Japanese pronunciation

Vowel 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 ‘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)
    • kimi (きみ – casual you)
    • nichi (いち – day)
  • the ‘u’ (う, ウ) sounds like the u in ‘Uma’
    • buta (ぶた – pig)
    • umi (うみ – sea)
    • uma (うま – horse)
  • the ‘e’ (え, エ) sounds like the e in ‘elf’
    • me (め – eye)
    • e (え – drawing)
    • te (て – hand)
  • the ‘o’ (お, オ) sounds like the o is ‘ox’
    • ototo (おとと – little brother)
    • tokoro (ところ – place)
    • otoko no ko (おとこのこ – boy)

Character sounds

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

  • the ‘r’ is soft, like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘cara’, not like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘rama’ nor the English ‘r’ in ‘ram’.
    • bara (ばね – rose)
    • raamen (ラーメン – ramen)
    • ringo (りんご – apple)
  • fu (ふ) sounds like the English word ‘who’
    • fune (ふね – boat) sounds ‘who-ne’
    • futon (ふとん) sounds ‘who-to-n’
    • furo (ふろ – bath) sounds ‘who-ro’
  • a small ‘tsu’ makes a small pause before the consonant that follows it
    • hiragana:
    • kekkou (けっこう – it’s fine) sounds ‘ke-()-ko-o’
    • chotto (ちょっと – a little) sounds ‘cho-()-to’
    • kippu (きっぷ – ticket) sounds ‘ki-()-pu’
    • katakana:
    • kitchin (キッチン – kitchen) sounds ‘ki-()-chi-n’
    • poketto (ポケット – pocket) sounds ‘po-ke-()-to’
    • kukkii (クッキー – cookie) sounds ‘ku-()-ki-i’

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 – far, distant) has two syllables, i.e., ‘to-o’.

  • in hiragana, an ‘i’ after an ‘e’ sound repeats the ‘e’ sound
    • eigo (えいご – the English language) sounds ‘e-e-go’
    • eiga (えいが – movie) sounds ‘e-e-ga’
    • sensei (せんせい – teacher) sounds ‘se-n-se-e’
  • in hiragana, a ‘u’ after an ‘o’ sound repeats the ‘o’ sound
    • ohayou (おはよう – good morning) sounds ‘o-ha-yo-o’
    • doumo (どうも – very) sounds ‘do-o-mo’
    • kouen (こうえん – park) sounds ‘ko-o-en’
    • arigatou (ありがとう – thanks) sounds ‘a-ri-ga-to-o’
  • in katakana, a ‘ー’ (dash) repeats the previous vowel
    • apaato (アパート – apartment) sounds ‘a-pa-a-to’
    • biiru (ビール – beer) sounds ‘bi-i-ru’
    • keeki (ケーキ – cake) sounds ‘ke-e-ki’
    • nyuuyooku (ニューヨーク – New York) sounds ‘nyu-u-yo-o-ku’

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’
  • 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’
      As an example of an ‘nm’ combo being pronounced ‘mm’, we have the word てんま (Tenma) that is actually pronounced ‘temma’:

      てんま (tenma) sounds ‘temma’

  • Some sounds from English don’t exist in Japanese, e.g., ‘ing’, and some sounds from Japanese don’t exist in English, e.g., ‘tsu’:
    • kingyo (きんぎょ – goldfish) sounds ‘kin-gyo’, not ‘king-gyo’
    • atsui (あつい – hot) sounds ‘a-tsu-i’, not ‘at-su-i’