How to pronounce kana letters

To represent the pronunciation of consonants and vowels, IPA, International Phonetic Alphabet symbols are used in this page.

Table of Contents

Basic Kana Letters

"Kana" is the generic term of the hiragana script and the katakana script. Usually the hiragana script is used for ordinary writing and the katakana script is used for loanwords or to lend emphasis to a specific word.

Modern kana letters 1

Basic Kana 1
(Left Hiragana / Right Katakana)
- k- s- t- n- h- *2 m- j- r- *3 w-
a あ ア
か カ
さ サ
た タ
な ナ
は ハ *4
ま マ
や ヤ
ら ラ
わ ワ
i い イ
き キ
し シ
ち チ
[tʃi] *5
に ニ
ひ ヒ
み ミ
- り リ
う ウ
く ク
す ス
つ ツ
[tsu] *6
ぬ ヌ
ふ フ
む ム
ゆ ユ
る ル
e え エ
け ケ
せ セ
[se] *7
て テ
ね ネ
へ ヘ *8
め メ
- れ レ
o お オ
こ コ
そ ソ
と ト
の ノ
ほ ホ
も モ
よ ヨ
ろ ロ
を ヲ
[o] *9

Such a table as above is called "五十音図 (ごじゅうおんず [goʒuːonzu])", which translates to "The fifty sounds chart". In 五十音図 charts actually used in Japan, letters are usually shown in reverse order horizontally to above. (I.e., kana for [a] is shown at the top-right corner and kana for [wa] is at the top-left corner.)

Modern kana letters 2 (Ones with diacritics)

Basic Kana 2 ~ with diacritics
(Left Hiragana / Right Katakana)
g- *10 z-/dz- d- b- p-
a が ガ
ざ ザ
だ ダ
ば バ
ぱ パ
i ぎ ギ
じ ジ
[ʒi]~[dʒi] *11
ぢ ヂ
[ʒi]~[dʒi] *11 *13
び ビ
ぴ ピ
u ぐ グ
ず ズ
[zu]~[dzu] *12
づ ヅ
[zu]~[dzu] *12 *14
ぶ ブ
ぷ プ
e げ ゲ
ぜ ゼ
[ze]~[dze] *15
で デ
べ ベ
ぺ ペ
o ご ゴ
ぞ ゾ
ど ド
ぼ ボ
ぽ ポ
With the Dakuten diacritic (゛) With the
diacritic (゜)

In principle, a basic kana character plus the dakuten diacritic (゛) makes a voiced consonant version of the basic kana character, such as た [ta] + ゛ = だ [da]. But the cases of the H-column kana letters (はひふへほ) are a bit complicated as results of sound changes ([p]→[ɸ]→[h], see *2 also):

Modern kana letters 3 (んン and っッ)

ん (Hiragana) / ン (Katakana)

These letters are pronounced as the syllabic nasal consonant [ɴ] in principle, but the actual sound tends to vary according to its position and the following sound; it may be [m], [n], [ɲ], [ŋ], ...etc.

However, You can always pronounce [n] for ん/ン, because most of the Japanese do not recognise that the pronunciation of this letter varies. So you do not have to be sensitive to the pronunciation of ん/ン. The only thing that you have to care of is that you must not to pronounce ん/ン and the following vowel continuously when a vowel letter follows ん/ン. Otherwise, some confusion may be caused:

  • "あんい" is three morae (/a/ + /n/ + /i/) and means "ease"; but,
  • "あに" is two morae (/a/ + /ni/) and means "elder brother".
っ (Hiragana) / ッ (Katakana)

These letters are not ordinary つ/ツ (tsu), but written smaller than them. Small っ/ッ are used to indicate that "The onset consonant of the following kana letter is doubled (geminated)":

  • "した [ʃita] (shita)" is two morae and means "did, have done"; but,
  • "しった [ʃitːa] (shitta)" is three morae and means "knew, have known".

As above, the phoneme represented by small っ/ッ has one mora.

Small っ/ッ are never used to indicate geminating of a nasal consonant. In such cases, ん/ン is used instead: For example, ラナー [rannaː] (runner), ハマー [hammaː] (hammer).

These characters are often used to represent a glottal stop [ʔ] or emphasis in informal writing, such as "あっ (Ah!)".

This is not a kana character but "ー" is used to indicate "The vowel of the preceding kana is long". Usually "ー" is used with katakana characters:

"ー" is rotated by 90 degrees clockwise in vertical text.

Obsolete kana letters 1 (Established)

These characters are no longer taught in schools or used in daily life as a result of the spelling reform in the mid-20th century.

ゐ (Hiragana) / ヰ (Katakana)

These were used to represent [wi] until phoneme /wi/ was merged into /i/. Even after that, these kana characters had been being used to indicate that "This syllable was originally /wi/" up to the reform.

ゑ (Hiragana) / ヱ (Katakana)

These were used to represent [we] until phoneme /we/ was merged into /je/ (now /e/). Even after that, these kana characters had been being used to indicate that "This syllable was originally /we/" up to the reform.

Obsolete kana letters 2 (Not well known)

𛀁 (Hiragana version of エ)

This hiragana letter is for indicating that "This syllable was originally [je]".

𛀀 (Katakana version of え)

This katakana letter is for indicating that "This syllable has been being [e] from before /e/ and /je/ merged".

Note: Modern katakana エ originated from kanji 江 that was used to represent /je/. Id est:

E and YE
Source Kanji衣 /e/江 /je/

Phoneic kana

か゚き゚く゚け゚こ゚/カ゚キ゚ク゚ケ゚コ゚ (Hiragana/Katakana)

Phoneme /ŋ/ that appears instead of /ɡ/ in the middle of a word (that is, complementary distribution) is sometimes represented by the K-column kana with ゜ (The handakuten diacritic). These forms are usually found in Japanese tone (pitch accent) dictionaries.

  • Example:
    Kana for /ng/ sound

Kana for foreign sounds (Established)

ヴ (Katakana)

The sequence of ウ + ゛(The dakuten diacritic) is used to represent Western sound [v]~[β]. However, typical Japanese speakers cannot distinguish between the voiced plosives and the voiced fricatives. So, ヴ in fact is pronounced as the same as ブ in most cases.

Kana for foreign sounds (Not well known)

ヷ, ヸ, ヹ and ヺ (Katakana)

Related to ヴ, the combination of W-column kana letters with ゛ was introduced in the late 19th century to early 20th century, such as ヷ, ヸ, ヹ and ヺ to represent [va], [vi], [ve] and [vo] respectively. However they were not well established and another way (use of digraphs) became more popular instead.

ラ゚, リ゚, ル゚, レ゚ and ロ゚ (Katakana)

The combination of R-column kana letters with ゜ (ラ゚, リ゚, ル゚, レ゚ and ロ゚) was introduced to represent [la], [li]~[ʎi], [lu], [le] and [lo] respetively in the early 20th century but did not become popular. However, unlike the previous ones for /v-/ sounds, these are still used in a hymnbook. See the Church Latin kana section.

Kana Digraphs

In principle, the kana digraph is represented by the sequence of one ordinary kana and one small ぁ/ァ, ぃ/ィ, ぅ/ゥ, ぇ/ェ, ぉ/ォ, ゃ/ャ, ゅ/ュ, or ょ/ョ. A kana digraph represents the sound of the consonant of the first kana in normal size followed by the entire sound of the second kana in small size, such as "きゃ [kja] (き [ki] + や [ja])", "フォ [ɸo] (フ [ɸu] + オ [o])".

Kana digraphs for palatal sounds

They are represented by an I-row kana (き/キ, し/シ, etc.) followed by a small ゃ/ャ, ゅ/ュ, ェ, or ょ/ョ.

