Japanese pronunciation

The pronunciation of Japanese is very regular; for the most part, Japanese words sound as they are written in hiragana and katakana.

Vowel sounds

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
    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 ‘o’ in ‘who’, less sharp than the ‘u’ in ‘Uma’


    uta – うた
    song


    umi – うみ
    sea


    kuruma – くるま
    car


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


    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 – 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
     

    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
    beer
    cola
    cofee


    romaji
    biiru
    koura
    kouhii


    kana
    ビール
    コーラ
    コーヒー


    sounds…
    bi-i-ru
    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 drop the vowel in some cases. For example, we normally pronounce ‘desu’ as ‘des’; pronouncing ‘desu’ as ‘de-su’ is also correct but might be considered babyish or fake.

  • 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
    going to, will


    romaji
    takushii
    okusan
    takusan

    tsuki
    tsukue
    motsu

    sukoshi
    desu
    masu


    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


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

    ts-ki
    ts-ku-e
    mo-ts

    s-ko-shi
    des
    mas


  • 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-chi
    a-sh-ta
    do-u-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’, 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 (ふ) sounds like the English word who:
     

    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’ (ん) 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’)


Doubling consonants

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:

  • 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


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’:


    English
    goldfish
    hot


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


    sounds…
    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’:
     


    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’ (src: softypapa)


    てんま (tenma) sounds ‘temma’