I already know hiragana and I am teaching myself katakana now. Both are essentially two different versions of each sound, but I am wondering if there are actually any functional differences between the two. I know what each is used for (mainly native vs. foreign words, plus others) and I obviously know they (mostly) look different.

My question is if any individual katakana are used differently than hiragana, for example differences in pronunciation, characters that aren't really used, or ones that act differently in certain scenarios. A list of any such differences would be useful to refer to as to learn them properly and avoid making incorrect assumptions based on my knowledge of hiragana.

This question can work both ways, also asking for any differences in hiragana from katakana.

  • As far as I know, katakana cannot be particles. If so, "ハ" can only be pronounced "ha",(while "は" can be "ha" or "wa"). Katakana / hiragana don't always "obviously look different" in some fonts / handwriting: リ、へ、...
    – davewp
    Apr 1, 2014 at 16:28
  • 6
    @kinyo It might be more accurate to say "particles are almost always written in hiragana". It's not true that they're never written in katakana.
    – user1478
    Apr 1, 2014 at 17:14
  • 2
    @kinyo: Katakana used to be used for particles before the reform that happened just after the war. Apr 2, 2014 at 4:11

1 Answer 1


There are no character-level differences. Hiragana and katakana are, for all intents and purposes, the same, differing only in how they are used with regard to the broader idea of choice of system. You say you know what each is used for, so that's the key distinction you need to focus on.

I think one thing we might be able to mention is elongated vowels. Where in hiragana you would write ああ・いい・うう・えい・おう in katakana you would usually write アー・イー・ウー・エー・オー respectively. Note though that for certain effects or spelling sounds that aren't in words, like a scream or a sigh or something, you may very well see ー used with hiragana.

Another aspect that we might be able to say fits the question's criteria is that katakana is often used to represent foreign pronunciation or otherwise weird ways of talking. There isn't a standard, though, and it's more the choice of katakana in itself that acts as a kind of visual metaphor for different pronunciation. The characters themselves would not indicate any specific change in pronunciation, though, so I don't think we can say this is an example of katakana being pronounced differently as much as it is the form that suggests it, if that makes sense. Maybe compare it to some angular robot-looking font in English being used for robot speech. You wouldn't look at a word written for robots and say it's pronounced differently.

Some characters in katakana simply aren't seen very much because of how katakana is usually used. For example, grammatical bits are usually written in hiragana, so it's pretty rare to see ヲ in katakana (since を is nearly always used as a particle). But still you do see it from time to time and it's not worth writing it off either.

Similarly, small kana that's used to approximate foreign sounds that aren't in Japanese usually aren't written in hiragana, so you don't see that much unless it's intentional. For example, ふぁ ふぃ ふぇ, etc. In most real applications these sounds/kana combinations would be in katakana. As is the pattern, though, you will see both.

Katakana and hiragana are a one-to-one mapping. Like different fonts, basically: they're the same, but they're used in different situations. Most distinctions that you make will fall into the "usually but not always" category anyway. Focus on the more meta idea of what the choice of system in itself means and not so much on specific character level differences.

  • Another one that might come close to what they're looking for is the extended use of 濁点 by Katakana to write foreign words, as in :japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/15119/… . I guess theoretically Hiragana could take them as well, however, and in that case one would expect to be producing the same sound.
    – Kaji
    Apr 1, 2014 at 23:37
  • 2
    Exactly. There are times where it's almost always written one way or another, but it's a matter of convention and not a specific property of the writing system.
    – ssb
    Apr 1, 2014 at 23:44
  • One other time you see ー with hiragana is when typing, briefly, before the IME converts the hiragana to katakana. Apr 2, 2014 at 4:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .