One of the very first things learners need to work on to start learning Japanese is mastering correct pronunciation. When you’re first getting started with Japanese, there’s a lot to sort through, from writing to reading to becoming conversational. But pronunciation will make a huge difference in understanding Japanese speakers and making yourself understood.
The good news is that pronouncing Japanese words the right way isn’t necessarily all that hard. In fact, once you get used to the basic sounds of the language, it’s actually fairly easy to start reading and pronouncing Japanese words correctly.
And, to make things even easier for you, we’ve put together this handy guide to help you take off on the right foot!
Getting started with Japanese pronunciation
What you see is what you get
The first thing you need to know when it comes to reading and pronouncing Japanese is that there are a defined set of sounds in the Japanese language.
See, the Japanese alphabets hiragana and katakana are actually not alphabets at all, but syllabaries – the difference being that while an alphabet puts individual sounds and letters together (often resulting in a lot more room for interpretation), a syllabary turns whole syllables, like “ma” or “bo” into single characters.
What does that mean for you right now? In short, by and large, when you see a Japanese word, what you see is what you get. If you know the basic Japanese sounds, there’s not a lot of guesswork to figure out how it’s pronounced.
For example, mi (or み) will always be pronounced like the English word ‘me’ and bu (or ぶ) will always be pronounced like a short “boo”, no matter the context.
So, once you learn to identify and say these syllables, you’ll be well on your way to spot-on pronunciation.
Reading and writing: Romaji, be gone
Which brings us to our next important point for getting started: if you want to learn to pronounce Japanese correctly, you should skip learning Japanese in romaji altogether and go straight to working on your Japanese alphabets (or, well, writing systems, to be technical about it).
Romaji is the name for the Roman alphabet (that’s a, b, c… the letters you’re reading right now) when applied to Japanese words. So, for example, the word mochi is written just like that in romaji: mochi, while in Japanese it’s typically written:
もち も = mo ち = chi
Many new learners try to start learning in romaji then eventually switch over to Japanese writing, but that’s just not the best way to learn.
The biggest problem with leaning on romaji is that English sounds (or French or Spanish sounds, or whatever your first language may be!) don’t actually line up directly with Japanese sounds. When you see Japanese written in romaji, your brain will want to apply the pronunciation you’re used to. So why go through the hassle? It’s much easier to simply learn the basic Japanese characters and start from there.
Alright, with all of that out of the way, let’s get to pronouncing some Japanese sounds!
Let’s start with vowels, since they’re really the building blocks of the language. (Japanese vowels are quite similar to Italian vowels, if that bit of information helps you!)
Japanese has 5 vowels, organized as: a i u e o.
Vowels in Japanese
|Roman alphabet||Hiragana||Pronounced||Sounds like|
Hiragana and the basic sounds
Once you can pronounce those vowels, you’re ready to start tackling all of the basic Japanese sounds that appear in the hiragana chart (and katakana chart, for that matter – the sounds are the same, the alphabets are just used for different things, but that’s a story for another time).
While we strongly suggest you go learn those other alphabets (it’s not that hard! You can do it! Ganbattene [or should we say, がんばってね]!), for the purposes of this section, we’re going to use romaji just to get you started.
So here they are, arranged the way you’d see them in a Japanese hiragana chart. Take a look and give it a try.
Basic Japanese sounds in the Hiragana chart
|a あ||i い||u う||e え||o お|
|ka か||ki き||ku く||ke け||ko こ|
|sa さ||shi し||su す||se せ||so そ|
|ta た||chi ち||tsu つ||te て||to と|
|na な||ni に||nu ぬ||ne ね||no の|
|ha は||hi ひ||fu ふ||he へ||ho ほ|
|ma ま||mi み||mu む||me め||mo も|
|ya や||yu ゆ||yo よ|
|ra ら||ri り||ru る||re れ||ro ろ|
|wa わ||o を|
|ga が||gi ぎ||gu ぐ||ge げ||go ご|
|za ざ||ji じ||zu ず||ze ぜ||zo ぞ|
|da だ||jiぢ||zu づ||de ど||do ど|
|ba ば||bi び||bu ぶ||be べ||bo ぼ|
|pa ぱ||piぴ||pu ぷ||pe ぺ||po ぽ|
Notice some differences from the sounds you’re used to? Fear not – we’ll break down the differences for you in the next section.
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Learn to pronounce Japanese like a pro
Ok, so you’ve learned the basic sounds, now let’s talk about the exceptions and differences when going from English to Japanese pronunciation.
While, by and large, the sounds above are all the sounds you’ll need to make to master Japanese pronunciation, there is another set of sounds made by combining these sounds to make new ones that you’ll come across. These sounds use smaller versions of the y-vowels ya (や), yu (ゆ), and yo (よ) to make new sounds, like “gyo”, “myu”, and “cha”. There are a few little funky things you’ll need to learn but, knowing everything you do know, you can pretty much tackle those too. (For a complete list, you can head to our Learn Hiragana page!)
