Japanese Mimetic Words — Exploring the Sounds of Nippon

The Japanese language has a lot of mimetic words and onomatopoeic expressions, and Japanese people use them every day in various situations.

Mimetic words, also known as onomatopoeia, are like little bursts of vivid imagination that the Japanese use daily to convey sensations, actions, and emotions. Whether it’s the pitter-patter of raindrops or the gentle sigh of relief, these words add a splash of life to conversations.

words "japanese mimetic words" inside a comic cloud with stars and grid background

Many learners may find these words and expressions “funny” or “cute,” so discovering them could be a fun chapter in learning Japanese.

Let’s begin to learn onomatopoeia and mimetic words today!

Introduction to Japanese Mimetic Words

Japanese onomatopoeic expressions and mimetic words do not always mimic actual sounds. Some words imitate sounds, while others describe feelings and atmosphere, express things, or depict soundless objects and living things.

Collectively, these are called Japanese sound symbolism in English.

Classifications of Japanese Onomatopoeia

Japanese onomatopoeia words are categorized into 5 groups based on their unique characteristics.

  1. ぎせいご (Gisei-go | 擬声語 | Animate phonomime) → mimics human sounds or animal sounds
  2. ぎおんご (Gion-go | 擬音語 | Inanimate phonomime) → mimics the sounds in nature or inanimate objects
  3. ぎたいご (Gitai-go | 擬態語 | Phenomime) → expresses appearances, states, conditions of living things, and manners of non-sound or inanimate objects
  4. ぎじょうご (Gijou-go | 擬情語 | Psychomime) → expresses psychological states or feelings
  5. ぎようご (Giyou-go | 擬容語 ) → describes movements and motions

When Japanese call オノマトペ (Onomatope | onomatopoeia), it usually refers to ぎおんご (Gion-go | 擬音語) and ぎたいご (Gitai-go | 擬態語). However, no strict rules apply to the classification, and it varies.

We’ll learn Japanese onomatopoeia in a broad sense today.

Types of Onomatopoeic Words in Japanese

Native speakers presumably use about 4,500 Japanese onomatopoeia in everyday life. So, learning Japanese onomatopoeia is essential for smooth and fun conversations for language learners.

Here are the different types and examples for each.

  • Animate phonomimes are words that imitate sounds made by living things or objects with movement.
    • ニャン (nyan | にゃん | meow of a cat)
  • Inanimate phonomimes are words that imitate sounds produced by objects without movement or non-living things
    • ドンドン (dondon | どんどん | the sound of rapidly drumming or pounding)
  • Phenomimes represent sensory experiences or physical sensations.
    • イライラ (iraira | いらいら | a feeling of irritation or frustration)
  • Psychomime refers to words that convey psychological or emotional states.
    • どんどん (dondon | the state of things go rapidly)

Typical Sounds for Japanese Mimetic Words

Generally speaking, Japanese mimetic words often contain sounds below.

Long Vowel

A long vowel in Japanese is represented by the symbol “ー” (chou-onpu) and extends the pronunciation of the vowel sound for two morae, or beats. It adds emphasis and duration to the vowel sound.

  • ミャー or みゃあ (myaa | みゃー or みゃあ | meow, mew)
  • フー orフウ (fuu | ふー or ふう | phew, sigh)

Geminate Consonant

A geminate consonant in Japanese is represented by the small “っ” or “ッ” (soku-on), also known as the ちいさいつ (chiisai tsu) or small “tsu” in casual speech. It indicates a doubling or emphasis on the consonant sound that follows.

  • ぱっ (pa (tsu) | abruptly, remarkable)
  • ぽっちゃり (pocchari | ぽっちゃり | chubby, curvy)

Nasalized Vowel

A nasalized vowel in Japanese is represented by the character “ん” (hatsu-on), which indicates a nasal sound that occurs before certain consonants or at the end of a word.

  • ぴょん (pyon | light-footed, hop)
  • ガラン (garan | がらん | empty-looking, deserted)

Voiced/Unvoiced Consonants

The difference between せいおん (Sei-on | 清音 | unvoiced consonant) and だくおん (Daku-on | 濁音 | voiced consonant) often leads to a difference in the meaning.

  • せいおん (Seion | 清音 | Japanese syllables without ゛or ゜) are は/き/ふ/て, etc.
  • だくおん (Dakuon | 濁音 | Japanese syllables with ゛or ゜) are ば/ぎ/ぷ/で, etc.

Here are some examples so you can see the difference.

