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Furigana - What Is it - The Many Ways It's Used

Friday, November 11, 2016
Has someone ever told you to read manga with furigana 振り仮名 but now you're in trouble because you still don't know what furigana means? Is furigana like hiragana or katakana or something? Nope? Then what is furigana?

(category: The Japanese Writing System)

Well, basically, in the meaning which you probably are talking about, the furigana is often hiragana or katakana written in a smaller font beside a kanji in a text, showing how it's read.

A diagram of what is furigana, showing hiragana readings on kanji

Why Furigana Exists

If you don't know it yet, in the Japanese alphabets, you always know how to read a letter from hiragana or katakana, because the pronunciation of a kana is always the same. A single kanji, however, may have multiple different readings, so you can never be too sure.

The furigana can be a way to show the correct reading of a kanji in a word, and this can be for various reasons.

Ignorant Young Readers

First off, the main reason furigana is used is when the writer assumes the reader doesn't know how to read... the kanji. They can read the hiragana and katakana, but not all the kanji.

This is specially true when it's a work targeted at children, as they can't be assumed to know enough kanji until they finish high-school. So you'll see that in most shounen and shoujo manga there is an absurd amount of furigana written beside each and every kanji. (think of it, they wrote the whole text twice!)

Example of furigana in manga Yotsubato! よつばと! readings written beside the kanji for children to understand the text

As you can see above, manga full of furigana,  such as Yotsubato! よつばと!, are great for people learning Japanese, since they contain the readings of practically all the kanji, so even if you don't know a word, you'll know how to read it, which is half-way there.

(there's a list of manga that have furigana in case you need to know which manga you should try to read)

Unusual Words

Another case for furigana usage is when a word is considered unusual or rare and the reader can't be assumed to know how to read it. This sounds exactly like what happens with children, except now we're talking about works targeted at teens and older audiences.

You'll see that the older the audience is assumed to be, the fewer furigana there are. Someone in their teens can be assumed to know how to read the word "rice," kome 米, so we won't be wasting ink writing its furigana every time. This way, common, everyday words may not have furigana at all in works targeted at teens.

For works targeted at adults the same thing happens. You'll be assumed to know to read more complex words and only those extremely rare words which you have found maybe 3 times the whole year will still have furigana.

Words Often Written With Kana

Contradicting the above, there are cases some very common, basic words will have furigana alongside their kanji. This happens when the word is often written with hiragana only, never with the kanji, so everyone knows what it means but nobody knows the kanji for the word.

Example of furigana in visual novel Steins;Gate シュタインズ・ゲート showing the reading of a common word that's usually written with kana alone and not with kanji

Above, Steins;Gate uses furigana for the word ago 顎, which is a common word that's often written with kana and ends up needing the furigana when written with its kanji. The same thing happens with most of the names for body parts in Japanese.

Names of Animals

Another notable case, which is an extension of the above, are names of animals. Pretty much all names of animals in Japanese have an unique kanji or a combination of kanji that are only ever used to talk about animals.

Basically, you'll only ever see a kanji for a given animal when encountering the word for that given animal. Take 狼 for example, unless you're reading the word ookami 狼, meaning "wolf," you will probably never encounter that kanji. This contrasts with kanji such as 学 which is featured in hundreds of common words.

Example of furigana in manga Ajin 亜人 showing the readings of kanji of animals

So pretty much except for neko 猫, inu 犬 and a few others extremely common animals, names of animals in Japanese will always either be written with kanji featuring furigana readings or be written in hiragana or katakana, because nobody can be arsed to memorize their kanji.

Names of People and Stuff

The second most common case is for showing how the written name of a person is supposed to be read. A single combination of two kanji could be read in a few ways if it's a normal word, or it could be read in hundreds of different ways if it's supposed to be a name.

Since you wouldn't want people mistaking someone's kanji-written name, a writer will always spell it out using the hiragana in the furigana space. This happens in manga aimed at children and manga not aimed at children, light novels, newspapers, etc.

Example of furigana for names of people and characters as shown in the manga Tonari no Seki-kun となりの関くん

There are also cases where the name of a certain thing is in katakana, but just to fuck with you for stylistic reasons the author has made up a kanji way for that word to be written too. In these cases, the kanji used have a meaning associated with the word, and the original katakana is placed on the furigana space.

Example of furigana that is katakana of a different word and not a reading of a kanji as shown in the manga Drifters ドリフターズ

An important detail about furigana for names written with kanji is that, unlike other uses of furigana, the reading of a name usually only appears once and the next time the name appears in its kanji form there will be no furigana.

That is, if in the first page it says the character name is read justice 正義 then you better make sure you remember that because the next time it shows up there will be no furigana and you don't want to mistake it for the word seigi 正義, which means "justice," or the name masayoshi 正義, which would be the sane reading for the name.

Ambiguous Written Words

As an example of the last case, take the word 一日. The furigana could say いちにち or ついたち. If the reading is ichinichi いちにち, it means "one day." If the reading is tsuitachi ついたち, it means "the first day of the month." Though it's often obvious which one we are talking about from the context.

Non-Japanese Words

Furigana is also used to tell Japan-born Japanese-speaking readers how to read a word that isn't in Japanese. Much like how it works with kanji, the furigana beside foreign words will show that word reading, that is, how it's pronounced.

