Although Hiragana is phonetic, it is used mainly for representing words native to Japanese (such as "ねこ" ("neko"), which means cat) or borrowed centuries ago from Chinese (such as "めん" ("men"), which means noodles). It is also used for particles and verb endings. To write foreign or onomatopaeic words, katakana is used. However, to give a "cute" appearance, hiragana is very often used in place of katakana. It is made of 46 characters, which consist mostly of vowels and vowel-consonant combinations such as "ka" or "hi", but include one symbol for a lone consonant, which sounds like English "m" or "n"*. Two diacritics plus the use of digraphs greatly increase the number of possible sounds.
Hiragana formed from the practice which developed in the 8th century CE of using Chinese characters exclusively for their phonetic meanings. Literature was transcribed using a reduced set of characters. Eventually, the symbols were simplified, and the set reduced. The result was Hiragana.
Hiragana was not accepted by everyone. Many felt that the language of the educated was still Chinese. However it gained in popularity among women as they were not allowed higher education. Eventually, it became used by everyone.
The presence of hiragana characters is usually sufficient to identify a text as Japanese. However, not all Japanese text uses hiragana, and one Japanese word in some Chinese text would be enough to throw off a person using this rule.
If you have a font including Japanese characters, you can view the following hiragana chart:
(Vowels are pronounced as in Spanish)
|base Kana||extended with diacritics|
* This "n" is the nasal syllable of Japanese.
** There are two symbols for "ji" and two symbols for "zu". Since the author is a terrible speller in Japanese, he cannot help you further here. But suffice it to say that the two are generally NOT interchangeable. The more common variants are じ for "ji"; and ず for "zu".
If you want to get more sounds out of these kana, try this: These three kana, ゃ, ゅ, and ょ, are respectively, small "ya", small "yu", and small "yo". Combine them with any of the kana ki, shi, chi, ni, etc., to get special sounds. Examples: ki + small ya = kya (きゃ), shi + small yo = sho (しょ)
NOTE: If trying to write a Japanese name into kana, remember that you need the original Japanese writing or pronunciation, not an anglicization. English romanization of names are often technically incorrect, or sometimes in the less common Kunrei romanization (as opposed to hepburn.) For instance, a man may be named Keiichiro (Kunrei anglicized version), but in kana it is けいいちろう (ke-i-i-chi-ro-u). In Kunrei romanization, "o" can be the sound "oh" as written in english, or the elongation, "ohh". Hepburn romanization avoids this by simply writing "ou" for the elongated "o" sound.