Hiragana (平仮名) and katakana (片仮名) – sometimes collectively referred to as kana – are the two Japanese syllabaries. The word syllabary, however, can be confusing for English speakers. In the kana, each character represents one mora, which is a bit different than the English syllable. To put it simply, each kana character requires the same amount of time to speak. The kana each consist of 46 basic characters which, along with a few modifications, can represent all of the sounds in spoken Japanese. Both hiragana and katakana were originally derived from kanji characters.

Hiragana is the first writing system learned by Japanese children, and thus is often the recommended system for non-Japanese to learn first, as well. Although Japanese can be written completely in hiragana alone, this is rarely done outside of children’s books or learning texts. Hiragana has a few primary uses. Okurigana (送り仮名) is the hiragana that follows kanji stems, generally used to inflect adjectives and verbs. Furigana (振り仮名) are small hiragana characters placed either above kanji in horizontal writing, or to the right of kanji in vertical writing to provide the reading of the kanji. Hiragana is also used for particles, words that have no kanji, and for words that have kanji but are more often written without it.

Katakana may not be used as extensively as hiragana, but it provides an interesting advantage to English speakers. Gairaigo (外来語), or borrowed words, are primarily written in katakana. When an English speaker learns katakana, they will not only be able to read the sounds of a borrowed word, but will many times understand the meaning as well. While hiragana is fluid with plenty of curves, katakana is distinct and angular. Because of this, katakana is sometimes used to emphasize words that would normally be written in kanji or hiragana. Onomatopoeia and technical or scientific terms are also often written in katakana.