Japanese pronunciation

The pronunciation of Japanese is very regular; for the most part, Japanese words sound as they are written in hiragana and katakana. Altogether, there are around 110 different sounds in Japanese, a walk in the park compared to the thousands that we have in English.

Vowel sounds

In Japanese, the order of the vowels is ‘a, i, u, e, o’; their sound is pure and sharp, similar to the vowels in Spanish, except for the ‘u’, which is sharper in Spanish than in Japanese.

  • the ‘a’ (あ, ア) sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘axe’


    anata – あなた
    formal ‘you’


    atama – あたま
    head


    sakana – さかな
    fish


  • the ‘i’ (い, イ) sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘ink’


    migi – みぎ
    right direction


    kimi – きみ
    casual ‘you’


    nichi – いち
    day


  • the ‘u’ (う, ウ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘who’, less sharp than the ‘u’ in the name ‘Uma’


    uta – うた
    song


    umi – うみ
    sea


    kuruma – くるま
    car


  • the ‘e’ (え, エ) sounds like the ‘e’ in ‘pen’


    me – め
    eye


    eki – えき
    train station


    te – て
    hand


  • the ‘o’ (お, オ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘ox’


    kodomo – こども
    child


    tokoro – ところ
    place


    otoko no ko – おとこのこ
    boy


Doubling vowels

In English, two vowels often form a sound in a single syllable, but in Japanese the additional vowel is considered an additional syllable. For example, the English word ‘too’ (also) is one syllable long, while the Japanese word ‘too’ (とお – the number 10) has two syllables, and is pronounced in two beats: ‘to-o’.

  • in hiragana, doubling the vowel doubles its length:
     

    English
    your mother
    your brother
    week
    your sister
    ice


    romaji
    o-kaa-san
    o-nii-san
    shuu
    o-nee-san
    koori


    kana
    おかあさん
    おにいさん
    しゅう
    おねえさん
    こおり


    sounds…
    o-ka-a-sa-n
    o-ni-i-sa-n
    shu-u
    o-ne-e-sa-n
    ko-o-ri


  • in hiragana, an ‘i’ after an ‘e’ sound repeats the ‘e’ sound
     

    English
    the English lang.
    movie
    teacher


    romaji
    eigo
    eiga
    sensei


    kana
    えいご
    えいが
    せんせい


    sounds…
    e-e-go
    e-e-ga
    se-n-se-e


  • in hiragana, a ‘u’ after an ‘o’ sound repeats the ‘o’ sound
     

    English
    good morning
    very
    thanks


    romaji
    ohayou
    doumo
    arigatou


    kana
    おはよう
    どうも
    ありがとう


    sounds…
    o-ha-yo-o
    do-o-mo
    a-ri-ga-to-o


  • in katakana, a ‘ー’ (dash) repeats the previous vowel
     

    English
    ramen
    beer
    news
    cake
    cola
    coffee


    romaji
    raamen
    biiru
    nyuusu
    keeki
    koora
    koohii


    kana
    ラーメン
    ビール
    ニュース
    ケーキ
    コーラ
    コーヒー


    sounds…
    ra-a-me-n
    bi-i-ru
    nyu-u-su
    ke-e-ki
    ko-o-ra
    ko-o-hi-i


Vowel special cases

For the most part, every vowel is pronounced. However, it has become the norm to whisper or drop the ‘u’ and the ‘i’ in some cases; this is called devoicing:

  • sometimes the ‘u’ (う) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘ku’, ‘tsu’ and ‘su’:


    English
    taxi
    your wife
    many

    moon
    desk
    to hold

    a little
    am, is, are
    formal verb form
    west; waist; waste


    romaji
    takushii
    okusan
    takusan

    tsuki
    tsukue
    motsu

    sukoshi
    desu
    masu
    uesuto


    kana
    タクシー
    おくさん
    たくさん

    つき
    つくえ
    もつ

    すこし
    です
    ます
    ウエスト


    sounds…
    ta-k-shi-i
    o-k-sa-n
    ta-k-sa-n

    ts-ki
    ts-ku-e
    mo-ts

    s-ko-shi
    de-s
    ma-s
    u-e-s-to


  • sometimes the ‘i’ (い) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘shi’ (し) and ‘chi’ (ち):


    English
    we
    tomorrow
    why


    romaji
    watashitachi
    ashita
    doushite


    kana
    わたしたち
    あした
    どうして


    sounds…
    wa-ta-sh-ta-ch
    a-sh-ta
    do-o-sh-te


Consonant sounds

Most Japanese sounds match an English sound. Here are a few unusual ones.

  • the ‘r’ is like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘cara’ or ‘toro’, not like the English ‘r’ in ‘ram’ or ‘car’.


