Basic Japanese

Fuji-yama by Yamashita Kiyoshi

PRONUNCIATION(発音 hatsu-on)

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Vowels and Consonants

The Japanese language has only five short-vowels. They are not "A E I O U", but "A I U E O ", which are arranged in a Japanese way. y and w are called semi-vowels. They are very short "i" and "u" respectively. When you pronounce them, you had better not squeeze your lips too strongly.

Pronouncing Japanese Vowels.

-- as in



--as in



--as in



--as in



--as in


You also need long-vowels. When written in Roman alphabet, either aa , â or ah is preferred. But, sorry to say, as for long-vowels, the integrated writing sytem has not been adopted yet. For example, 東京 should be written "Tookyoo","Tohkyoh" or "Tôkyô", but as you see on the signboard of the airport, it is simply written as "Tokyo". From here on, I would like to write "Tookyoo"or "Too-kyoo".

All these vowels are used independently, or used with other consonants to form "a syllable". There are fifteen basic consonants. They are k, s, sh, t, n, h, m, r, g, d, z, b, ts, ch and j. Consonants and semi-vowels are never pronounced independently. Make sure that they must always be acommpanied by one of the five vowels in the latter part of a syllable. This is called CV structure (consonant vowel struture).

Examples ; t + a = ta, k + e = ke, s + o = so, s + o + n = son

For example, a Japanese word derived from an English word. You will be surprised see how greatly altered they are. "strike" is turned into "su-to-ra-i-ki" (stop working) or "su-to-ra-i-ku"(beseball term), "friend" into "hu-ren-do", and "price" into "pu-ra-i-su" and so on.

The table below includes 5 vowels, 2 semi-vowels, 7 voiceless consonants, and independent n sound. They make up fifty syllables.

The Table of Fifty Syllables (usually written in Hiragana or Katakana)

a i u e o
ka ki ku ke ko
sa shi(1) su se so
ta chi (2) tsu (3) te to
na ni nu ne no
ha(4) hi hu he ho
ma mi mu me mo
ya - yu - yo
ra ri ru re ro
wa n

note(1) There is no sucn Japanese sound as "si". This should be pronounced as in " she ", not as in " sea " Generally, Japanese people call Disney Sea "de-zu-nii shii"!

note(2) There is no sucn Japanese sound as "ti". This is as in "catch", not as in " tip ".

note(3) There is no sucn Japanese sound as "tu". This is as in "nuts", not as in " two ".

note(4) All these five Hs are not found in English, only similar to " what " or " where "

Consonants k, s, t are voiceless. From "k" a voiced sound "g" is produced., from "s" "z" and from "t", "d".

"h" itself is not a voiceless sound, but curiously, Japanese people consider "b" as a voiced form of "h", and "p" a semi-voiced version of "h".

Voiceless sounds above are called "SEI-ON 清音", and these 25 voiced sounds below are called "DAKU-ON 濁音".

When a vowel is followed by a voiceless consonant to form a word, it is often turned into a voiced sound, because it is easier to pronounce. EX. hira (easy to learn) + kana (elementary letter) ⇒ hira-gana, or o ( small ) + kawa ( river ) ⇒ o-gawa

The Table of Voiced Sounds

ga gi gu ge go
za ji (5) zu ze zo
da di (6) du (7) de do
ba bi bu be bo
pa pi pu pe po

note(5) There is no sucn Japanese sound as "zi". This is as in "jeep", not as in "zip"nor as in "leisure"

note(6) There is no sucn Japanese sound as "di". This is as in "jeep", not as in "did", but in some words borrowed from a foreign language this is often pronounced ad " di". examples speedy *** supiidi handy *** handi

note(7) There is no sucn Japanese sound as "du". This is as in "zoo", not as in "do". Actually, "du "and "zu" are pronounced almost identically.

These combinations are not enough to create Japanese words, so another variation has been added to them. Not a few foreigners will find it difficult to pronounce these sounds below.

Instead of forming two syllables like "ki-ya" "ki-yu" or "ki-yo", some of the fifty syllables above are combined with sem-vowel "y", resulting a shortened form of syallable like "kya" "kyu" and "kyo", which are called palatalized or labio-velarized syllables (YÔ-ON 拗音 ).

In the Tables below are 33 such syllables, and each consonant has three kinds of syllables.


The Table of Palatalized Syllables ( Voiceless )

kya きゃ kyu きゅ kyo きょ
sha しゃ shu しゅ sho しょ
cha ちゃ chu ちゅ cho ちょ
nya にゃ nyu にゅ nyo にょ
hya ひゃ hyu ひゅ hyo ひょ
mya みゃ myu みゅ myo みょ
rya りゃ ryu りゅ ryo りょ

The Table of Palatalized Syllables ( Voiced , Semi-Voiced )

gya ぎゃ gyu ぎゅ gyo ぎょ
ja/zya じゃ ju/zyu じゅ jo/zyo じょ
bya びゃ byu びゅ byo びょ
pya ぴゃ pyu ぴゅ pyo ぴょ

Notes ; In writing Hiragana or Katakana, all these や、ゆ、よ are written about half the size of the consonants.


Another way to produce more syllables is called a geminate consonant (SOKU-ON 促音). A geminate consonant is formed when, theoretically, the two same consonants are combined to be pronounced almost simultaneously. In Arabic, this is called "shadda".

The former syllable can be either a consonant-vowel combination or an independent vowel. The latter syllable must be headed by the two same consonants. These consonants are pronounced "doubly", that is, to stop gushing out your breath momentarily before going on to speak.

Arabic and Korean natives find this easy, but speakers of other languages may have trouble getting satisfactory sounds. This must be perfected, because, as you see below, there are so many examples which are in danger of misinterpretation.

Examples of Geminate Consonants

Compare the ordinary sounds ( left ) and geminate consonants ( right ). You must differenciate these sounds. Otherwise, you will be completely misunderstood. or cannot make yourself understood.

Comapre the right and the left
Ordinary Consonants Geminate Consonants
i-ta (someone was there) いた i-tta (went) 行った
ne-ta (went to bed) 寝た ne-tta (kneaded) 練った
ki-te ( please come to me) 来て ki-tte (postage stamp) 切手
ha-ka (tomb) 墓 ha-kka (inflamation) 発火
i-ki (breath) 息 i-kki (farmers' rebellion) 一揆
ka-ki (persimon) 柿 ka-kki (liveliness) 活気
sa-ka (slope/hill) 坂 sa-kka (writer) 作家
shi-ke (rough sea) 時化 shi-kke (humidity) 湿気

A Long Vowel

Japanese is full of vowels, so you will find many vowels colliding with each other in your mouth. You have to pronounce them both clearly and slowly. As you see below, "me-i" and "me-e-i" are entirely diffrent words. To avoid being misunderstood, foreigners are recommended to put stress on the last vowel but one, as in "meei".

Compare the ordinary sounds ( left ) and long vowels ( right ). Long vowels are usually written in double vowels, such as a-a, i-i, u-u,  e-e, o-o in this text.  They are called CHO-ON 長音.

Compare the right and left
to-ri ( bird ) 鳥 to-o-ri ( street ) 通り
ku-ra ( private warehouse ) 蔵 ku-u-ra-a ( air-conditioner ) クーラー
to-chi ( land ) 土地 to-o-chi ( reign ) 統治
kaki (persimon) 柿 ka-a-ki (khaki) カーキ
toki (time) 時 to-o-ki (earthenware) 陶器
me-i (niece) 姪 me-e-i (great doctor) 名医
i-e (house) 家 i-i-e (no!) いいえ
to-i (gutter) 樋 to-o-i (distant) 遠い
so-shi-ki (organization) 組織 so-o-shi-ki (funeral) 葬式

Nasal Sound

Japanese has a special nasal sound, "-n-", though it is often changed into "-ng-","-m-" and other sounds.  Thy are called HA-TSU-ON 撥音. Compare these sounds. The words on the right are are added with a "-n-" sound in between.

Compare the right and the left
fu-da (bill) 札 fu-n-da (stepped on) 踏んだ
ya-da (I'm reluctant) やだ ya-n-da (stopped raining/snowing) やんだ
bu-ri (Japanese seaperch) ブリ bu-n-ri (separation) 分離
ka-sai (a fire) 火災 Ka-n-sai (an area including Kyoto and Osaka) 関西
se-koo (enforcement) 施行 se-n-ko-o (selection) 選考
shi-dai (a private university) 私大 shi-n-dai (bed) 寝台
ta-ni-n (other people) 他人 ta-n-ni-n (the teacher in charge) 担任

Beat time and keep time

When you hear Japanese people speak, some say it sounds like popping of a machine gun. This is because Japanese syllables are pronounced roughly at the same interval ( These intervals are called MORAS ).  Haiku, one of the most famous forms of Japanese poetry, is rigidly framed into 5, 7, and 5 moras.

