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 the name ‘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 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 whisper or drop the vowel in some cases:
- sometimes the ‘u’ (う) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘ku’, ‘tsu’ and ‘su’:
am, is, are
formal verb form
- 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’ or ‘toro’, not like the English ‘r’ in ‘ram’ or ‘car’.
- fu (hir. ふ, kat. フ) sounds almost like the English word ‘who‘:
- the ‘n’ (hir. ん, kat. ン) 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’)
- the ‘tsu’ sound (hir. つ, kat. ツ) is not English but now we find it in Japanese-borrowed words.
Japanese martial art
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.
‘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’.
‘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
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’:
romaji – kana
kingyo – きんぎょ
atsui – あつい
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’:
3 flat things
Here are some examples of this special case: