Kana and Romanization

Jack Halpern
Editor in Chief
Kanji Dictionary Publishing Society
Revised: June 17, 2001
Copyright ©1990-2001 by KDPS
Based on the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary
May not be reproduced without written permission

The Japanese writing system uses two phonetic syllabaries, called 平仮名 hiragana and 片仮名 katakana. Hiragana is used primarily to write grammatical elements and certain native Japanese words. Katakana is used mostly to write Western loan words. A brief description of kana and romanization appears below. For a detailed treatment refer to Appendix 4 of the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary.

Kana syllabary

The basic kana syllables are arranged in a table called the 五十音図 gojūonzu 'table of 50 sounds' (though it only has 48 syllables). The table of basic sounds, which consists of ten columns arranged in 5 rows, can be written in either hiragana or katakana. In the tables below, the Hepburn romanization of each syllable is given in red, followed by hiragana and katakana immediately below. In either system, the symbols represent the same sounds.

Basic Sounds
Click on the image for the sound
Click on the image for the sound

  1. The syllables し shi, ち chi, つ tsu, ふ fu, and を o are not phonetically uniform with the other symllabols in the same column.
  2. Although へ and は are normally pronounced he and ha, they are pronounced e and wa when used as particles, e.g., 彼は海へ行く is pronounced kare wa umi e iku.

Voiced Sounds

The voiceless consonants k, s, tand h are turned into the voiced sounds g, z, d and b (濁音 dakuon) by adding a diacritical mark called 濁点 dakuten or 濁り nigori (゛) to the write of the kana character. Another mark, called 半濁点 handakuten (゜), is used to right the p sound. (Phonetically, p is a voiceless consonant, but traditionally it is treated together with the b sounds.)

Voiced Sounds
Click on the image for the sound
Click on the image for the sound

Palatalized Sounds

Syllables ending in i can be followed by a small ゃ ya, ゅ yu,or ょ yo to form new combinations pronounced as a single syllable. For example, き is combined with ゃ to give きゃ kya. These contracted or palatalized sounds are called 拗音 yōon in Japanese.

Palatalized Sounds
Click on the image for the sound
Click on the image for the sound

Voiced sounds are also combined in a similar manner to form the syllables shown bellow:

Palatalized Voiced Sounds
Click on The image for the sound
Click on the image for the sound

Long Vowels

Japanese vowels are of two kinds: short vowels (短音 tan'on) and long vowels (長音 chōon). A long vowel is pronounced approximately twice as long as a short vowel. Except in katakana loanwords, sounds ending in a, i, or u are lengthened by adding the kana character for the corresponding vowel:

   か +    あ ―>    かあ    kā
   き +    い ―>    きい    kī
   く +    う ―>    くう    kū

Sounds ending in o are normally lengthened by adding the vowel う to a sound ending in o, as in こう , but in a small number of exceptions, as in おおきい (大きい) ōkii 'big', お is used instead of う for historical reasons.

Sounds ending in e are sometimes lengthened by adding え, as in ねえ , but more often by adding い , as in けい kei. The vowel of a palatalized sound is lengthened in the same way as an ordinary sound, as in きょう kyō;.

The main difference between hiragana and katakana is that in the writing katakana loan-words long vowels are indicated by adding to the previous character a dash-like symbol called the 長音符 chōonfu:

  カ +   カ―   kā
  キ +   キ―   kī
  ク +   ク―   kū
  ケ +   ケ―   kē
 コ +   コ―   kō
  ギャ +   ギャ―   gyā

Double Consonants

The consonants k, s, sh, t, ch, and p can be doubled. In katakana loan-words, other consonants , such as d and g are sometimes doubled.

Double consonants are indicated by a small っ placed before the consonants to be doubled, and by /Q/ in phonemic transcription. Both basic sounds and palatalized sounds can be doubled, as shown below.

  けっか  結果   kekka
  はっちゅう  発注   hatchū
  かっさい  喝采   kassai
  はっしゃ  発射   hassha
  けっとう  決闘   kettou
  けっきょく  結局   kekkyoku
  けっぱく  潔白   keppaku
  ベッド     beddo

A double consonant (促音 sokuon) lasts twice as long as an ordinary consonant, with a slight pause in the middle. However, in the case sh and ch, it is pronounced as shown by the romanized spellings above.

Romanization Systems

There are several systems for romanizing Japanese, the most important of which are the Hepburn system (ヘボン式 hebonshiki) and the Kunrei system (訓令式 kunreishiki). The Nippon system from the late late nineteenth century is not much used today and has been replaced by the Kunrei system.

With the rapid spread of word processors, a new "system" evolved, which for lack of a better name will be referred to as the Wāpuro system (from ワードプロセサーWādopurosesā 'word processor'). This is actually more of an input system, rather than a romanization system, and has many variants. Only the most important variants are shown here.

The romanization used in this dictionary is the widely used Hepburn system, with the slight modifications adopted in Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary.

The tables below show the main differences between the three systems. Syllables not appearing in these tables are romanized in the same way in all three systems.

Basic Sounds
Kana Hepburn Kunrei Wāpuro
   し    shi    si    shi/si
   じ     ji    zi    ji/zi
   ち    chi    ti    chi/ti
   ぢ     ji    zi      di
   つ    tsu    tu    tsu/tu
   づ     zu    zu      du
   ふ     fu    hu    fu/hu
   を     o     o      wo
   ん     n     n     n/nn

Palatalized Sounds
Kana Hepburn Kunrei Wāpuro
   しゃ    sha    sya    sha/sya
   しゅ    shu    syu    shu/syu
   しょ     sho    syo    sho/syo
   じゃ      ja    zya    ja/zya
   じゅ     ju    zyu    ju/zyu
   じょ      jo    zyo    jo/zyo
   ちゃ     cha    tya    cha/tya
   ちゅ    chu    tyu    chu/tyu
   ちょ     cho    tyo    cho/tyo
   ぢゃ      ja    zya      dya
   ぢゅ      ju    zyu      dyu
   ぢょ       jo    zyo      dyo
Long Vowels
Kana Hepburn Kunrei Wāpuro
   ああ     ā    â    aa
   いい    ii    ii    ii
   うう     ū    û    uu
   ええ     ū    ê    ee
   えい    ei   ei    ei
   おう     ō    ô    ou
   おお    ō    ô    oo
   アー     ā    â    a-
   イー    ī    î    i-
   ゥー    ū    û    u-
   エー    ē    ê    e-
   オー    ō    ô    o-