In today’s article, we take a deep dive into the world of Japanese pronunciation. It’s one of the major components of speaking any language fluently and builds a bridge to better communication.
So here we address the subject from every angle, including basic Japanese pronunciation rules, common mistakes made by foreign speakers, and much more. The topics are divided into sections to make focusing on your area of study a piece of cake.
Get your thinking caps on and let’s learn some Japanese!
- 1 Is Japanese Hard to Pronounce?
- 2 Understanding the Japanese Alphabet and Writing System
- 3 Basic Rules for Japanese Pronunciation
- 4 Advanced Pronunciation Rules in Japanese
- 5 Tricky Japanese Pronunciation You Need to Master
- 6 Strange Combinations in Katakana
- 7 The Most Common Japanese Pronunciation Mistakes
- 8 Tips to Improve Japanese Pronunciation
- 9 The Importance of Good Japanese Pronunciation
Is Japanese Hard to Pronounce?
As it turns out, Japanese pronunciation is rather easy for native English speakers to master! Although the native-speaking countries are geographically so far apart, the phonics used in the two languages are very similar. There are only a few distinct Japanese sounds (which we cover later on) that are unusual to native English speakers and can be troublesome.
Moreover, the Japanese language has borrowed a ton of words from English! These words are known as がいらいご (gairaigo ｜ 外来語) – they are easy to presume due to how similar the pronunciations are to the original word… and they’re everywhere!
Some words for your reference are クレジットカード (kurejitto kaado), コーヒー (koohii), and チャンス (chansu). And so, even as a beginner, you’re already familiar with several Japanese words and their pronunciation.
In fact, foreign words are so common within Japanese that there’s an entire alphabet used for foreign words only! Check out our article to learn all about the Japanese alphabet.
Of course, Japanese pronunciation is more difficult for those whose native language is both Japanese and English. But the good news is that the set pronunciation rules in Japanese never change, so no tricks or surprises!
Understanding the Japanese Alphabet and Writing System
In order to fully comprehend Japanese pronunciation, we need to be acquainted with the Japanese alphabet and writing system.
The Japanese alphabet consists of 46 characters. These characters are the five vowels, one special character, and the combinations of consonants and vowels. In other words, all sounds in Japanese include a vowel. That’s an important bit to know when it comes to getting pronunciation down pat.
Moreover, each vowel (and consonant) only makes one sound, unlike English. There’s no guesswork. For that reason, reading Japanese is also a good way to practice pronunciation, which can be done on your own.
Also, both the Japanese alphabets, ひらがな (hiragana) and カタカナ (katakana), share the exact same sounds. Katakana has a few exceptions to this rule which we cover a little later. But the basic point is, in Japanese, although the writing might change, the pronunciation will never change.
Basic Rules for Japanese Pronunciation
Finally, we begin our adventure into the nuts and bolts of Japanese pronunciation. In this section, we break down each component of the Japanese alphabet by demonstrating how to pronounce each focus. We also provide plenty of examples.
Feel free to jump ahead if you already know the basics of Japanese pronunciation (or stick around for a quick review)!
How to Pronounce Japanese Vowels?
There are five vowels in the Japanese language: あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), and お (o).
Here are some examples:
あ sounds like the “a” in “father” or “water”
- かたい (katai) – hard
- あおい (aoi ｜ 青い) – blue
い sounds like the “ee” sound, as in the words “bee” or “tree”
- いみ (imi ｜ 意味) – meaning
- ちかい (chikai ｜ 近い) – close
- いす (isu ｜ 椅子) – chair
う sounds like the “oo” sound, as in the words “true” or “spoon”
- うすい (usui ｜ 薄い) – thin
- うまい (umai) – delicious
- さそう (sasou ｜ 誘う) – to invite
- え sounds like the “e” in “red” or “bread”
- えき (eki ｜ 駅) – station
- して (soshite) – then
お sound like the “o” in “open” or “moat”
- おじさん (ojisan) – uncle / unknown man
- おかえり (okaeri ｜ お帰り) – “welcome back”
- いと (ito ｜ 糸) – thread
Note: As you’ve hopefully noticed in the examples above, most of these vowels are attached to a consonant. Again, whether a vowel appears on its own or together with another consonant, the sound is always the same!
Check out our in-depth article on Japanese vowels for more on the topic!
How to Pronounce Japanese Consonants?
