The Importance of Hiragana
Hiragana stands out in Japanese text because it is written with far fewer strokes than kanji and yet more curving than katakana. Each symbol represents either a pure vowel sound or a vowel combined with a consonant (with the exception of n, the only single consonant sound in the Japanese language). There are 46 hiragana symbols, all derived from kanji. Two short lines or a circle added to some of the symbols either harden or soften the sound it makes.
Hiragana was first developed during the eighth century to provide a phonetic way of reading Chinese characters. Buddhist scholars initially scorned it, convinced that kanji was the language of the elite. Women, however, were excluded from the study of kanji, so they jumped at the chance to learn hiragana. With this simple phonetic writing system, Lady Murasaki Shikibu was able to record the famous story The Tale of Genji during the Heian Era (795–1192).
Hiragana is also valuable because it provides a way to write down verb endings and modify many other parts of speech — adjectives, adverbs, and nouns. All prepositions and particles, including the subject identifier wa are written in hiragana. Without hiragana, written Japanese would not make any sense.
Japan boasts a literacy rate of nearly 99 percent. Some who have investigated this claim believe it is due, in part, to the presence of hiragana. Without it, people would be forced to memorize and remember the thousands of kanji characters used in newspapers and other publications.