The pronunciation of Japanese is very regular; for the most part, Japanese words sound as they are written in hiragana and katakana.
In Japanese, the order of the vowels is ‘a, i, u, e, o’; their sound is pure and sharp, similar to the sound of the vowels in Spanish.
- the ‘a’ (あ, ア) sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘axe’
anata – あなた
atama – あたま
sakana – さかな
- the ‘i’ (い, イ) sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘ink’
migi – みぎ
kimi – きみ
nichi – いち
- the ‘u’ (う, ウ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘who’, less sharp than the ‘u’ in ‘Uma’
uta – うた
umi – うみ
kuruma – くるま
- the ‘e’ (え, エ) sounds like the ‘e’ in ‘elf’
me – め
eki – えき
te – て
- the ‘o’ (お, オ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘ox’
kodomo – こども
tokoro – ところ
otoko no ko – おとこのこ
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, and it is pronounced in two beats: ‘to-o’.
- in hiragana, an ‘i’ after an ‘e’ sound repeats the ‘e’ sound
the English lang.
- in hiragana, a ‘u’ after an ‘o’ sound repeats the ‘o’ sound
- in katakana, a ‘ー’ (dash) repeats the previous vowel
Vowel special cases
For the most part, every vowel is pronounced. However, it has become the norm to drop the vowel in some cases. For example, we normally pronounce ‘desu’ as ‘des’; pronouncing ‘desu’ as ‘de-su’ is correct in a very formal context but otherwise it might be considered babyish or strange.
- sometimes the ‘u’ (う) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘ku’, ‘tsu’ and ‘su’:
am, is, are
going to, will
- sometimes the ‘i’ (い) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘shi’ (し) and ‘chi’ (ち):
Most Japanese sounds match an English sound. Here are a few unusual ones.
- the ‘r’ is like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘cara’, not like the English ‘r’ in ‘ram’ or ‘car’.
- fu (ふ) sounds almost like the English word ‘who‘:
- the ‘n’ (ん) is a separate syllable, so it takes an additional ‘beat’ to pronounce it:
romaji – kana
sensei – せんせい
sannin – さんにん
honya – ほんや
se-n-se-e (not ‘sen-se-e’)
sa-n-ni-n (not ‘san-nin’)
ho-n-ya (not ‘hon-ya’)
A small ‘tsu’ indicates a small pause before the consonant that follows it. In romaji we indicate this pause doubling the consonant that follows ‘tsu’, e.g., っこ becomes ‘kko’, except in the case of ‘ch-‘, in which っち becomes ‘tch’. The consonant is not really doubled, though; we could double the length of some consonants, like ‘m’ and ‘n’, but others, like ‘p’ and ‘b’, have an explosive sound that we cannot extend without stuttering, and that is not what is going on:
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 don’t exist in Japanese, e.g., ‘ing’, while some Japanese sounds don’t exist in English, e.g., ‘tsu’:
romaji – kana
kingyo – きんぎょ
atsui – あつい
ki-n-gyo (not ‘king-gyo’, or ‘king-yo’)
a-tsu-i (not ‘at-su-i’, or ‘at-tsu-i’)
- the ‘n’ (ん) before a ‘b’, ‘m’, or ‘p’ sounds like an ‘m’; hence, the roman version of such ん is not ‘n’ but ‘m’:
3 flat things
Here are some examples of this special case: