Beauty of Hiragana (ひらがな): The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Script and Its Rich History


Hello! Today, we’ll delve into the fascinating history of one of the three main writing systems in Japanese: Hiragana. Widely used in daily life, Hiragana is a soft and beautiful script with a long and interesting history.

Ancient Writing Systems

The Introduction and Early Use of Kanji

Kanji, the characters borrowed from Chinese, were introduced to Japan around the 4th to 5th centuries. Initially, Kanji was used as ideograms, where each character represented a specific meaning. While effective for conveying ideas, Kanji was not well-suited to express the grammatical structure and sounds of the Japanese language.

The Emergence of Man’yōgana

The Mechanism of Man’yōgana

In the 7th to 8th centuries, the Japanese developed a method to represent Japanese sounds using the phonetic readings of Kanji, known as Man’yōgana. For example, the Kanji “安” was used to represent the sound “a,” “以” for “i,” and “宇” for “u.”

Examples of Man’yōgana Usage

Man’yōgana is prominently seen in the “Man’yōshū,” an anthology of Japanese poetry compiled in the 8th century, containing about 4,500 poems. The anthology is significant as it shows the early use of Kanji to represent Japanese phonetics.

The Birth of Hiragana

Aristocratic Culture of the Heian Period

By the 9th century, during the Heian period, the Japanese aristocracy began to simplify Man’yōgana for ease of writing. This simplification process led to the creation of Hiragana. For instance, “安” was simplified to “あ” (a), “以” to “い” (i), and “宇” to “う” (u).

The Spread of Hiragana Through Women’s Literature

Women played a crucial role in the development of Hiragana. Prominent Heian-period works, such as Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” and Sei Shōnagon’s “The Pillow Book,” heavily utilized Hiragana. Consequently, Hiragana was also known as “onnade” (women’s hand) and became widely used in personal letters and literary works.

The Establishment of Hiragana

Development from the Kamakura to the Edo Period

During the Kamakura period (late 12th to 14th centuries), Hiragana continued to gain popularity, with documents combining Kanji and Hiragana becoming more common.

Advancements in Education and Printing

The Edo period (17th to 19th centuries) saw significant advancements in education, with the establishment of “terakoya” (temple schools) where commoners learned to read and write Hiragana. The development of printing technology also led to the widespread distribution of books and picture books using Hiragana, further embedding it in everyday life.

Modern Hiragana

Role in School Education

In contemporary Japan, Hiragana is taught as the foundation of literacy in elementary schools. Children first learn Hiragana, followed by Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana, being a syllabary, is easier to learn as each character represents a syllable, aiding in learning pronunciation and writing.

Importance for Foreign Learners

For foreigners learning Japanese, Hiragana is the first writing system to master. It forms the basis of basic reading and writing skills and is crucial for understanding Japanese phonetics, making it an essential step before learning Katakana and Kanji.

Hiragana in the Digital Age

Even in the digital age, Hiragana plays a vital role. When inputting Japanese on computers and smartphones, users typically type in Hiragana before converting to Kanji. This process underscores Hiragana’s foundational role in digital communication.


The evolution of Hiragana is a testament to the richness of Japanese culture and history. From its origins in Kanji and Man’yōgana, through its establishment in the Heian period, to its present-day use, Hiragana embodies the beauty and functionality of the Japanese language. As a crucial part of Japanese writing, Hiragana will continue to be an integral part of Japanese literacy.

Enjoy the beauty of Hiragana and appreciate its historical journey the next time you write or read these lovely characters.