Japanese pronunciation

Character sounds

Japanese pronunciation is very regular. The five vowels – a, i, u, e, o – are always a pure sound, i.e., there is no transition from a vowel to another.

  • the ‘a’ (あ, ア) sounds like the a in ‘spa’
  • the ‘i’ (い, イ) sounds like the e in ‘me’
  • the ‘u’ (う, ウ) sounds like the o in ‘who’
  • the ‘e’ (え, エ) sounds like the e in ‘men’
  • the ‘o’ (お, オ) sounds like the o is ‘so’
  • the ‘r’ is soft, like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘cara’, not like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘rama’ nor the English ‘r’ in ‘ram’.
  • a small ‘tsu’ makes a small pause before the consonant that follows it
    • hiragana:
    • kekkou (けっこう – it’s fine) sounds ‘ke-koo’
    • chotto (ちょっと – a little) sounds ‘cho-to’
    • kippu (きっぷ – ticket) sounds ‘ki-pu’
    • katakana:
    • kicchin (キッチン – kitchen) sounds ‘ki-chin’
    • poketto (ポケット – pocket) sounds ‘poke-to’
    • kukkii (クッキイ – cookie) sounds ‘ku-kii’

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, e.g, the English word ‘too’ (also) has one syllable, while the Japanese word ‘too’ (far, distant) has two syllables.

  • in hiragana, an ‘i’ after an ‘e’ sound repeats the ‘e’ sound
    • eigo (えいご – the English language) sounds ‘eego’
    • eiga (えいが – movie) sounds ‘eega’
    • sensei (せんせい – teacher) sounds ‘sensee’
  • in hiragana, a ‘u’ after an ‘o’ sound repeats the ‘o’ sound
    • ohayou (おはよう – good morning) sounds ‘ohayoo’
    • doumo (どうも – very) sounds ‘doomo’
    • kouen (こうえん – park) sounds ‘kooen’
    • arigatou (ありがとう – thanks) sounds ‘arigatoo’
  • in katakana, a ‘ー’ (dash) repeats the previous vowel
    • apaato (アパート – apartment) sounds ‘apaato’
    • biiru (ビール – beer) sounds ‘biiru’
    • keeki (ケーキ – cake) sounds ‘keeki’
    • nyuuyooku (ニューヨーク – New York) sounds ‘nyuuyooku’

Pronunciation tips

  • 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
  • the ‘u’ (う) sound is often faint or omitted, specially at the end of the word:
    • ..desu (..です) sounds ‘..des’
    • ..masu (..ます) sounds ‘..mas’
    • sukoshi (すこし – a little) sounds ‘skoshi’
  • fu (ふ) sounds like the English word ‘who’
    • fune (ふね – boat) sounds ‘who-ne’
    • futon (ふとん) sounds ‘who-ton’
  • the ‘i’ (い) sound in ‘shi’ (し) and ‘chi’ (ち) is often faint or omitted:
    • watashi (わあし – I, me) sounds ‘watash’
    • ashita (あした – tomorrow) sounds ‘ashta’
  • the ‘n’ (ん) before a ‘b’, ‘m’, or ‘p’ sounds like an ‘m’:
    • tonbo (とんぼ – dragonfly) sounds ‘tombo’
    • sanpo (さんぽ – stroll’) sounds ‘sampo’
    • sanmai (さんまい – 3 flat things) sounds ‘sammai’

    てんま (tenma) sounds ‘temma’

Tone

Some words have specific tones:


kami
kami
ame
ame


god, deity, spirit
paper; hair
rain
hard candy


かみ
かみ
あめ
あめ



紙; 髪


Neither kana has accents that indicate the syllable that should be stressed; the kanjis do not give a clue either; thus, there is no alternative but to listen to a native speaker and memorize the correct tone.

On the other hand, native speakers from different regions of Japan often pronounce words that do no have a specific tone in different ways. For example, the Tokyo dialect tends to stress the first syllables, while the Kansai dialect tends to stress the last syllables:


Tokyo dialect
Kansai dialect


arigatou
arigatou