets of characters for the same sounds. The strokes of katakana syllables are straighter than those of hiragana.

Functionally, the main difference between the two is that katakana is primarily used to show foreign words or words borrowed from other languages, while hiragana is used to write native words.

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