Furigana (振り仮名): A guide to reading hints in Japanese.

By | January 27, 2020

The longer you study something, the easier it is to forget things you learned when you first started studying. You can look at this in terms of loosing the “beginners mind” as you progress (that reminds me of a good book on Zen Buddhism here). As a learner, this isn’t a big deal since if you stay fixed on every little detail that you have learned you’ll have trouble moving forward. But as a teacher, being unable to put yourself in the shoes of a beginner makes it harder to understand their challenges, and harder to teach them effectively.

The other day I was thinking about something when it suddenly dawned on me that I haven’t written a focused article on Japanese furigana, a particularly important part of the language for beginner and intermediate students. So I’d like to do that here.

Furigana––often written in kanji as 振り仮名, but also in hiragana as ふりがな, or in katakana as フリガナ––are reading hints that tell you about the pronunciation of a word or phrase in Japanese. Furigana is sometimes called “ruby” (ルビー), a term that derives from the size of a font once used in printed type.

For Japanese text that runs horizontally, the furigana is often above the word of phrase, though it can be below. For text that runs vertically, the furigana is generally on the left or the right. Unfortunately, representing furigana in the digital world can be tricky, and I don’t know of a good way to encode any of that type of layout in a way that is compatible across many different platforms and programs. (For a related article on how to remove furigana from a portion of text, see this.)

Because of the formatting issues, and how dealing with images can be cumbersome, in this post I will be simply putting furigana in brackets to the right of the word. For example:

  • 僕は亀[かめ]が好きです。

The part in bold above is the furigana, and tells us the kanji 亀 is read かめ (kame). If we happen to know かめ means “turtle”, that’s great, but if not we can still look up かめ easily in any dictionary.

This covers the most basic use of furigana, but there are some other inns and outs that I’d like to talk about.

First of all, when you have a verb, the furigana generally just covers the stem (left part) of the verb. The right part doesn’t require furigana since it is already in hiragana. (By the way, the right part of a verb is called 送り仮名, “okurigana”).

  • マネージャは怠[おこた]ってる.

While by far the most common use of furigana is to describe how to read a single kanji or a compound of kanji characters, you can even find furigana used for katakana in children’s books. The reason is that the children may have only learned hiragana at that point in their education. For example,

  • うしはモウ[もう]といいました。

Kids books generally have furigana all over the place. In fact, often every kanji in a book targeting younger children will have furigana on it. This is good for students who are still struggling to learn the basic Joyo (standard) kanji.

Speaking of children’s books, one thing you will see in textbooks targeting a certain grade level is they will replace kanji the student doesn’t know with hiragana instead of using furigana. For example,

  • せん生は、はいといいました。

Personally, I find this a bit annoying and feel that both せんせい or 先生 are easier to understand, but I acknowledge the reasoning behind it.

Furigana can also be used to explain not just the pronunciation, but also the meaning of a word or phrase. One example is to explain the meaning of a foreign word, as in:

  • トラップ[わな]をかける。

I remember seeing an example like the above on a Japanese Pokemon card very long ago, but I might be mixing things up. It might have actually been like this:

  • わな[トラップ]をかける。

Here’s another example explaining a word from another language that the average Japanese person may not know:

  • ボンジュール [こんにちは]!

There are also less common ways to use furigana that you are bound to find if you do enough reading, like using kanji in the furigana––something I did in the image for this post for effect––or taking a single word and breaking it out into a whole long phrase in the furigana. You can sometimes even find romaji used in the furigana, or the word the furigana is describing. Authors can sometimes use furigana in creative ways, putting it where it doesn’t technically belong, for example:

  • おい、そこの君[ばか]

Here, while 君 would typically be read きみ, the author chose to use ばか (idiot) instead, possibly to emphasize the condescending tone of the speaker towards the other person. While I haven’t seen this exact example before, I have seen similar usage once in a while.

One important thing to know about furigana is that generally the “small” fonts are not properly represented. This might be because furigana is already generally small, and making it even smaller would hurt readability, or perhaps it is due to limitations in printing or operating systems. Regardless, this means you will often see things represented like this:

  • 劣化[れつか]ウラン

Here, the reading for 劣化 is actually れっか (rekka), but because of the limitation I just mentioned it may look like れつか. Fortunately, the small “tsu” is often represented in hiragana at the end of verbs (買った), or in the middle of other words (突っ込む), so this doesn’t happen too often.

Ultimately, the usage of furigana is up to the author, editor, and publisher. Adding furigana to a word can give a certain nuance to the text; putting furigana for words that high schoolers should know in an adult-targeted book would be a bit unusual. On the other hand, a story with an abundance of difficult kanji without readings can frustrate or alienate the reader. One area you are more likely to see furigana is first and last names, because names can contain unusual kanji and there can be various readings for one kanji or set of kanji. But usually furigana is only used for the first instance of a word, not for subsequence instances. (This gives you incentive to remember the furigana when you first come across it, to avoid having to come back to that page in the future.)

Despite how hard the content creators try, it’s impossible to get things perfect because every reader has different strengths and weaknesses with respect to kanji. I’ve read several books where I was surprised that “obvious” kanji had furigana, and (what I felt was) rare kanji did not.

If you look at older Japanese texts, for example those on Aozora Bunko that can be over 100+ years old, you’ll find even more inconsistent usage. I’ve seen stories with very difficult kanji (those not listed in several dictionaries) lacking even a single piece of furigana, and stories where practically every word has furigana on it.

Regarding the origin of the word “furigana”, the “kana” (仮名) part means katakana and furigana, and the “furi” part comes from the verb 振る (furu), which has a few meanings including “to shake”, ” to allot”, or “to sprinkle”. You can use also this verb to talk about furigana being written next to something. For example,

  • その言葉には振り仮名がふってあるでしょう?
  • That word has furigana on it, right?

(For details on the “~te aru” form, see this article)

Fortunately, most beginning or intermediate students of Japanese will only need to know how to read furigana, which is pretty straightforward. Although choosing when to use furigana (and what furigana to use) can be pretty tricky, you won’t need it when writing emails, chatting, or even for many documents. You’ll primarily need it when working on printed media, where kanji lookup can be difficult. For content like internet pages, not only is furigana hard to represent neatly, but words are also easy to look up via cut and paste.

If you do need to make a document with cleanly-formatted furigana, one application that has basic furigana support is Microsoft Word. Simply select the text you want to add furigana to and click on the “Phonetic Guide” icon, near the font size setting on the top left. That is what I used to create the featured image for this post with.

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