  • サラサラ (sarasara | さらさら | smooth, powdery, silky)
  • ザラザラ (zarazara | ざらざら | rough, coarse, sandy)
  • ふらり (furari | casually, unexpectedly, slowly)
  • ぶらり (burari | leisurely, slackly, aimlessly)

Tips on the small “tsu”

A small “tsu” may help with emphasis, and people use them instead of “とても (totemo | very) or other phrases. For example:

From:

パサパサ (pasapasa | ぱさぱさ | dry)

To:

パッサパサ/パサッパサ (passapasa/pasappasa | ぱっさぱさ/ぱさっぱさ | very dry)

From:

ホカホカ (hokahoka | ほかほか | warm)

To:

ホッカホカ (hokkahoka | ほっかほか | very warm and pleasant)

Sound Repetitions

Among Japanese onomatopoeic and mimetic expressions, the sound repetition for syllables is very typical. The presence or absence of repeated sounds implies the extent of the action, length of time, influential impact, and so on.

  • ズキズキ (zukizuki | ずきずき | throbbing pain) may express lingering pain compared to ズキ (zuki | ずき)
  • ニコニコ (nikoniko | にこにこ | smilingly) may express a happier smile than ニコ (niko | にこ)

Writing Japanese Mimetic Words

Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetic words often have no かんじ (Kanji | 漢字 | Chinese character) or are written with very complex Kanji. Therefore, Japanese onomatopoeic expressions are usually written in カタカナ (Katakana | 片仮名) or ひらがな (Hiragana | 平仮名).

However, native speakers may have different impressions of each writing form.

Generally, Katakana will likely emphasize the meanings, while Hiragana delivers delicate impressions.

  • Hiragana: きらきら (kirakira) → soft, gentle, or small scaled shine
  • Katakana: キラキラ (kirakira) → strong or more obvious shine, or metallic reflection
  • Kanji 煌煌 (kirakira) → splendidly shining, dignified

Also, some expressions may feel more natural in one form than another to native speakers.

  • ニッコリ (nikkori | with a smile) may express an unnatural or intentional smile
  • にっこり (nikkori | with a smile) may express a natural and sweet smile

Grammar for Japanese Mimetic Words

Typical Japanese onomatopoeia is ふくし (Fuku-shi | 副詞 | adverb), どうし (Dou-shi | 動詞 | verb), けいようし (Keiyou-shi | 形容詞 | adjective), and けいようどうし (Keiyou dou shi | 形容動詞 | quasi-adjective) in the Japanese grammar term.

Adverb form

A wide range of Japanese onomatopoeia is adverbs. Some need to have と (to) or に (ni) to work in a sentence, but this can be omitted depending on the meaning and context.

  • まどガラスがびりびりふるえた (Mado garasu ga biribiri furueta | 窓ガラスがびりびり震えた | The windowpane trembled with a rattle.)
  • あしがビリビリにしびれた (Ashi ga biribiri ni shibireta | 足がびりびりに痺れた | I have pins and needles in my foot.)
  • かみをびりびりとやぶく (Kami wo biribiri to yabuku | 紙をびりびりと破く | I tear the paper to shreds.)
  • ゆっくりしゃべってください (Yukkuri shabette kudasai | ゆっくり喋って下さい | Please speak slowly.)
  • ゆっくりとしゃべる (Yukkuri to shaberu | ゆっくりと喋る | to speak slowly) *ゆっくりに (yukkuri ni) is not possible
  • きょうはからっとはれています (Kyou wa karatto harete imasu | 今日はからっと晴れています | It’s sunny and clear/dry today.)
  • カラッとあがったからあげ (Karatto agatta karaage | からっと揚がった唐揚げ | Crisply fried chicken) *からっ (kara (tsu)) and からっに (kara (tsu) ni) are not possible

Verb form

Certain Japanese onomatopoeia becomes verbs by adding する (suru). Likewise, る (ru) , つく(tsuku), and めく (meku) are commonly seen, but the latter is only suitable for a small number of expressions.

These verbs from onomatopoeia can express various things, including feeling, atmosphere, and weather.

  • いがムカムカする (I ga mukamuka suru | 胃がむかむかする | My stomach is upset.)
  • わたしはかれにムカついた (Watashi wa kare ni muka tsuita | 私は彼にむかついた | I am mad at him.) *ムカする (mukasuru), ムカる (mukaru), and ムカめく (mukameku) are incorrect
  • ぐずぐずしないで (Guzuguzu shinai de | ぐずぐずしないで | Quit lazing around.)
  • こどもがぐずる (Kodomo ga guzuru | 子供がぐずる | This child is being fussy.)
  • てんきがぐずついている (Tenki ga guzu tsuiteiru | 天気がぐずついている | The weather is gloomy.) *ぐずめく (guzumeku) is incorrect
  • パラついてきた (Paratsuitekita | ぱらついてきた | It’s raining lightly now.) *ぱらめく (parameku) is incorrect
  • ほしがきらきらしている (Hoshi ga kirakira shiteiru | 星がきらきらしている | The stars are twinkling.)
  • そらにはほしがきらめく (Sora ni wa hoshi ga kirameku | 空には星がきらめく| Stars twinkle in the sky.) *きらる (kiraru) and きらつく (kiratsuku) are incorrect

Adjective/Quasi-Adjective form

Japanese onomatopoeia can work as adjectives for providing more detailed information, with the extra sound of の (no), な (na), or だ (da) at the end of the word.

Several studies indicate that native speakers consider onomatopoeia consequential to understanding the realism of situations than a non-onomatopoeia word.

  • ボロボロのふく (boroboro no fuku | ぼろぼろの服 | ragged clothes)
  • ボロボロなほん (boroboro na hon | ぼろぼろな本 | a shabby book)
  • もうボロボロだ (Mou boro boro da | もうぼろぼろだ | It is already worn out.)
  • カサカサのて (kasakasa no te | かさかさのて | dry hands)
  • カサカサなてにクリームをぬった (Kasa kasa na te ni kuriimu wo nutta | かさかさな手にクリームを塗った | I applied cream to my dry hands.)
  • てがとてもカサカサだった (Te ga totemo kasa kasa datta | 手がとてもかさかさだった | My hands were very dry.)

Noun form

On rare occasions, some Japanese onomatopoeia can also work as nouns. It often refers to household goods or things around us in casual speech. It’s commonly heard in baby or kid talk as well.

  • そのコロコロとって (Sono korokoro totte | そのころころ取って | Give me the lint roller.)
  • チンがおわった (Chin ga owatta | ちんが終わった | The food in microwave is ready.) *The verb form is チンする (Chinsuru | ちんする | to microwave)
  • このひらひらがあまりすきじゃない (Kono hirahira ga amari sukijanai | このひらひらがあまり好きじゃない | I don’t really like this frill design.)
  • かれはぼんやりがすぎる (Kare wa bonyari ga sugiru | 彼はぼんやりが過ぎる | He is spacing out too much.)

List of Onomatopoeia and Sound Effects for Daily Use

Using onomatopoeia instead of other verbs or adverbs is very practical in the Japanese language. You can use them to describe things, feelings, and situations.

Describe Home

You can use these when you’re at home or someone else’s.

  • ピンポン (pinpon | ぴんぽん | ding dong)
  • カチコチ (kachikochi | かちこち | tick-tack)
  • パタン (patan | ぱたん | the sound of quietly closing the door)
  • バタン (batan | ばたん | the sound of slamming the door)
  • パタパタ (patapata | ぱたぱた | light steps)
  • ドタドタ (dotadota | どたどた | heavy steps)
  • ベトベト (betobeto | べとべと | sticky)
  • ピカピカ (pikapika | ぴかぴか | clean and shiny)
  • ぐちゃぐちゃ (guchagucha | messy, untidy)
  • ゴミゴミ (gomigomi | ごみごみ | cluttered, crowded)
  • スッキリ (sukkiri | すっきり | clean and tidy)

Describe Food Texture, Eating and Drinking

These words will help you describe your food better.

  • ふっくら (fukkura | fluffy, plump)
  • フワフワ (fuwafuwa | ふわふわ | fluffy, soft and springy)
  • ツヤツヤ (tsuyatsuya | つやつや | glossy, shiny)
  • モチモチ (mochimochi | もちもち | springy, chewy, soft and elastic)
  • トロトロ (torotoro | とろとろ | melty, soft and moist)
  • カリカリ (karikari | かりかり | crispy, crunchy)
  • シャキシャキ (shakishaki | しゃきしゃき | crisp, crunchy)
  • しんなり (shinnari | tender, soft and pliant)
  • ネバネバ (nebaneba | ねばねば | gooey, sticky)
  • シュワッ (shuwa (tsu) | しゅわっ | fizzy, bubbly)
  • キンキン (kinkin | きんきん | ice-cold)
  • アツアツ (atsuatsu | あつあつ/熱々 | piping hot)
  • あっさり (assari | light, plain)
  • さっぱり (sappari | refreshing, light)
  • こってり (kotteri | heavy, thick, rich-flavored)
  • しっとり (shittori | しっとり | moist, soft and silky)
  • モリモリ (morimori | もりもり | eat heartily)
  • ゴクゴク (gokugoku | ごくごく | drink in big gulps)
  • ペロリ (perori | ぺろり | gobbling up)

Describe Weather and Temperature

A friend asked how’s the weather in your area? These words are helpful for you.

