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Japanese Pronunciation


      If you know English, you may already know more Japanese than you think. Thousands of English “loan words” are in everyday use in Japan. Most of these common words have been borrowed with no change in meaning. But the pronunciation has been changed.
This can be tricky. On the one hand, you’re secure with the familiarity of the words while on the other, if you pronounce them as you’re used to doing, you won’t be understood. And you probably won’t understand the words when Japanese use them. What should you do? Try to pronounce them the Japanese way.
Here are some examples of familiar words with somewhat different pronunciations in Japanese:







Gasoline gasorin gah-soh-reen
Pocket poketto poh-keht-toh
Pink pinku peen-koo
ballpen borupen boh-roo phen
Supermarket supa soo-paah
Word processor warupo wah-pp-roh
Dress wapisu wahn-pee-soo


Japanese isn’t difficult to pronounce if you follow a few simple guidelines. Take the time to read this section, and try out each sound on the vowel and consonant charts.

To make it even easier for you, each time a new word is introduced in this book, the pronunciation is also shown.

We start with the vowels. If you have studied Spanish, it may help you to know that Japanese vowels are more like those of Spanish than English.


Japanese Vowel


English Equivalent

•as in father
•as in men
•as in see
•as in boat
•as in food


  • akai (ah-kah-ee) red
  • ebi (eh-bee) shrimp
  • imi (ee-mee) meaning
  • otoko (o-to-koh) male
  • uma (oo-mah) horse

The following vowels are like the ones above, but they are held longer

Japanese Vowel







English Equivalent

as in father, but lengthened

as in men, but lengthened

as in see, but lengthened

as in boat, but lengthened

as in food, but lengthened


bata(bah-tah) butter

eigo (eh-goh) English

iiharu (ee-hah-roo)insist

osama (oh-sah-mah)king

yubin (yoo-been)mail


1. Long vowels are important; pronouncing a long vowel incorrectly can result in a different word or even an unintelligible one.

For example:

obasan おばさん (oh-bah-sahn) means aunt
obasan おばさん (oh-bah-sahn) means grandmother

ojisan おじさん (oh-jee-san) means uncle

ojisan おじさん (oh-jee-san) means grandfather

seki せき (seh-kee) means seat

seki せき (seh-kee) means century

2. Sometimes the i and the u aren’t pronounced. This usually occurs between voiceless consonants, (p, t, k, ch, f, h, s, sh), or at the end of a word following a voiceless consonant.

Here’s an example you may already knw:
Sukiyaki (skee-yah-kee)
This word for a popular Japanese dish begins with skee, not soo. The u is not pronounced.

One more example:

Tabemashita (tah-beh-mahsh-tah) I ate
The i is not pronounced.


enpitsu pencil minna all
tenki weather kinen no smoking


buka(ぶか) subordinate bukka(ぶつか) commodity price
kasai(かさい) fire kassai(かつさい) applause
nikki(につき) diary koppu (コツプ) koppu (コツプ)


Hiyaku jump hyaku byouin
jiyou freedom jou ten
biyouin beauty parlor byouin hospital


With a few exceptions, Japanese consonants are similar to those of English. Note those that are different:


The English f is pronounced with a passage of air between the upper teeth and the lower lip. To make the Japanese f, blow air lightly between your lips as if you were just beginning a whistle.


Always as in go, never as in age. You may also hear it pronounced as the ng sound in sing, but not at the beginning of a word.


This is not different from the English r. To make the Japanese r, lightly touch the tip of your tongue to the bony ridge behind the upper teeth, almost in the English d position. It’s more like the Spanish r, but it’s not flapped or trilled.


Always hissed, as in so, never voiced, as in his or pleasure.

And note the following points as well:

1. If you have trouble making these consonants the Japanese way, your English pronunciation will be intelligible and will not be considered incorrect.

2. Some Japanese consonants are doubled. In English, the doubling is important and may change the meaning of a word.

For example:

kite kudasai (kee-teh koo-dah-sah-ee) means
“Please put it (clothing) on”.
kitte kudasai (keet-teh koo-dah-sah-ee) means
“Please cut it”.

In a word with a doubled consonant, don’t say the consonant twice—just hold the sound longer.


Some consonants such as k,t,s and p occur as double consonants. For instance, in otto, [-t-] between [o] and [to] indicates that the sound is suspended between [o] and [to] for the length of one mora ( the length of one beat). Listen to the tape carefully and practice until you fully acquire a sense of moral length.

