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Origin of the Kana

Prior to the development of the phonetic kana alphabets Japanese was written exclusively with Kanji. When someone wanted to write something out phonetically they would use some of the more common Kanji that happened to have the correct sound. Around the 5th century several different systems developed to map a single Kanji to a specific syllable. Two of these systems survive to this day in simplified form as Hiragana and Katakana.

Similar Kana from the same Kanji
In some cases both systems used the same parts of the same Kanji to represent the same syllable and as a result the Hiragana and Katakana are similar. Examples of this are "Ka" where the Hiragana か and Katakana カ are both derived from the Kanji 加. Another example is "Ki" where the Hiragana きand the Katakana キ come from the Kanji 機. Notice how in general the Katakana are blocky compared to the more cursive Hiragana.



Dissimilar Kana from the same Kanji
In some cases both systems used the same Kanji for the same sounds but the resulting stylizations are completely different. An example of this is "Ro" where the Hiragana ろ and the Katakana ロ both come from the Kanji 呂. The Hiragana is a cursive representation of the entire Kanji whereas the Katakana is a blocky version of just the top half.



Kana from different Kanji
Finally for some syllables the Hiragana and Katakana are derived from completely different Kanji. For example the Hiragana for "A" is あ which is derived from the Kanji 安. But the Katakana for "A" is ア which is derived from the Kanji 阿.