  • ザーザー (zaazaa | ザーザー | heavy rain)
  • パラパラ (parapara | ぱらぱら | light rain)
  • シトシト (shitoshito | しとしと | light rain)
  • シンシン (shinshin to furu | しんしん | silently falling snow)
  • そよそよ (soyosoyo | gentle breeze)
  • ヒュウ (hyuu | ひゅう | light wind, swish)
  • ビュービュー (byuubyuu | びゅーびゅー | strong wind)
  • ゴロゴロ (gorogoro | ごろごろ | thunder rumbling)
  • ピカッ (pika (tsu) | ぴかっ | lightning)
  • ムシムシ (mushimushi | むしむし/蒸し蒸し | hot and humid)
  • ジメジメ (jimejime | じめじめ | damp, humid)
  • カンカン (kankan | かんかん | scorching, angry)
  • どんより (donyori | clouded)
  • カラリ (karari | からり | dry and sunny)

Body and Health

Here are some words to help you describe how you’re feeling at the moment.

  • スヤスヤ (suyasuya | すやすや | sleep peacefully)
  • スースー (suusuu | すーすー | peaceful breathing)
  • ハアハア (haahaa | はあはあ | panting)
  • ゼエゼエ/ゼーゼー (zeezee | ぜえぜえ/ぜーぜー | heavy breathing)
  • ゴロゴロ (gorogoro | ごろごろ | rumbling, making noise)
  • ペコペコ (pekopeko | ぺこぺこ | hungry)
  • グーグー (guuguu | ぐーぐー | hungry)
  • カラカラ (karakara | からから | thirsty)
  • ガラガラ (garagara | がらがら | hoarse voice)
  • イガイガ (igaiga | いがいが | dry throat)
  • ズキズキ (zukizuki | ずきずき | throbbing pain)
  • フラフラ (furafura| ふらふら | feel dizzy, feel groggy)
  • ボサボサ (bosabosa | ぼさぼさ | messy)
  • クタクタ (kutakuta | くたくた | exhausted, worn out)

Feelings and Moods

Use this to describe your current mood to your friends.

  • ワクワク (wakuwaku | わくわく | feel excited)
  • ドキドキ (dokidoki | どきどき | heart-pounding)
  • シクシク (shikushiku | しくしく | cry silently)
  • ワーワー (waawaa | わーわー | cry loudly)
  • キャッキャ (kyakkya | きゃっきゃ | children playing and laughing)
  • クスクス (kusukusu | くすくす | giggle, laugh)
  • イライラ (iraira | いらいら | be irritated, angry)
  • ソワソワ (sowasowa | そわそわ | fidget)
  • ハラハラ (harahara | はらはら | anxious feeling)
  • どんより (donyori | gloomy feeling)
  • しんみり (shinmiri | sad feeling, sympathy)
  • モヤモヤ (moyamoya | もやもや | hazy, vague)
  • ウットリ (uttori | うっとり | be fascinated)
  • うっかり (ukkari | carelessly)

Japanese Sound Effects

Reading まんが (Manga | 漫画 | Comic) or watching アニメ (Anime | Animation) is a great way to learn Japanese onomatopoeia and こうかおん (Kouka-on | 効果音 | Sound effect).

Manga also has both illustrations and SFX lettering for the onomatopoeia and sound effects, so it helps to grasp the meanings of the word, situation, and body language. Here are some common ones:

  • げほ/ゴホゴホ (geho/gohogoho | げほ/ごほごほ | cough)
  • はっくしょん/クシュン (hakkushon, kushun | はっくしょん/くしゅん | achoo)
  • ドキドキ (dokidoki | どきどき | ba-dump, throb)
  • ゴゴゴ (gogogo | ごごご | rumble)
  • ドーン (doon | どーん | ka-boom)
  • ニヤニヤ (niyaniya | にやにや | laugh)
  • ザワザワ (zawazawa | ざわざわ | rustle, buzz)
  • ビク (biku | びく | flinch, twitch)
  • ス (Su | す | swish, slash)
  • ハア・・・ (haa | はあ・・・ | phew, sigh)
  • シーン (shiin | しーん | silence)
  • ガーン (gaan | がーん | bummer)

Conclude

In the end, these Japanese mimetic words are like colorful brushstrokes on the canvas of daily conversations. They add a splash of life, making the mundane moments memorable and the emotions vividly expressed.

So, as you continue your journey with the Japanese language, remember the playful world of onomatopoeia that brings everyday talk to life and makes communication a delightful work of art.

がんばってください (ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.