About Japanese Phonetic Symbols

Strictly speaking Japanese phonetic symbols are not an alphabet, but a syllabary. Each symbol represents a syllable, even the (-n/ン/ん) sounds counts as one beat in poetry. These symbols were derived from kanji, and called kana, meaning "false names," because they were written not to represent a meaning, as all chinese characters posess, but rather for their sound. With the exception of me/メ/め, mi/ミ/み, and to/ト/とwhich are derived from native Japanese readings (kun-yomi), these kana were pronounced with the first consonant and vowel of their Chinese-derived (on-yomi) readings.

At first, these kana were simply fully-formed kanji written smaller to indicate that they were kana. In time, they were abbreviated into the forms that we have today. the wi and we forms were eliminated and merged with the i and e forms as part of post-war writing reform, but are still found in old books, and some signage.

Learning the hiragana and katakana origins will help you learn to write some place names. Nara 奈良, near Kyoto is an example of a place name derived from kana.

More on Hiragana and Katakana.

Origins of the Katakana Syllabary

  H/F - N


Origins of the Hiragana Syllabary

  H/F - N