I understand these character similarities might be arbitrary, like M and W being flipped. But it's tripping me up enough times that I thought if I knew a reason, perhaps it would help me memorize these characters.

ち (chi), き (ki), and さ (sa) are also similar, but they are actually different. Though I think I would have preferred ち (*sa), き (ki), and さ (*chi) so the direction of the 5 would characterize the "i" sound. Sadly, it isn't consistent. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So, is ま (ma) related to ほ (ho) or よ(yo) related to は (ha)? It seems the bar means the "h" consonant but the musical note does not vocalize consistently (it either means ("a" or "o") or ("m" or "y") by itself).

2 Answers 2


Apart from the diacritic-derived characters, hiragana (and kana in general) should be seen as non-reduceable graphical units. They are not derived from simpler functional units. Their formation is based on the principle of graphical abbreviation from more complex characters, and in hiragana's case, the inspiration behind the shapes is cursive script.

In a similar manner, Latin alphabet letters are not made from structurally simpler functional elements; "t" is not derived from "l" with the addition of a horizontal line, "d" is not the merger between "c" and "l", "n" is not an upside-down "u", etc.

This means that you shouldn't try to break hiragana into components or strokes and try to deduce if there is some sort of logic across hiragana characters which relates to the spoken language. There simply isn't.

  • Why does き appear to be さ with a line added? Because the cursive abbreviation of [機]{き}, with most of the left hand side cut out, turns out to appear similar to the cursive abbreviation of [左]{さ} but with an extra line. 機 is not related to 左 in any sense, apart from the fact that they may look similar if someone writes in a quick scrawl.

    enter image description here

  • ほ is the cursive abbreviation of 保, and は is the cursive abbreviation of 波. Notice how 亻 and 氵 are both reduced to an identical vertical stroke in ほ and は.

    enter image description here

Images taken from the Wikipedia hiragana chart.

  • I have a problem with this. The letters b, d, p, g, and q are derived from simplified glyphs, but the simplified shapes do follow a pattern. That is sometimes used to teach the handwriting of all these shapes at the same time. And the same goes for n , m, and h or t, l, k. Do Japanese children learn to write the similar shapes in school?
    – BSD
    Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 13:25

The mighty dROOOze's answer covers the bases. I just wanted to counter with a similar question -- is b related to d related to p? :)

Ultimately, the shapes come from unrelated glyphs (character shapes). The ancient origins of both the Latin alphabet letters and the Japanese kana characters were glyphs with meaning to them (hieroglyphs underlie Latin letter shapes, and kanji underlie Japanese kana shapes), but the current letters and kana are just abstract symbols, representing sound and nothing more.

  • 8
    You flatter me! I remember countering with a similar answer to a question on Chinese SE, someone asked if 大 was related to 犬. and I asked them back if E was related to F.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 4:25
  • 2
    @dROOOze: I don't know if that's a fair comparison, though. Sure, the kana come from abbreviating kanji, but kanji are pictographs inspired by real-world objects. So thinking that 犬 may be related to 大 (whether they are or not, I don't know) is a more fair assumption that assuming E is related to F.
    – istrasci
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 14:57
  • 4
    @istrasci latin alphabet letters were also originally pictographs inspired by real-world objects! but I agree, and the point wasn't to say that such a comparison is ridiculous, but to emphasise that to really find out if there is or isn't a relationship, you have to do a lot of digging; superficial similarities don't cut it. For example, the letters "C" and "G" are related, but the similarities between C and G are less than between lower case L and upper case i, which aren't related. Oh, and 犬 is not related to 大 :)
    – dROOOze
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 15:10
  • 3
    @istrasci, as dROOOze says, the Latin letters trace back to Egyptian hierogrlyphs, where the symbols were essentially like kanji. Capital B, for instance, evolved originally from a box-like glyph that meant "house", a word that is ultimately cognate with modern Hebrew בַּיִת (báyit), Arabic بَيْت‎ (bayt), and Ge'ez and Amharic ቤት (bet) -- which even today start with that same //b// sound. Likewise, M came from a glyph for "water", aligning with Arabic مَا (), Hebrew מָה‎ (ma), Ge'ez ማይ (māy), all starting with //m//. Etc. See the Wikipedia pages for each individual letter. Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 16:29

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