Japanese Hiragana “Vowels” (Pure) Sounds
About five or six years ago I decided that I was going to learn Japanese. I was in a pretty big depression at the time, one of the worst depressions I’ve ever experienced, and I needed something to exercise my brain. I was living in Handyville with Maus and my parents at the time. My mother thought Japanese was an odd choice, seeing as how Maus speaks Spanish, French, and Italian, but, I was like, well, it requires a lot of memorization and that’s what I need.
My memory at the time was pretty bad, I could barely remember recipe steps for cakes I had to bake from one side of the kitchen to the other, so I decided I’d stress my memory and help it grow a bit. I’ve also always wanted to play Japanese import video games, which of course require you to learn Japanese. I thought it’d be interesting to be able to read manga and other things in native Japanese, plus, it’d be a little bit of street-cred, you know?
I actually am not a huge fan of Japan, at least, what I mean by that is that I am not a manga or anime fanboy. I heard this term tossed out, I believe by Captain, a ‘weeaboo’? She wasn’t pointing it at any one in particular, just informing me, but I guess it’s a pejorative directed towards anime and manga fanboys. The thing is, Japan has an interesting time in other cultures. If we were to look at the anime that gets exported to the US, and then decide that we knew about Japanese culture based off the contents of those, we’d be WAAAAAY off. Japanese culture is very different from Westernized United States culture, but something about how its presented in anime and manga gets it idolized by what I call, ‘fanboys’.
An example of this, and I was susceptible to it too, was when Japanimation started gaining popularity when I was in high school (this is in the 90’s for those wondering). A lot of people, myself included, felt that the feeling we got from anime and such was the feeling of what it was like to be Japanese. Of course, with a little research and some hard looking, I gradually discovered that Japanese life is definitely not all like anime. One of my friends was on the path of total Japanese fangirl, she wanted to do voice-overs for anime’s, and I floored her one day when I asked if the implied racism in Japanese culture towards Gaijin bothered her. Well, technically I said, “Japan is one of the most racist cultures…” but the point was the same. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but there is a large undercurrent of implied racism present in codified Japanese culture.
I’ve studied more about Japan past the veil of kawaii and pop culture, and let me tell you, I’m glad I’m not Japanese. I think I would go out of my mind if I was Japanese and had to maintain and live up to the societal standards and social codes that non-anime-biased information presents. I know that you never really know what it’s like until you actually live there, but I can tell you I’m quite glad I’m American and not Japanese.
Now, I should say something here, and that is if you are really into anime and manga and Japan, that’s all well and good. If that’s your best self, then be your best self. However, I think that if you are a fan of anime and manga, and possibly Japanese culture by extension, you should definitely do Japan the respect of learning about its culture as it’s really lived day to day. It’s fascinating to learn about all the differences to our cultures, particularly the very group-oriented thinking, but you may discover that you might not want to be as Japanese as you might have thought. I’m not casting derision on manga and anime, I like some manga and anime. I’m just saying, keep an eye on being realistic before you get too gung-ho.
Anyways, to get back on track. I decided I’d learn how to (at least) read Japanese so that I could enjoy select material coming from Japan in its native contexts, as well as expand my brain. I’ve actually learned all the Hiragana, and most all of the Katakana.
The Japanese writing system is split into three parts. Two of these are syllabaries, and the last is a collection of symbols. Japanese doesn’t have an ‘alphabet’ so to speak, as it does a ‘syllabary’, or symbols associated with monosyllabic phonemes. There are two sets of symbols associated with these sounds, one called Hiragana which is used for native words, and one called Katakana which is used for borrowed words or emphasis. The third part is the Kanji, or symbols borrowed from the Chinese writing system, that make up all sort of words.
Together, Hiragana and Katakana make up the ‘kana’. I decided if I was going to learn how to (at least) read Japanese I’d start with the kana. That’s what inspired me to buy these cards from amazon (to the left). I’ve had them for years, that’s why the cover on my set doesn’t match the cover on the cards offered on amazon. They’re from the same publisher, so I would be highly surprised if they weren’t the same in spirit. To purchase these cards directly from amazon just click the image to the left. The nice thing about these flash cards is that you can use them with others and solo to practice learning your kana. I learn the best when I’m being quizzed, something about putting the knowledge in a sense of experience, so Maus quizzes (or quizzed) me over and over and over until I learned all the kana.
When I was considering how I’d make this product a part of my blog I actually was inspired by Maus quizzing me all those times that I thought what better way to demo and show the cards than my own quizzing and explaining video. These are the first videos I’ve made in this manner, and we made these in a public place (Starbucks, shocker) so the sound is wonky. But, here is the video explaining the cards, and the ‘vowel’ sounds of Japanese. Please pardon my pronunciation, I’m completely self-taught and so I probably do it a bit wrong.
So those are the cards I’m going to be using throughout this tutorial series on the Japanese writing system. I thought I’d actually put some of the content on the cards in the blog, so to more easily see what’s on the cards I’ve listed below what I went over in the video:
あ – a: “ah”
い – i: “ee”
う – u: “oo”
え – e: “eh”
お – o: “oh”
These, should be, the “order” of the Japanese ‘vowels’ as well. So, in later kana, where voiced and otherwise ‘consonants’ are added to these sounds, they are done in this order.
I was going to try to put something in this post about how to write the different kana, but I’m having a bit of trouble laying out how to do this at the moment. Expect something like that in the future though.
I decided I’d also record some video of me quizzing ‘you’ with the cards so that you could flex some or your skills as you learn the kana. This is below:
UPDATE: I added this at a later date, when I figured out how to make it work. I have found a place I can create flashcard sets and embed them on my site. It’s known as quizlet, and it’s pretty cool. Here is the Japanese pure sounds flash card quizzer:
I hope you find this helpful in learning the kana for Japanese. We’ll be moving on to the ‘k’ syllables in Hiragana in the next post