    English
    color
    noon
    six


    romaji
    iro
    hiru
    roku


    kana
    いろ
    ひる
    ろく


  • fu (hir. ふ, kat. フ) sounds like the English word ‘who‘, specially at the beginning of a word:
     

    English
    boat
    futon
    bath


    romaji
    fune
    futon
    furo


    kana
    ふね
    ふとん
    ふろ


    sounds…
    who‘-ne
    who‘-to-n
    who‘-ro


  • the ‘n’ (hir. ん, kat. ン) is a separate syllable, so it takes an additional ‘beat’ to pronounce it:
     

    English
    teacher
    three people
    bookstore


    romaji – kana
    sensei – せんせい
    sannin – さんにん
    honya – ほんや


    sounds…
    se-n-se-e (not ‘sen-se-e’)
    sa-n-ni-n (not ‘san-nin’)
    ho-n-ya (not ‘hon-ya’)


  • the ‘tsu’ sound (hir. つ, kat. ツ) didn’t exist in English, but now we find it in some Japanese-borrowed words:
     

    English
    tidal wave
    Japanese martial art
    acupressure therapy


    borrowed word
    tsu-nami
    ju-jutsu
    shi-atsu


    meaning
    port wave
    soft art
    toe pressure


  • when speaking casually, some ‘m’ and ‘n’ dissapear:
     

    English
    father
    mother
    excuse me


    Japanese
    o-to-o-sa-n
    o-ka-a-sa-n
    su-mi-ma-se-n


    casual
    o-to-o-sa
    o-ka-a-sa
    su-i-ma-se-n


The small ‘tsu’

A small ‘tsu’ (hir. っ, kat. ッ) before a consonant indicates a consonant doubling or a pause; if the ‘tsu’ ends a word or sentence, it indicates a sudden stop. Finally, it can act as a word connector.

‘tsu’ as a consonant doubler

A ‘tsu’ before some consonants, like ‘s’ and ‘sh’, doubles their length:


English
magazine
together
coffee shop


romaji
zasshi
isshio
kissaten


kana
ざっし
いっしょ
きっさてん


sounds…
za-sh-shi
i-sh-sho
ki-s-sa-ten


In romaji, there is no distinction of whether we are extending an ‘s-‘ or an ‘sh-‘; both are written as an ‘s’, but obviously, we don’t extend a ‘sh-‘ by starting it with an ‘s’. Ideally, we would indicate a double ‘sh’ with another ‘sh’ (e.g., ‘za-sh-shi’, or even ‘za-shhi’), but the convention is to write it as an ‘s’ (e.g., ‘za-s-shi’).

‘tsu’ as a pause

We cannot extend consonants like ‘k’, ‘p’, ‘b’, or ‘ch’, because they have explosive sounds. In this case, a ‘tsu’ before any of them indicates a small pause, which is technically called a glottal stop. In romaji we indicate this pause doubling the consonant that follows the ‘tsu’, e.g., っこ becomes ‘kko’, except in the case of ‘ch-‘, in which っち becomes ‘tch’.

  • hiragana:
     

    English
    it’s fine
    a little
    ticket


    romaji
    kekkou
    chotto
    kippu


    kana
    けっこう
    ちょっと
    きっぷ


    sounds…
    ke-()-ko-o
    cho-()-to
    ki-()-pu


  • katakana:
     

    English
    kitchen
    pocket
    cookie


    romaji
    kitchin
    poketto
    kukkii


    kana
    キッチン
    ポケット
    クッキー


    sounds…
    ki-()-chi-n
    po-ke-()-to
    ku-()-ki-i


‘tsu’ as a sudden stop

We can also have an abrupt pause, i.e., a glottal stop, at the end of a word. In English, we use ellipsis (…) to indicate a suspended dragged-on word or thought, like in “Do you really think so… ?”, but we do not have a way to indicate the opposite, when a word finishes abruptly. In Japanese we also use ellipsis to indicate a suspended word or thought, and we use the small ‘tsu’ to indicate a word or thought stopped abruptly. This dynamic happens often in dialogs so we will find it often in mangas.

In the scene, both the words ‘kudasai’ (‘Please, do for me’) and ‘hayaku’ (‘fast!’ or ‘hurry up!’) are finished abruptly, so they end with a small ‘tsu’: 「くださいっ」and 「早くっ」. In this case, the woman said the words as requests, so in English we could have expressed them as ‘kadasai!’ and ‘hayaku!’, even though they are not actually exclamations. If the woman had been interrupted mid-word while she was saying ‘kudasai’, we would have written it in Japanese as「くだっ」, while in English we would have written it as ‘kuda…’, hopping that the situation makes clear that this is not a suspended dragged-on word, but an interrupted one.

‘tsu’ as a word connector

Japanese are masters of abbreviation; many words are abbreviated using ‘tsu’ as a bridge to connect them to the next word. A common word with this trait is the word 「いち」(‘ichi’, one), which is often replaced by 「いっ」, but the abbreviation is common for many other words too:


one + ‘week span’
one + ‘years old’
one + ‘cup counter’
miscellaneous + magazine


ichi-shuukan → is-shuukan
ichi-sai → is-sai
ichi-pai → ip-pai
zatsu-shi → zas-shi


いっしゅうかん
いっさい
いっぱい
ざっし


Consonant special cases

  • ha (は) is pronounced ‘wa’ when used as a particle
  • he (へ) is pronounced ‘e’ when used as a particle
  • wo (を) is pronounced ‘o’ when used as a particle
  • Some English sounds, like ‘ing’, ‘ti’, and ‘si’, don’t exist in Japanese, while some Japanese sounds, like ‘tsu’, don’t exist in English; actually, the few English words that use ‘tsu’, like ‘tsunami’, are borrowed from Japanese; however, in the English pronunciation, we replace the ‘tsu’ with a ‘su’, e.g., we pronounce the word as ‘sunami’, instead of ‘tsunami’:


    English
    goldfish
    hot


    romaji – kana
    kingyo – きんぎょ
    atsui – あつい


    sounds…
    ki-n-gyo (not ‘king-gyo’, nor ‘king-yo’)
    a-tsu-i (not ‘at-su-i’, nor ‘at-tsu-i’)


  • the ‘n’ (ん) before a ‘b’, ‘m’, or ‘p’ sounds like an ‘m’, so in these cases, the roman version of such ん is not ‘n’ but ‘m’; this is an example of euphony, i.e., making a sound both pleasing to the ear and easier to pronounce:
     

    English
    dragonfly
    stroll
    3 flat things


    romaji
    tonbo
    sanpo
    sanmai


    kana
    とんぼ
    さんぽ
    さんまい


    sounds…
    to-m-bo
    sa-m-po
    sa-m-ma-i



    Here are some examples of this special case:

    なんば (nanba) sounds ‘namba’ (src: JPRail)

    かんばら (kanbara) sounds ‘kambara’

    てんま (tenma) sounds ‘temma’

Words with a pitch

Most Japanese words truly have no pre-defined pitch, e.g., the word ‘ichi’ (one) is normally pronounced ‘ichi’ (flat), but it might be ‘ichi’ or ‘ichi‘ depending on the context, or the dialect. However, some words do have a specific pitch [wikipedia]. For example:


romaji
kami
kami

ame
ame

ima
ima

hachi
hachi


English
god, deity, spirit
paper; hair

rain
hard candy

now
living room

chopsticks
bridge


kana
かみ
かみ

あめ
あめ

いま
いま

はち
はち


kanji

紙; 髪



居間



The kana do not have accents that indicate pitch; the kanjis do not give a clue either; thus, there is no alternative but to listen to a native speaker and memorize the pitch, if any. Still, there are a few hints that can help in certain cases.

Compound words

In English, when we put together two or more words to form a compound word, the compound word preserves the pitches of its component words, e,g,

belly + button → belly-button
carry + over → carry-over

In spite that these compound words are now single words, we still pronounce each of its components with their original pitches, as if we were pronouncing two different words. Japanese does the same, i.e., the components of compound words are pronounced as if they were individual words:

kami (God) + sama (lord) → kami-sama (God)
hachi (8) + hyaku (100) → hachihyaku (800)
ashi (foot) + kubi (neck) → ashi-kubi (ankle)
mizu (water) + umi (sea) → mizuumi (lake)

If the component words happen to be one-syllable long, then we might end up with what appear to be different pronunciations of the same word, when in reality all we are doing is stressing one of the component words. In English, suppose that we have the word ‘twenty-five’. We could stress ‘twenty’ or ‘five’ to draw attention to that particular component of the word, or pronounce them flat. This is more difficult to see in Japanese where the compound words can be so small that we tend to think of them as single words (e.g., ‘gohan’) instead of multiple words (e.g., ‘go-han’):


English
meal
tonight
weather
telephone


1st syllable
go (honorific)
kon (this)
ten (sky)
den (electric)


2nd syllable
han (cooked rice)
ban (evening)
ki (atmosphere)
wa (talk)


compound word
go-han
kon-ban
ten-ki
den-wa


However, Japanese takes this a bit further. If we have a single word that is being modified, say, conjugated, both the word and the modifier keep their pitches:


I drink
I don’t drink
I want to drink
I don’t want to drink


nomi + masu → nomimasu
nomi + masen → nomi-masen
nomi + tai → nomitai
nomi + taku + nai → nomitaku-nai


Hence, the pronunciation tends to be correct when we treat the components of a word as separate words (e.g., nomimasu), each with its own pitch (if any), instead of considering the word as a single unit (e.g., nomimasu) and attempting to single out a particular syllable.

Dialects

Finally, as if Japanese pitch wasn’t already difficult enough, native speakers from different regions of Japan often pronounce words in different ways. For example, the Japanese spoken in Tokyo, which is considered the ‘standard’ Japanese, tends to stress the first syllable, while the Kansai dialect (e.g., Kyoto, Osaka) tends to stress the last one:


region
Tokyo
Kansai


thanks
arigatou
arigatou


Other dialects, like those of Hokkaido and Okinawa, have their own idiosyncrasies.