Hiragana is used to spell words of Japanese origin. Although verb roots are usually written in kanji, the verb conjugations are written in hiragana, and so are polite forms, greetings, and particles: hiragana is the glue that connects the ideas expressed in the kanjis.
Learning the kanas is not difficult; Japanese children learn to read and write both hiragana and katakana in 1st grade (6-year olds), with time to spare to learn 80 kanjis. Learning the kanas is probably the biggest bang for the buck when learning Japanese: we can learn them with 1/100th of the effort needed to learn a small number of kanjis, and they immediately give us the possibility of writing anything in Japanese, and reading about 50% of it; in addition, a lot of Japanese text aimed to young people uses kanjis with ‘furiganas’, i.e., a small text in hiragana next to the kanji that describes how it sounds.
Furiganas are common in mangas because many are aimed to a young population that has yet to master kanjis. For example, every character in the following panel is either in hiragana or kanji, and each kanji has its corresponding hiragana-reading (i.e., its ‘furigana’) on its right so, in essence, we can read all the text using hiragana alone:
Knowing kanas allow us to ‘read’ many mangas but this does not mean that we’ll ‘understand’ them since, after all, they are in Japanese. Still, learning the kanas is a basic and huge step towards learning Japanese, and its really time well spent.
The kanas have a set of ‘core’ characters that provides the basic sounds. We can follow some of these characters with a small ‘ya’ (や), ‘yu’ (ゆ), or ‘yo'(よ), to obtain new sounds, e.g., the character ‘ha’ (は) combined with a small version of ‘ya’ sounds ‘hya’ (ひゃ).
- Japanese has the sounds し (shi), ち (chi), and つ (tsu), instead of ‘si’, ‘ti’ and ‘tu’, which it doesn’t have
- は, へ, and を are pronounced ‘wa’, ‘e’, and ‘o’, when used as particles (see pronunciation)
- ふ is usually written as the sound ‘fu’, but its actually closer to ‘hu’ or to the English word who (see pronunciation)
- A character followed with the small ‘ya’, ‘yu’ or ‘yo’ is considered a single syllable, and is pronounced in one ‘beat’, e.g., ひゃく (hyaku – hundred) is pronounced ‘hya-ku’, not ‘hy-a-ku’
ten-ten (“) and maru (°)
To allow more sounds, we can mark some characters with double quotes (“, a.k.a. ten-ten) or with a circle (°, a.k.a. maru):
- We can write ‘ji’ as either じ or ぢ, but, in practice, ぢ is seldom used
- We can write ‘zu’ as either ず or つ” but, in practice, つ” is seldom used
- ‘za + ya’ (じゃ) is ‘ja’, not ‘zya’
- ‘zu + yu’ (じゅ) is ‘ju’, not ‘zyu’
- ‘zo + yo’ (じょ) is ‘jo’, not ‘zyo’
The issue of having both じ and ぢ sound ‘ji’ seems an arbitrary complication, and it is, but many languages, and in particular, English, have the same issue: should we write ‘can’ or ‘kan’? Both sound the same, and the correct spelling is decided only by what is, by convention, accepted as the correct spelling of the word.
And that is all there is to hiragana. Now some practice: