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 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 ‘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 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 whisper or drop the vowel in some cases:

  • 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


    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
    de-s
    ma-s


  • 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-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 almost 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’ (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) is not English but now we find it in 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


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

We can extend the duration of some consonants, like ‘s’ and ‘sh’. A ‘tsu’ before one of these consonants indicate that we should double its length.


English
magazine
together
coffee shop
straight ahead


romaji
zasshi
isshio
kissaten
massugu


kana
ざっし
いっしょ
きっさてん
まっすぐ


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


‘tsu’ as a pause

We cannot extend the duration of some consonants like ‘k’, ‘p’, ‘b’, or ‘ch’; they have an explosive sound that we cannot extend without stuttering. In this case, a ‘tsu’ before them indicates a small pause. 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

In English we use ellipsis (…) to indicate a suspended dragged-on word or thought, e.g., “Do you really think so… ?”, but we do not have a way to indicate the opposite, i.e., when a word finishes abruptly. In Japanese we also use ellipsis to indicate a suspended word or thought, and we use a 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, i.e., 「くださいっ」and 「早くっ」. In this case, the woman said the words as orders, 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 as, say, 「くだっ」, to mean ‘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 don’t exist in Japanese, e.g., ‘ing’ and ‘si’, while some Japanese sounds don’t exist in English, like ‘tsu’; 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’, i.e., 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’; hence, the roman version of such ん is not ‘n’ but ‘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’