Written Japanese consists of a mixture of Chinese characters (漢字, kanji) adopted before Japan had a native writing system, and two purely phonetic syllabaries (仮名, kana) that were developed later. These two syllabaries are the cursive style 平仮名 (Hiragana) and the more angular style 片仮名 (Katakana).

The Base Syllables

Following is a chart of the base Hiragana syllables, known as 五十音 (gojūon):

a i u e o
ka ki ku ke ko
sa shi su se so
ta chi tsu te to
na ni nu ne no
ha hi fu he ho
ma mi mu me mo
ya     yu     yo
ra ri ru re ro
wa     n     (w)o

A few things to note:

  1. When は is used as a particle of speech it is pronounced "wa" not "ha."
  2. When へ is used as a particle of speech it is pronounced "e" not "he."
  3. を is always used as a particle of speech and is pronounced "o."
  4. ん is the only character that represents a consonant sound without a vowel. It never appears at the beginning of a word.

Voiced Syllables

You can represent voiced sounds by marking unvoiced syllables with these diacritics, known as 濁点 (dakuten) and 半濁点 (handakuten):

濁点  ⇒  For k, s, t and h initial syllables.
半濁点 ⇒  For h initial syllables only.
ga gi gu ge go
za ji zu ze zo
da ji zu de do
ba bi bu be bo
pa pi pu pe po

Diphthong Syllables

Finally the following diphthong sounds, known as 拗音 (yōon) are composed of the consonant plus い syllables plus subscript や, ゆ or よ.

きゃ kya きゅ kyu きょ kyo
ぎゃ gya ぎゅ gyu ぎょ gyo
しゃ sha しゅ shu しょ sho
じゃ ja じゅ ju じょ jo
ちゃ cha ちゅ chu ちょ cho
ぢゃ dja ぢゅ dju ぢょ djo
みゃ mya みゅ myu みょ myo
りゃ rya りゅ ryu りょ ryo
ひゃ hya ひゅ hyu ひょ hyo
びゃ bya びゅ byu びょ byo
ぴゃ pya ぴゅ pyu ぴょ pyo
にゃ nya にゅ nyu にょ nyo

Hiragana and Katakana

The Katakana syllabary corresponds directly to Hiragana but they have different usages:

平仮名: Used for particles, conjugations and some uniquely Japanese words.
片仮名: Used for foreign loan words, foreign names and most onomatopoei.
平仮名
片仮名

The charts above are displayed in san-serif font. To view them in serif font click here. (please note that if you are on a mobile device or tablet you will likely see no change. Asian language font-packs are large, so such devices are usually limited to one font only, usually san-serif).

Some Final Points

Long vowels, or 長音 (chōon) are achieved by adding a vowel kana that matches the vowel sound of the preceeding syllable in Hiragana and ー when using Katakana like so:

くき (茎, stem) ⇒ くうき (空気, air)
ビル (building) ⇒ ビール (beer)

Long vowel "o" is sometimes represented by adding お after the o-initial syllable, but more often by adding う:

とい (樋, trough) ⇒ とおい (遠い, far)
どろ (泥, mud) ⇒ どうろ (道路, road)

To make a double consonant use the 促音 (sokuon) っ when using Hiragana and ッ when using Katakana like so:

かこ (過去, past) ⇒ かっこ (括弧, brackets)
バター (butter) ⇒ バッター (batter)

Some loan words that use sounds not normally found in the Japanese language such as the "tee" sound in "party" are accommodated in Katakana using subscript vowels:

ティ = "tee" as in パーティー (party)
トゥ = "too" as in トゥーム (tomb)

Very rarely you may find the foreign sound "v" represented in Katakana by ウ plus ゙ and a subscript vowel. However most loan words that use the "v" sound are represented by and pronounced using the "b" sound in Japanese:

ヴィタミン ⇒ ビタミン (Vitamin)
ヴィーナス ⇒ ビーナス (Venus)