Oto                      sound                                 (o-to: 2 moras)
Otto                     husband                            (o-t-to: 3 moras)
Shite imasu        be doing something        (shi-te)
Shitte imasu      to know                               (shi-t-te)



Such sounds as kya,kyu,kyo,gya,gyu,gyo,sha,shi,shu,she and sho are counted as one mora sound.

Kyaku                   guest                                   (kya-ku: 2 moras)
Kiyaku                  agreement                         (ki-ya-ku: 3 moras)


1. The length of a syllable in Japanese is almost always constant ( one mora), except for long –vowel syllables and double consonant syllables which are twice as long as other syllables ( 2 moras).

2. There is little stress accent used in Japanese words; instead there is pitch accent. As shown below, a different pitch accent type indicates difference in meaning. Pitch accent types vary in differenr localities and in complex words.

ha  _↑¯ shi       bridge              ki _↑¯ ru       to wear
ha ¯↓_shi         chopsticks      ki ¯↓_ ru        to cut


The vowels I and u are devoiced when they occur between the voiceless consonants of k,s,t, p and h or in desu and masu

tsukue desk    suki like      kikimasu to listen          desu to be


Example :

Sato-san :    ashita tomodachi to ohana o shimasu [→ ]

Mira-san mo isshoni ikimasen ka [→↑ ]

I’ll go to see the cherry blossoms

with my friend tomorrow .

Won’t you come with us, Mr. Miller?

Mira-san :     aa, ii desu ne [ ]
Oh, that sounds good.


Japanese contains many particles---short words which are often called postpositions because they come after other words. These particles help to identify the relationship of the word they follow to other important parts of the sentence.

You already know one particle---か(ka)---which is used to form a question. Here’s a list of the most commonly used particles:

wa/ga Subject markers (more accurately, they occur with words that translate the
(わ/が) English subject).
O (お) Direct object marker. (Sometimes, for emphasis, が(ga) has this function).
Kaか Question marker
No(の) Possessive marker
Ni(に) Indirect object marker. Also translates English to (or in or at when it indicates where something is located).
E (え) Translates English to (in that direction, toward).
De (で) Translates English at when it indicates where an action takes place. Also by (by bus) and of (made of wood).

Particle wa. Topic marker
Wa follows noun 1 indicating that it is the topic under discussion. Noun 2 is then identified and the phrase is concluded with desu. The topic is often the same as the subject, but not necessarily.

Ex. A-san wa bengoshi desu. “Mr. A is a lawyer”.
A-san to B-san wa bengoshi desu. “Mr. A and Mrs. B are lawyers”.

Particle ka. Question marker
The formation of questions in Japanese is easy. Put ka at the end of a sentence and it becomes a question. No change in word order is required even when the question contains interrogative words such as who, what, when, etc. intonation normally rises on the particle ka only.

Hai and Iie
Hai is virtually the same as “yes”. Iie is virtually the same as “no”. It is better, however, to think of hai as meaning, “That’s right”, and iie as meaning, “That’s wrong”. Otherwise negative questions can be a problem.

Omission of topic (noun 1)
When it is obvious to the other person what the topic is, it is generally omitted.
Ex. [Watashi wa] Sumisu desu. “(As for me) I’m Smith”.

Dewa arimasen/ Ja arimasen
Negative form of desu. Ja is more informal than dewa.

To / soshite
These mean “and” but “to’” is used to connect two nouns whereas “soshite” two sentences.


Earlier we saw how particles---short words which come after other words---are important in Japanese. They help to identify the relationship of the word they follow to other parts of the sentence.

By now you’re probably familiar with ka—the particle that’s used at the end of a question. And you’re beginning to feel more comfortable with the particles such as ni, e, and de, which are like the English prepositions, “in”, “to”, and “at”.
Let’s take a closer look at a few others.

Wa and ga are both called subject markers. More accurately, wa is a topic marker, and ga is the grammatical subject marker. Sometimes a sentence can have both.

When you’re learning Japanese, choosing between the wa and ga can be a bit of a challenge. For now, just observe how they’re used in the sentences in these lessons, and you’ll soon get a feel for wa and ga.

O is the object marker. It’s used after the grammatical object of the sentence. Sometimes, for emphasis, ga may be used as an object marker.

No is the possesive marker. It expresses both possesion and the “of the” meaning in English. Let’s see how it works:

teboru NO ue                    the top of the table

kare NO hon                     his book

Maku san NO okusan     Mark’s wife

watakushi NO kuruma   my car

basu NO untenshu           bus driver (driver of the bus)

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