The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

Hiragana: lending a warm and fluffy titles to K-On!

A while back, I got a query at AnimeSuki wondering about whether or not K-On! the Japanese translation of an English phrase. The query was interesting enough so that I did some hunting to consider the usages of each writing system in present-day Japan, and came across a few interesting points. We recall that there are three writing systems in Japan: the hiragana and katakana scripts are purely of a Japanese origin, while kanji uses characters derived of the Chinese characters. The complexity inherent in Kanji means that following its introduction, it was only usable by individuals in the upper classes, who had the means to study the language and utilise it. Conversely, hiragana was derived off phonetic elements in kanji and proved simpler, becoming the script of choice for the masses, particularly women. Light music is written as 軽音 (Keion) in Kanji, but its complexity stands in stark contrast to the simpler kana systems. Katakana, however, was originally used as a shorthand for reading Bhuddist texts and is presently used to express foreign words that Kanji and Hiragana do not cover. The phrase “light music” can be satisfactorily expressed in Kanji, so there is no need to rewrite it using a script reserved for foreign words.

  • When I began learning Japanese, I held a distinct advantage over my classmates, having already had near-total immersion in the Chinese language previously and thus, felt completely at home with the Kanji writing system. My instructor remarked it must have been immensely difficult to use the Kanji alone, but I digress.

Hiragana has had a long history of usage and is also the most commonly used script in the Japanese language. As such, it is likely the writing system that viewers have the greatest familiarity with; at least one study has found that the Japanese prefer Hiragana over Katakana, citing the former as giving a warmer feeling to the text owing to the curving aesthetics of Hiragana characters. Because Hiragana is the first writing system Japanese children pick up, it is the one that is most familiar and thus, most friendly-looking. Hiragana is also the writing system that introductory Japanese courses teach. Contrast Keion written as (けいおん) with (ケイオン): the latter is more angular and rough, whereas the former is gentler in appearance. Incidentally, kanji is the last writing system taught, being the most complex to master (unless one had previous experience with the writing system). K-On! isn’t a complicated anime by any stretch, so using Kanji to represent the title would subtly undermine the anime’s atmospherics.

  • I do not imagine that K-On! will get further adaptations for the foreseeable future, given that the movie concluded the series in a satisfying manner. I also do not imagine that there are very many K-On! fans who have approached discussions of the series with this level of insight.

With these elements in mind, the usage of Hiragana implies that K-On! would be simple, laid-back and fun, descriptors that rather fit what we see nicely. Indeed, K-On! is a simple, heartwarming anime about a group of high school girls and their halcyon life as high school students and lacks complexity. We note that two other KyoAni productions, Lucky Star (らき☆すた) and Tamako Market (たまこまーけっと), have Hiragana titles. The former has English origins and could have been expressed in Katakana, while the latter could substitute Katakana for the “Market” phrase. Of course, the fact that both shows are light-hearted, cheerful and relaxed (similar to K-On!), means that the respective shows’ titles can’t be mere coincidence: they were doubtlessly chosen to reflect on their atmospherics.

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