Example; 「静けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声」 shi-zu-ke-sa-ya, i-wa-ni-shi-mi-i-ru se-mi-no-ko-e (by 芭蕉 Bashoo) Translation; In the quietness, droning of the cicadas sounds as if it is absorbed into the rock.

There are 17 syllables, but also 17 moras.

Now, if you are a biginner of Japanese, the best way to learn these rhythms, clap your hands as you speak !

Notes ; The number of syllables and of moras does not always agree.

Notes Examples
As for palatalized syllables, they are counted as one mora.

ji-yu-u ( freedom 自由 ) *** 3 moras

jyu-u ( gun 銃 ) *** 2 moras

As for geminate consonants, they are counted as two moras. ki-ta ( came 来た ) *** 2 moras

ki-t-ta ( have cut 切った ) *** 3 moras

As for long vowels, they are counted as two moras. to-ri ( bird 鳥 ) *** 2 moras

to-o-ri ( street 通り ) *** 3 moras

As for nasal sounds, they are counted as one mora. ha-ko ( box 箱 ) *** 2 moras

ha-n-ko ( seal, stamp はんこ ) *** 3 moras



Japanese people like to imitate natural sounds, such as barking of a dog, the flowing sound of a brook, the pattering of rain, and anything that makes ( or seems to make ) sounds. They are called onomatopeoia ( GI-SEI-GO 擬声語 or GI-TAI-GO 擬態語) They are characteristic of repeating the same sound twice.

Examples: GORO-GORO (heavy sound of lightning) PIKA-PIKA (shining ) WAN-WAN (bow-bow) TSURU-TSURU (implying slippery) KACHI-KACHI (hitting something hard as in ice) PEKO-PEKO (kowtowing)



Since the Japanese language has very limitted number of vowels and consonants, there appeared to be too many homonyms ( DO-ON-I-GI-GO 同音異義語). The difference of intonation and accent doesn't help much, because there are many regional variations. "HASHI" means both bridge and chopsticks. You have to make sure that a particular word has a certain meaning by suggesting "hashi you walk over" or "hashi which you pick up rice with".

Examples; KAMI - god, paper, bite(v), hair KITA - north, came(v) KAZE - wind, a cold GAN - cancer, goose, gun AME - candy, rain ME - eyes, bud

There are so many homonyms that Japanese comedians make use of them to make their customers laugh. But for foreigners who have just begun to learn Japanese, they are the main cause of misunderstanding !



Japanese words are not usually stressed, but pronounced higher than the rest of the syllable. They have "pitch-accent". So when you say a Japanese word, you may as well be reminded of musical notes.

dictionary for Japanese accent (NHK)Unfortunately, there is no standard for accent and intonation, lacking national agreement. Indeed, they vary from dialect to dialect. When you open a dictionary for accent and, you will find there are vast differences in them between the northern part of Japan and the western part of Japan.

Only national broadcasting system ( NHK ) is a trusted point of reference. NHK's announcers are thought be a model for speaking standard Japanese, but interpersonal conversation in the Kansai, Kyushu and Tohoku districts is quite different from them.

But this does not mean that there is no standard way of pronouncing. "adobaisu" ( advice ) and "rikon" ( divorce ) which are all high-pitched at the top.

Everybody knows that sayonara means goodbye. "sayonara" is usually pronounced as SAYONARA, not as SAYONARA, or SAYONARA, which are preferred by many foreigners.

Grouping Words / Making Sense Groups

One of the most important things for speaking and writing Japanese language, which has relatively monotonous rhythm, is to make proper breathing with each grammatical group. They are called WAKACHI-GAK 分かち書きI ( literally, cutting into small parts ) and Japanese people themselves haven't been strongly conscious of it so far, because Japanese writing system is made up of three different types of letters, which automatically makes it possible for us to distinguish between sense groups.

But once you speak to the other person, speaking without breathing would makes them unable to understand where the sense group begins and where it ends. People are unconsciously cutting their sentences, but if foreigners neglect these breathing points, it sometimes happens that they don't make sense at all.

Look at the example "kaneokure". There are two ways of making it in two groups. "kane okure ( send me money 金を送れ)" and "kane o kure ( give me money 金をくれ)". Be careful when you speak in a long sentence.

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