Kana digraphs for palatal sounds 1
(Left Hiragana / Right Katakana)
kj- ʃ- tʃ- ɲ- ç- mj- rj-
a きゃ キャ
しゃ シャ
ちゃ チャ
にゃ ニャ
ひゃ ヒャ
みゃ ミャ
りゃ リャ
u きゅ キュ
しゅ シュ
ちゅ チュ
にゅ ニュ
ひゅ ヒュ
みゅ ミュ
りゅ リュ
o きょ キョ
しょ ショ
ちょ チョ
にょ ニョ
ひょ ヒョ
みょ ミョ
りょ リョ
Kana digraphs for palatal sounds 2
(Left Hiragana / Right Katakana)
gj- ʒ- *2 dʒ- *2 bj- pj-
a ぎゃ ギャ
じゃ ジャ
ぢゃ ヂャ
びゃ ビャ
ぴゃ ピャ
u ぎゅ ギュ
じゅ ジュ
ぢゅ ヂュ
びゅ ビュ
ぴゅ ピュ
o ぎょ ギョ
じょ ジョ
ぢょ ヂョ
びょ ビョ
ぴょ ピョ

Kana digraphs for kwa/gwa sounds

The Japanese language had the phonemes /kwa/ and /gwa/ until the 18~19 century. They were then merged into /ka/ and /ga/ in most areas, however some dialects still keep these phonemes separated from /ka/ and /ga/.

They are represented by く/ク or ぐ/グ followed by a small ゎ/ヮ. That is, "くゎ/クヮ" for [kwa], and "ぐゎ/グヮ" for [gwa].

Katakana digraphs for foreign words

Katakana digraphs for foreign words
(* indicates that this sound can be represented by a single kana)
s- t- tj- ts- f- ~ ɸ- j- w- v- ~ β- z- d- dj-
a * * - ツァ
ファ *3
* * ヴァ *4
* * -
i スィ
- ツィ
フィ *3
- ウィ
ヴィ *4
u * トゥ
* * * - * * ドゥ
e * * - ツェ
フェ *3
ヴェ *4
* * -
o * * - ツォ
フォ *3
* ウォ
ヴォ *4
* * -

Only for /kw-/ and /gw-/, sometimes the digraphs of ク/グ followed by a small ァ, ィ, ェ, or ォ are used: E.g. クィーン (queen), グァム (Guam), クォーター (quarter). But their pronunciations tend to be two syllables like [kuwoːtaː]~[kuoːtaː] rather than one syllable like [kwoːtaː], as if they are spelled as ク/グ followed by an ordinary ア, イ, エ, or オ, such as クオーター.

Incidentally, when the sequence {a consonant + /w/ + a vowel} in a foreign word is written in kana, it is generally splitted into two syllables as follows:

Other consonant clusters, such as /st-/, /kl-/, or /pr-/, are also splitted into two or more syllables as well when transliterated into kana (The number of syllables depends on the number of consonants in the cluster, as a vowel (usually [u], but [o] for [t][d]) is inserted after every consonant being not followed by a vowel, except nasal consonants that can be represented by ん/ン).


Church Latin kana

In the hymnbook used in the Catholic Church, there are some special kana characters.

ラ゚, レ゚, リ゚, ロ゚ and ル゚ (Katakana)

To represent the /l/ sound in the Latin language, the R column kana letters with ゜ (The handakuten diacritic) are used; such as ラ゚ for [la], レ゚ for [le], リ゚ for [li], ロ゚ for [lo] and ル゚ for [lu]. This usage was originally not only for the Church Latin. See also the Kana for foreign sounds (Not well known) section.

Small , , , , , , , , ...etc. (Katakana)

To represent a consonant sound only, small katakana letters are used:

Small Kana for Consonants (Partial)
Kana Sound Kana Sound Kana Sound
(only before [i])
t k
(only before [i])
d ɡ
m s ル゚l
*1n z ɾ~r
  • *1 Probably small is intended for "not syllabic", whereas the ordinary ン is syllabic and has one mora.

Some of old revisions of the book can be read at The National Diet Library. For eample, this is one published in 1943.

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