There are different counts out there as to the official number of consonants in the Japanese language. This is due mostly to interpretation since some combined English consonants (as represented in Japanese) may or may not be considered as one consonant instead of 2.
The beauty of semantics. Anyway, we like to declare that there are 19 basic consonants in Japanese: K, S, T, N, K, M, Y, R, W, G, Z, J, D, H, B, P, Sh, Ch, Ts.
It would be too much to go into every consonant specifically – we’ve saved that detail for our article on Japanese consonants. And alas, our concern today is pronunciation and there isn’t much to say in that regard (yay!) Every single one of these consonants, minus the R, has a pronunciation more or less identical to its English equivalent!
Note: Remember, although we’re using English consonants to represent these sounds, these are Japanese sounds when it’s all said and done.
The Ts is no exception either, although it’s an unusual letter/sound combination for native speakers to make, which may require some practice to master. We’ll tackle that R a few sections down.
And so, pronouncing Japanese consonants should pose a little to no problem for native English speakers.
How to Pronounce Combined Sounds
There are also what are known as combined sounds in Japanese. Essentially, as a rule, any いーかな (i-kana) can be combined with the characters や (ya), ゆ (yu), or よ (yo) to form a new sound and character.
You can think of the かな as the individual consonant groups. In such cases, the “ee” sound at the end of the initial characters gets blended into the “y” sound of the next character.
Here are some examples to try your hand at:
- み (mi) + や (ya) = みゃ (mya)
- に (ni) + よ (yo) = にょ (nyo)
- じ (ji) + ゆ (yu) = じゅ (Ju)
Notice that the transliteration of each sound directly corresponds with the sound itself. In other words, みょ (myo) sounds more like “myo” than “miyo”.
Advanced Pronunciation Rules in Japanese
With some foundation under our feet, it’s time to take a look at the more advanced pronunciation rules. Remember, Japanese pronunciation is rather straightforward and simple, so even the advanced stuff shouldn’t come with too much trouble!
Voiced Japanese Consonants
Technically speaking, there are two different kinds of Japanese consonants: voiced and unvoiced. With the use of てんてん (tenten | 〃) and まる (maru | ゜), voiceless consonants can become voiced consonants. Other consonants are naturally voiced consonants just by their nature.
These consonants are called voiced consonants because they require a “voice” and the usage of one’s throat to pronounce. They are generally thought to be firmer and more distinctive. That being said, this “strength” doesn’t really come through in normal conversation at all. Their power is quite distinctive when it comes to Japanese onomatopoeia, however.
P.S. While voiced consonants do deserve to make this list, please don’t take this as a warning – they are used all the time as a normal part of the Japanese language!
The character つ (tsu) has a special usage in the Japanese language, aside from its normal use as a part of the alphabet. When つ is written very small and placed between two characters, it functions as a pause within a word. Sometimes this small っ is called a doubler since the romanized representation of words with this character uses a double consonant.
Here are some examples for clarity:
- りっぱ (rippa ｜ 立派) – admirable
- みっか (mikka ｜ 三日) – three days; 3rd day of the month
- ずっと (zutto) – all the time; for a long time
The pause caused by small っ naturally creates an emphasis on the following consonant, and the pronunciation is distinct. There are several words that would be identical in sound if not for the small っ, so be sure to master its pronunciation!
Note: The small っ never comes after the consonant N or before a vowel!
Long Vowel Sounds
Aside from the regular vowel sounds, there are long vowel sounds in Japanese as well. This is just a doubling up of any particular vowel sound. This does not change the sound of the vowel at all but instead simply lengthens the duration of the sounds when speaking.
Here are 5 examples using each vowel:
- おかあさん (okaasan ｜ お母さん) – mother
- おじいさん (ojiisan ｜ お爺さん) – grandfather
- すうじ (suuji ｜ 数字) – numbers
- せんべい (senbei ｜ 煎餅) – rice cracker
- おう (ou ｜ 王) – king
You may have noticed two functioning rules in the examples above:
1. an (u) is used to make a long (o) vowel sound
2. an (i) is used to make a long (e) vowel sound
There are just a few exceptions to the long vowel rule when writing these words. There are some other exceptions for some other vowels as well – regardless of which, the pronunciation never changes!
Tricky Japanese Pronunciation You Need to Master
Here’s where things get a little more tricky when gunning to master Japanese pronunciation. These pronunciation rules are not as obvious, and depending on where you began learning Japanese, this information may have missed you.