Example of furigana beside an English word showing its reading as katakana as shown in the light novel Overlord オーバーロード

An important detail is that with kanji the furigana is usually in hiragana, just like native Japanese words are usually written with hiragana, but the furigana on foreign words is usually in katakana, just like loan-words are written in katakana but never with hiragana.

Furigana That Doesn't Help

What we just talked about is the furigana that matters, the one that helps you read. Unfortunately, furigana is just a secondary line of text beside the primary line of text, and this is also called "ruby text." So, as it turns out, authors tend to write literally whatever they want in that sacred space.

This can be a huge pain in the ass when the main text is kanji and the furigana is hiragana, but the hiragana is not the reading of the kanji. The furigana is just a totally separate thing and the reading of the kanji is nowhere to be found.

So if you are a total beginner, you may be left wondering "since when the fuck is this kanji read like this?!" Only to find out later that it's just the author fucking with you.

The use cases below show furigana being used as a writing device for artistic reasons only.

Dual Wielding Synonyms

The most bullshit and common case is when the author feels like writing a word in the main text and then writing a different word of same meaning in the furigana. This means, in essence, that he wrote the same thing twice just to fuck with you.

Example of furigana that isn't the reading of a word but its synonym as shown in the manga Noragami ノラガミ

Above we have the situation illustrated. Notice how noragami ノラガミ, being a manga aimed at children, has the proper readings of other words such as kon'ya 今夜 and yatsu 奴 in furigana, however fails to do that with the word byouin 病院.

Katakana Synonyms

An extension of the above is when the synonym is written in katakana and, most likely, happens to be a foreign word.

Example of furigana with katakana words beside kanji with similar meaning as shown in the light novel Overlord オーバーロード

This is a common case in stories that talk about games because things start having two words to describe them: the word used by the oblivious in-game characters and the words used by game-savvy players.

Take "World Item," for example, which becomes waarudo aitemu ワールド・アイテム when loaned to Japanese. The word waarudo ワールド can be used to say a world (of many) in a game, but it wouldn't be used by medieval fantasy characters to talk about their own world.

So, instead, the author makes them say "world-level item," sekai-kyuu aitemu 世界級アイテム, with the furigana showing the "normal" way of saying it. This way the characters don't use words which would disrupt the reader's suspension of disbelief and, simultaneously, lets them understand it's actually a game concept it's being talked about.

Foreign Synonyms

Next we have cases where there's non-Japanese text in the furigana, because why the fuck not? It's not like anybody is having trouble reading this stuff, right?! By this point the author doesn't even use furigana for the kanji readings anymore, it's only to show off how furigana his skills are.

Example of furigana with English words and acronyms beside English words as shown in the light novel Overlord オーバーロード

Two notes on the above image: first off, NPC is a word used in games worldwide, not only in English. Everyone knows what an NPC is even if they don't know English, so you can end up knowing what an NPC is, but having Non-Player Character fly over your head.

Secondly, I'm not sure people actually saw "to pop" to say "to spawn." I had to look up the English word in an English dictionary to understand the Japanese text, so Japanese gamers probably use it, that's why we see it up there.

Kanji Furigana

The last one, obviously, the greatest "lol fuck you baka gaijin" the Japanese language can utter, the ultimate sacrilege against the sanctity of the holy, once all-benevolent, furigana readings, is, of course, writing a motherfucking kanji in the space supposed to be safe from the kanji!

Example of kanji inside the furigana showing two phrases similar in meaning side by side as shown in the light novel Overlord オーバーロード

I'm sure I don't need to comment on the irony of this sort of usage, but it does raise a big question: if you write kanji on the furigana side, is there a meta-furigana side a furigana for the furigana, where their readings could be written?

The answer is: probably nope.

In case you haven't noticed, furigana used artistically like this is (thankfully) restricted to works targeted to older audiences where the readings of kanji are rarely written. In fact, in the case of Overlord, for example, most of the furigana does not contain the actual readings of the kanji, containing synonyms or whatever random correlated words the author could think of instead.

Meaning of the Word Furigana 振り仮名

One last thing, I think this is the least important, the meaning of the word furigana 振り仮名 when translated from Japanese to English.

Kana and Gana

First off, the -gana ~仮名 part is the same as the one from hiragana 平仮名, which is a different way of saying kana 仮名, which are letters in the hiragana and katakana 片仮名 syllabaries. So any hiragana or katakana is a kana, and a furigana is a kana which has been furi-ed.

This indicates that, at least originally, furigana was supposed to be only kana, as we saw in the beginning of the article, used as readings for the kanji, but as we saw in the end of the article, the furigana can be just whatever. This whatever (line of text aside) is called "ruby text" or rubi ルビ.

To Add the Reading Kana

Next, the furi 振り comes from the verb furu 振る, which means a billion of things, one of them being adding a kana to the ruby text to show the reading of a kanji word. Yep. That's right. furu 振る can mean to add the kana to the ruby text, so furigana 振り仮名 would simply be the kana added to the ruby text.

But what about the readings then? Weren't the furigana the readings?! Actually, the kana which shows the reading of a kanji are called yomigana 読み仮名, literally "reading kana." To conclude, the phrase kanji no yomigana wo furu 読み仮名を振る would mean "to add the the reading kana of the kanji."

(reminder: furu can means to add the kana, and the kana specifically, not to "add" things in general)

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