How to write hiragana stroke ends

For a first post, what better theme than hiragana?

When I learned kana, I didn’t learn the different ways the strokes end. In regular brush calligraphy, there are three fundamental ways to finish a hiragana stroke:

  • To stop (止める) the brush for a moment, making for a blunt, rounded terminator;
  • To sweep (払う) or “release” the brush, lifting it progressively, making a sharp point; and
  • To return (かえる) or jump (はねる), a combination of both movements, first pausing and then lifting firmly, changing the direction to the next stroke. This movement produces a “hook” or “barb” (はね)。
け character example
“Ke” is a character that illustrates return, stop, and sweep. This illustration is from a typographical font imitating regular (kaisho) calligraphy.
に character examples
The stop in kana is subtler than the diamond brush-shape that ends horizontal kanji strokes in kaisho style. But it’s still noticeable.

The thing is, these differences become very subtle, or even unnoticeable, when writing with pencil or ballpoint pens—the most common instruments when learning to write kana. In Japan children are taught to press and release a (non-mechanical) pencil as appropriate, but foreign Japanese schools (and websites) often omit that step.

This is a bad thing if you ever decide to try a brush—or a rollerball, gel or fountain pen, or even blackboard chalk. The wrong stroke ends will show, and will make the character feel weird (that’s part of what produces the typical “gajin’s hand” look). There’s some degree of acceptable variation, especially between stops and hooks; but more or less everyone always release the same strokes. This is not just a matter of æsthetics; the proper strokes are part of the identity of hiragana characters. (Hiragana is funny because it’s a fossilized set of symbols coming originally from the very free cursive script.)

illustration of hiragana variations
Stops and returns are interchangeable in some cases. The hooks make the flow more obvious and the characters feel more “calligraphic”. The sweeps are comparatively more consistent.

Calligraphy is not just about images, it’s about manual gestures (this is true of European calligraphy too, if you go back far enough; cf. Latin ductus). The range of variation allowed is not determined by the appearance of the finished figure, but rather by whether it follows the appropriate gestures. Anthropologist Tim Ingold has compared it to dancing. And unlearning the wrong dance moves is harder than simply learning the proper ones from the start.

Fortunately, fixing your stroke ends is not that difficult. I like using gel-based rollerball pens, as a compromise between inkiness and convenience, or fudepen when feeling fancy. After choosing a writing implement that allows you to feel a difference between stops and sweeps, just find any reliable hiragana model and practice paying attention to the endpoints. For convenience, here’s a color-coded chart, made with the Epson Kyōkasho-tai M font (Kyōkasho fonts, though typographic, are designed for school use and are appropriate as models for handwriting).

Disclaimer: This post wasn’t fact-checked by a shodō teacher or anything. Caveat emptor. Corrections welcomed.

4 thoughts on “How to write hiragana stroke ends

  1. I found this to be a useful article being that I am trying to learn the Japanese language which is hard enough but writing it is even harder as I find that an England we usually keep one pressure on our writing instruments and form letters. We are not taught release methods for forming words or letters.

    What I would find useful is a lesson on the release side of writing Hiragana so that I can form these Japanese symbols more successfully and feel comfortable writing them the same way that I would write English.

  2. Thanks, Francis! Perhaps you could try to find a shodō (Japanese calligraphy) teacher in your area. They’ll instruct you on how to move a brush to create the strokes, and the skill transfers easily to the pen or pencil. The basics aren’t hard to acquire!

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