When Hu becomes Fu (ふ)
Amidst the many basic Japanese consonants is the consonant sound “H.”
But you may have noticed that the character ふ (hu) is often written as ふ (fu)! Or maybe you’ve just been wondering where the “F” comes into Japanese after reading some names with “fu” in it. The truth is that “fu” is the only time this letter gets used when romanizing Japanese – and it’s all due to the trickiness of the character ふ.
This character’s pronunciation is actually somewhere in between “hu” and “fu.” When typing Japanese on an English keyboard, both inputs will give you the character ふ. Most teachers and standards identify this character as being more akin to “fu” than to “hu,” so we think it’s best to remember this character as ふ (fu).
But this F in ふ (fu) is not like the English F – it’s much softer and comes from the chest. Get plenty of listening/speaking practice in order to master pronouncing this Japanese sound!
The Special Character N (ん)
The Japanese “N” is special in more ways than one. For one, it’s the only consonant that does not require the company of a vowel. For two, it’s never used with the small っ, as we mentioned earlier. For three, it can be pronounced as an “n” (which is by and large the normal) or an “m” or “ng”.
When taught in school, this character does not represent the sound “n”, but rather represents the closed mouth – the stoppage of speech. This character functions as its own syllable even! Most appropriately, this character makes the sound of a sort of moan with the teeth touching and lips shut.
But the reality is, it’s more flexible than that! When normally used, the “n” sound is most clearly distinct. At times, like in the word せんぱい (senpai ｜ 先輩) or すみません (sumimasen), it sounds mostly like an “m”. When used in a word like なんきょく (nankyoku ｜ 南極) it sounds more like an “ng”.
Luckily this kind of thing won’t get in the way of your comprehension, whether speaking or listening, but as a soon-to-be Japanese master, it’s only right to be aware of all the details!
Do the Japanese Say L or R?
If you’ve been surrounded by the Japanese language for long enough, then you’ve realized that sometimes the R sounds a lot like an L in Japanese. Well, folks, that’s because it kinda is!
To be more accurate, the Japanese R is somewhere between the “l” and “r” sounds. When this R is found within words, it usually leans more toward an “r” sound. When the R-かな (kana) are spoken on their own, they tend to have more of an “l” sound.
One of our writers who studied Japanese in college had a native Japanese professor. When first learning the hiragana chart, even this Japanese native explicitly stressed that the R be treated as an L. Apparently, that was the way she’d learned it in Japan as a child!
But still, whether more “l” or more “r,” the most important thing is to be soft. The Japanese R definitely does not sound like the “r” in “rainbow”! Instead of using your lips and front of your mouth, use your tongue and throat to produce the Japanese-sounding R.
How to Pronounce Wo In Japanese (を)
を (wo) is a Japanese particle that marks direct objects. While this article is written as “wo”, it’s usually pronounced simply as “o”. At times, depending on the word which precedes or the age of the speaker, it will retain its original sound of “wo”.
Otherwise, get in the habit of pronouncing this particle in the exact same way you’d pronounce the vowel お (o)!
When Ha changes to Wa in Japanese
As a basic rule of Japanese Grammar, the character は (ha) is also used as a particle that marks the subject of a sentence. Whenever used in this manner, this は particle is pronounced instead as “wa”.
The pronunciation is exactly the same as the character わ (wa). For that reason, the character は has two pronunciations, both of which are used frequently. Only practice, exposure, and context will inform you on which pronunciation is correct for which time, so keep studying!
Strange Combinations in Katakana
Remember early in this article how we mentioned that Katakana is used (originally) for foreign words only? Well, that’s all true – and as you know, some foreign words have sounds that are not found in the Japanese language at all. So how did the Japanese deal with recreating these strange sounds? They got creative.
Katakana breaks all the rules when necessary to create a foreign word: てんてん (tenten | 〃) gets used on characters which would otherwise never receive them, vowels become “small”, much like the small っ we went over before, and completely new consonants make their way to the stage.
This can be hard to picture if you haven’t seen it before, so here are some examples:
- ヴァイオリン (vaiorin) – violin
Notice the 〃on the first character ウ (u), followed by the small ア (a). For the record, when 〃is placed on the character ウ (u), it most closely represents the letter V.
- ミネルヴァ・ミネルウァ (mineruva) – Minerva
At rare times, the 〃is omitted to achieve the same effect in spelling and pronunciation.
- フェイスブック (feisubukku) – Facebook
These are just a few examples – the combinations are endless, as was intended.
The Most Common Japanese Pronunciation Mistakes
There are a few common mistakes in Japanese pronunciation that are worth mentioning and making you aware of.
English is full of diphthongs. Diphthongs are basically when 2 more vowel sounds come together to form a new, “gliding” sound. Think of the word “proud” for example; the ou in proud blends together to create a sound totally separate from the individual vowels on their own. And so what about diphthongs in Japanese?… They don’t exist!
A most common mistake for native English speakers learning Japanese is to mutate vowel sounds out of habit when pronouncing Japanese words. Japanese vowels are always pure and will always sound the same, no matter how they are combined. So don’t use diphthongs in Japanese!
Shortened Double Vowels
Fully pronouncing the long vowels in Japanese is as important as pronouncing the second o in fool. If you just pronounce fol, you’re not quite speaking English.
Since the sound of vowels never changes in Japanese, it’s often that English speakers neglect the importance of their extension and just shorten the double vowel. This is a huge mistake, especially since a word can be completely different depending on whether or not it has a long vowel.
Take for example the word おばあさん (obaasan | grandma). Without the long vowel, this word becomes おばさん (obasan) which means aunt, or, “anonymous middle-aged stranger lady who I don’t know.” It’s important to make a clear distinction there when speaking!
At times when the vowel sounds of (i) and (u) follow certain characters, they are barely pronounced or not pronounced at all. Take for example the word すき (suki | 好き), which means “like/likes.” This word sounds more like “skki” than anything else, as the (u) sound remains silent.
All polite-form verbs ending in ます (masu) can and usually do behave in this way, although to pronounce the final (u) sound would not be wrong.
The thing is, mastering this rule takes practice and exposure, as not all words work this way. You would always have to pronounce the (u) in すし (sushi | 寿司), or the (I) in しぶや (shibuya | 渋谷) to sound fluent. After a while, you gain a 6th sense of what feels natural in the language!
Tips to Improve Japanese Pronunciation
Aside from studying, implementing, and eventually mastering all of the information presented in this article, here are some of the best tips to improve Japanese pronunciation quickly!
Mimic All Things Japanese
Mimicry is a skill worth developing as a language learner of any language, even your own! Luckily, there’s no shortage of resources to pool from these days – internet shows, TV dramas, films, audiobooks, etc. Try to surround yourself with Japanese culture and content and mimic everything that comes your way!
One of the best ways to mimic people (and better understand their way of thinking) is to get a native-speaking language partner. Remember, mimicry includes not only the cadence in how you speak but also your mannerisms and patterns of movement. Don’t be afraid to parrot what you absorb in front of others (or yourself for that matter) until it starts to come naturally to you!
A Quick Tip: Native Japanese men and women communicate differently. When it comes to mimicry, it’s best to get a language partner of the same sex. If your language partner is of the opposite sex, ask them to correct your speech and mannerism to match your own sex whenever you make a mistake!
Master Your Cadence
Cadence can be summarized as the rhythm of speech. As you approach fluency, your Japanese speaking skills should be more and more rhythmic and melodic. More specifically, we’d recommend focusing on correct intonation and pausing when speaking.
We’ve already discussed how proper pausing can influence Japanese, as with the small っ. Using proper intonation not only makes you more comprehensible but can also change the meaning of your words.
Take for example, these two words:
- あめ (ame | 雨) – rain
- あめ (ame | 飴) – candy
The characters for both of these words are exactly the same – the only distinction lies in the emphasis of the characters (i.e. intonation).
We also suggest that you speak with enthusiasm and verbosity, kind of like how a child would when learning to speak. Doing so may be embarrassing, but for that same reason, you become fully exposed to where you stand in the language. It’s a fast track to Japanese success!
The Importance of Good Japanese Pronunciation
Communication is the bridge between cultures. The spoken language is the blueprint for that bridge, and pronunciation is one of its major supports. If you care anything about experiencing that cross-cultural bridge, pronunciation needs to be a part of your focus.
Good pronunciation turns your hard-studied Japanese into something that can actually be used effectively with native speakers. Otherwise, speaking with poor pronunciation will alienate you from the language and the Japanese people.
If you intend on working in Japan, proper pronunciation means listener comprehension, which is a precursor to working with others. And, of course, understanding the rules of pronunciation helps you understand what other people are saying or intend to say.
As a communicator and student of Japanese, we’d say that good pronunciation should be at the top of your list for practice!
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