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Basic Japanese Sounds


Japanese sounds are easy to hear and pronounce. Each syllable is simple, short, and usually enunciated very clearly. With a little practice, you'll get used to them quickly. This section gets you off on the right foot (or should I say the right sound) by looking at vowels, consonants, and a couple of letter combinations.

Vowel sounds


Japanese has only five basic vowels - a, e, i, o, and u - all of which sound short and crisp - plus their longer counterparts, a, e, i, o, andu. Short and long vowel sounds in Japanese are quite different than they are in English. In Japanese, long vowels have the same sounds as short vowels - you just draw out the sounds for a moment longer. To an English-speaking ear, a long Japanese vowel sounds as if it is being stressed.

Short and long vowel sounds in Japanese are quite different than they are in English. In Japanese, long vowels have the same sounds as short vowels - you just draw out the sounds for a moment longer. To an English-speaking ear, a long Japanese vowel sounds as if it's being stressed.

Japanese Vowel Sounds

LetterPronunciationEnglish Word
with the Sound
Example
aaaaobasan (o-ba-san; aunt)
aa-obaasan (o-ba-san; grandmother)
eeebedSeto (se-to; a city in Japan)
eehh-seto (seh-to; pupil)
iifeetojisan (o-ji-san;uncle)
iiii-ojisan (o-ji-i-san; grandfather
0odometori (to-ri; bird)
0oo-tori (to-o-ri; street)
uufootyuki (yu-ki; snow)
uuu-yuiki (yu-i-ki; courage)

In Japanese, any two vowels can appear next to each other in a word. You may hear them as one vowel sound, but to the Japanese, they sound like two vowels. For example, ai (ah-ee; love) sounds like one vowel - the English i (as in eye) - but to the Japanese, it's actually two vowels, not one. The word koi (koh-ee; carp) sounds like the one-syllable English word coy, but in Japanese, koi is a two-syllable word.

Table below lists some other common vowel combinations. Some of them may sound awfully similar to you, but Japanese speakers hear them differently. Try saying them aloud so that you can hear the differences.

Vowel Combinations

Vowel CombinationPronunciationTranslation
Aia-ilove
Maema-efront
Aoa-oblue
Aua-umeet
Ueu-eup
Koiko-icarp
Koeko-evoice

The vowels i (ee) and u (oo) come out as a whisper whenever they fall between the consonant sounds ch, h, k, p, s, sh, t, and ts or whenever a word ends in this consonant-vowel combination. What do those consonants have in common? They're what linguists call "voiceless," meaning that they don't make your vocal cords vibrate. Put your hand over your vocal cords and say a voiceless consonant like the k sound. Then say a "voiced" consonant like the g sound.

Words with Whispered Vowels

JapanesePronunciationTranslation
SuketoSu-Ke-toskating
KusaiKu-Sa-istinky
AshitaA-Shi-tatommorow
So desuso-du-suthat's right

Words without Whispered Vowels

JapanesePronunciationTranslation
SugoiSu-go-iamazing; wow
KuniKu-nicountry
KaguKa-gufurniture

Consonant sounds


Fortunately, most Japanese consonants are pronounced as they are in English. Table below describes the sounds that you need to pay attention to.

Japanese Consonants Different from English

ConsonantDescription of the SoundExamples
rHere you tap your tounge on the roof of your mouth just once - almost like an English f-somewhere between an f and an h sound.rakuda (ra-ku-da; camel); toca (toh-rah; tiger); tori (toh-ree; bird)
fA much softer sound than the English f-somewhere between an f and an h sound. Make the sound by bringing your lips close to each other and gently blowing air through them.Fujisan (foo-jee-sahn; Mt. Fuji); tofu (tohh-foo; bean curd); fufu (fu-fu; married couple)
tsThe combination is hard to pronounce at the beginning of a word, as in tsunami, although it's easy anywhere else. Try saying the word cats in your head and then saying tsunami.tsunami (tsoo-nah-mee; tidal wave); tsuki (tsu-ki; the moon)
ryThe combination of rand yis difficult to pronounce when it occurs before the vowel o. Try saying ri (ree) and then yo (yoh). Repeat many times and gradually increase the speed until you can pronounce the two sounds simultaneously. Remember that the rsounds almost like a dm English.ryo (ryohh; dormitory); ryokan (ryo-kan; Japanese-style inn)

Like most other languages, Japanese has double consonants. You pronounce these double consonants - pp, tt, kk, and ss - as single consonants preceded by a brief pause. Check out the following examples:



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