Social media is flooded with any number of jokes about English spelling and pronunciation. Who hasn’t seen memes lamenting phrases like the grammatically correct “English can be understood through tough, thorough thought”? Who hasn’t noticed how baffling the pronunciations of words such as “colonel” and “phlegm” and “timbre” are?
By comparison, Japanese pronunciation is a breeze.
While there are two alphabets, both hiragana pronunciation and katakana pronunciation are exactly the same. Even the visibly intimidating kanji are no harder. For beginners, it’s as simple as changing the kanji to romaji and voila! Bite-sized chunks to take time practicing at your own pace.
Let’s take a closer look at how to pronounce words in Japanese. As you read this, I highly recommend reading this article with a hiragana chart and audio files. As we talk about the letters below, refer to the table to hear the sounds yourself!
Let’s start simple. There are five vowels in Japanese. The same ones as English, in fact. To keep things straight-forward, I have put the Japanese pronunciation in English terms below:
This means that when you see an “a” sound, it will sound the name no matter where it is. Japanese phonology is, overall, much simpler than English. With a few exceptions, the vowels will maintain the sounds above in all words. Rather than needing to puzzle out what kind of “a” sound to use (as we do in English between the words name, land, water, and ago, just as a few examples), you need only remember this one sound for the letter.
With the exception of “n,” all Japanese consonants are accompanied by a vowel. You will never find a “k” without an adjoining a, i, u, e, or o. What’s more, the vowels will keep the same sound they had on their own, only this time, they’ll be paired with a consonant.
The consonant sounds are similar to the English versions, so I will focus on elaborating on only the colored cells below.
Daku-on and Handaku-on
The k, s, t, and h consonant groups all have voiced variations, changing them to be voiced from the back of the mouth to create a muddier sound. The daku-on (〃) and handaku-on (゜) punctuations identify these variations. The h group actually has two variants: one using the “b” sound and another using the “p” sound.
*This ji sound is very rarely used compared to the one in the s/z row.
One of the first words you will come across when learning Japanese is the “to be” verb: です desu. When you hear it said, you will notice that the u practically disappears, making the word sound like “dess.”
This is because these three letters—su, shi, and chi—are often “devoiced,” meaning the vowel is dropped or swallowed. Just like in the “to be” verb above, the devoiced shi is commonly found in the polite past tense conjugation of verbs: ~mashita. In reality, this sounds much more like “mash-ta.”
Fu or hu?
The u sound in the h consonant row sounds much like the h in “hoop.” If you say this out loud, you will notice that the “h” sound requires you to bring your lips together as though you’re blowing air. Try saying just the “hoo” part of “hoop” to yourself. If you bring your teeth up to meet the back of your bottom lip, you’ll find that it changes the sound just enough to resemble an “f” sound. This soft blend of the letters results in the pronunciation of the Japanese fu!
R you ready?
You have no doubt heard about the Japanese “r” sound and how it almost sounds like an “l” sound, resulting in some unfortunate mispronunciations. I witnessed one such example at a grocery store in Japan, where a sign over a display of produce meant to say “Fresh!” had an “l” instead of an “r.” You can imagine my surprise at the real-life typo.
The confusion comes from the fact that the “r” sound in Japanese is neither an English “r” or “l” at all, but rather somewhere in the middle. This makes spelling English words with l or r difficult when they both sound so similar to the Japanese “r” sound.
Try saying the word “lemon” to yourself. Where is your tongue sitting in your mouth when you pronounce the first syllable? You’ll find that the tip of your tongue touches the back of your teeth or very close to that area. Now try saying “round” out loud. The tip of your tongue isn’t touching anything at all when you make that “r” sound.
The Japanese r (ら り る れ ろ ra ri ru re ro) is voiced from a different part of your mouth than either of the two sounds we just discussed. Touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth where you can feel a change in the slope: this is called the alveolar ridge. To make the Japanese r sound, tap the tip of your tongue to that ridge. Try it out loud now! It will almost sound like a very soft d sound.
Say these out loud:
らいねん – rainen = next year
りんご – ringo = apple
れきし – rekishi = history
るす – rusu = not at home
ろく- roku = six
Keep the position of your tongue in mind as you say these words!
The sound を wo is the only letter that does not sound exactly as it looks. Rather than sounding like “woe is me,” it is pronounced the same as お o in nearly all cases.
In some songs and older Japanese, you will still hear it pronounced like the English word “woe,” although this is uncommon in everyday life.
Putting it all together
Now that we’ve talked about the basics, there are a few slightly more complex pronunciations to go over.
All syllables in Japanese take up the same amount of time or space in a word. Think of it like music. In a standard bar of music, you will have four beats or claps. Think of each syllable in Japanese as one of these beats to get an idea of how to pronounce the words evenly. Let’s look at the words we used as examples in the first table to practice:
Each syllable is one letter in Japanese (refer to the tables for more information). Clap once for each syllable as you say them. Simple enough, right?
Now, let’s take long vowels into account. There are a few combinations of vowels that create longer sounds, shown here:
These long vowels count as two syllables (or two claps). This means that the “suu” in suuji will be twice as long as “ji.” To visualize this:
su – u – ji
• • •
Ensuring the vowels are pronounced with the appropriate length is critical, as it can change the meaning of the word entirely. For instance, ここ koko (with no long vowels) means “here.” By comparison, こうこう koukou (with two long vowels) means “high school.” In this example, it is important to make sure that koko takes up two beats and koukou takes up four!
Double consonants add a little bit more complexity to the even spacing of each syllable. The Japanese letter つ tsu can be used as a letter on its own (such as in the word つなみ tsunami). It is also commonly used to indicate a double consonant without creating a sound on its own. In these cases, it will appear smaller: っ instead of つ. When written in romaji, the consonant of the letter following the small tsu will be doubled.
かこ – kako = past
かっこ – kakko = parentheses
Visually, the words are different, but if you try to sound them out loud, they sound confusingly similar, don’t they? This is where it is incredibly important to make sure each syllable gets its appropriate space, as mentioned above. Even though the double consonant (the small tsu) has no sound of its own, it must still have its allotted time. Think of it like a musical rest!
Ka – ko
Ka – k – ko (the solitary k will sound silent)
• • •
The difference seems minimal, but there are many cases like this one where the extra space a small tsu provides changes the word completely. Be careful with these!
The Japanese y sounds (や ゆ よ ya yu yo) also pair with other Japanese letters (those in the “i” column) to created contracted sounds. They are as follows:
Even though these letters appear longer, they are still considered to be one syllable. This means that sha will be pronounced the same length as sa. That being said, these contracted sounds are oftentimes lengthened into long vowels: instead of きょ kyo, you will often find きょう kyou.
However, remember that the kyo itself is one syllable, meaning that the sound “ki-yo” is different than “kyo.” The first has two syllables, while the second has one. We can see this by looking at the name of Japan’s capital:
と う きょ う
To – u – kyo – u
• • • •
Native English speakers often pronounce this like “To-ki-o,” which not only mispronounces the contracted sound kyo as kiyo, but also fails to lengthen the vowels. Now that you’re learning Japanese, it’s important to ensure contracted sounds are counted as one syllable as well as to give the vowel syllables their full value!
Time to practice Japanese pronunciation
Use this as a guide to get you started on familiarizing yourself with the sounds and, when you’re ready to start having conversations in Japanese, don’t hesitate to book a lesson with a Japanese tutor. The practice and feedback you receive from a Japanese language tutor will be instrumental in perfecting your pronunciation. You may also find a Japanese pronunciation dictionary like this one to be useful when getting accustomed to native pronunciation.
Now comes the fun part. For Japanese pronunciation practice, you have to speak the sounds. When you’re looking up vocabulary words or see Japanese names, say them out loud! Even doing so when you’re by yourself is incredibly beneficial! I guarantee the practice will pay off.