Japanese vs. English: New and different sounds
More importantly, there are some specific differences that make the way Japanese is pronounced unique. So let’s take a look at the Japanese sounds that don’t line up with English pronunciation.
What’s written as an R in romaji is by far the most famous difference between Japanese and English. There’s really no R or L in Japanese, but rather a different sound halfway between the two.
Our R and L and the Japaneseらりるれろ are all what’s called alveolar voiced liquids, for the linguistics-inclined. For the rest of us, that means they’re all made by doing similar things with your mouth.
To start working on your pronunciation, try saying an “L” and then an “R”, paying close attention to where you put your tongue. To make the Japanese “R” (not really an r but you get the idea), put your tongue halfway between those two places. It should touch the hard part of the roof of your mouth, but faster than it would to make an L. You can keep working on it, but that’ll get you a pretty close approximation!
The “fu” in Japanese is another sound that doesn’t really exist in English. You could think of it like a subtler, softer “fff” sound. While we make an F with our top teeth and bottom lip, this is a f-like sound made only with the lips, sort of like a loose, relaxed whistle. So try making an F, then put your teeth away and see what comes out and you’re on your way.
Exceptions in Japanese pronunciation: When reading does not = writing
Here are a few more quirks you’ll need to know to really nail your Japanese pronunciation.
ん can = n, m, ng
This is pretty much what it looks like! The character ん is usually translated as an “n”, but in practice, it can take on several different sounds, usually determined based on what simply feels or sounds right. As you learn vocabulary, take note of how the sound changes and you’ll get a feel for which goes where and when.
We drop す, ち, and し
One of the biggest things that trips up new Japanese learners is the fact that, in many Japanese words, the syllables su, chi, and shi get deemphasized, especially when appearing in the middle or at the end of the word. So, for example, if you say, “Emily desu”, I am Emily, you’ll pronounce it “Emily des.” The name Sasuke? Pronounced like “Saske”.
With that in mind, try pronouncing these other common Japanese vocabulary words:
Itadakimasu (an expression of appreciation used at the beginning of a meal) Arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much)
Long and short sounds
This is getting a bit more complicated, so we’ll keep it short since you’re just getting started. You’ll notice as you get a little further into your Japanese learning that there are places where vowels and consonants are doubled up, or where you see these symbols: ー (generally only used in katakana) and small tsu, which is っ in hiragana or ッ in katakana.
ー = long っ or ッ = short
Basically, some syllables in some words need to be held a little longer. Take, for example, the word ramen.
ラ = ra ー indicates a longer syllable, so linger on that “a” a little メ = me ン = n
If you want to practice Japanese pronunciation with a few words that use doubled sounds to indicate length, try:
おおきい ookii (big)
Here, we have two お (o) characters to indicate a long “oh” sound – it doesn’t become “oo” like an English “moo” or “loon”, it stays “oh”, just longer.
からあげ karaage (fried chicken)
こんにちは konnichiwa (hello)
Vocab problems: Same syllables, different pitch
Japanese has relatively limited intonation as compared to English, but there is something called ‘pitch’ in the Japanese language.
Pitch tells you where the stress is placed in a word or sentence. There are words which look identical in hiragana or romaji because, but for their pitch (and the kanji used to write them), they are.
For example, あめ/ame can be雨 (rain) and 飴 (candy) – only the sound of the words is different. Ame as “rain” has the stress on A, whereas ame as “candy” stresses the ME.
While Japanese isn’t tonal like Chinese or Thai (where every word has a specific pitch to be understood), there are a few words where it makes all the difference.
And finally, note on natural Japanese pronunciation from our resident Japanese expert
“What does the Japanese language sound like to you? Frequently, when Japanese people hear the English language, they feel like they'll drown in the wave of sounds. If the English language is a wild sea with high waves and low depths, the Japanese language is a calm pond with few waves – Japanese often sounds quite flat.
Of course, everyone has their own way of talking. If you watch yakuza movies or anime, you’ll likely notice that the characters have quite an exciting way of speaking. But when spoken among regular people, Japanese usually sounds more monotonous and does not have a lot of obvious intonation when spoken naturally.
When you speak Japanese, try to relax and speak ‘flatly’, without stressing particular sounds or words. That’ll give you a good start in sounding quite authentic.”
And that’s everything you need to know to start to pronounce Japanese correctly
In the end, the most important thing you can do to nail your Japanese pronunciation is to study and take time to listen to Japanese speakers to get a feel for the language. But, hopefully, this guide will give you a leg up as you get started!
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