A Guide to Japanese Pronunciation

This page covers the basics of Japanese pronunciation, for those who don't know any Japanese but would like to be able to dive in to grammar, expressions and so on before they've finished learning Hiragana. If you intend to learn Hiragana up front, which many people do, feel free to skip this lesson and move straight to Hiragana and the Japanese Sound System, which includes everything covered here.

Note: the modified Hepburn romanization system, which closely mimics English spelling, is used both on this page and elsewhere on this site.

Basic Sounds

Japanese has a moderate inventory of consonants and only 5 vowels, and most of the sounds exist in English or have a close equivalent.

The Sounds of Japanese
Consonants k, g, s, sh, z, j, t, ch, ts, d, n, h, f, b, p, m, y, r, w
Vowels a, i, u, e, o

In reality, there are a couple of additional consonants, but the variants left out are minor enough that they will not affect your being understood.

The Japanese vowels are very close to those in Spanish.

  • a = "ah", between the 'a' in "father" and the one in "dad"
  • i = "ee", as in "feet"
  • u is similar to the "oo" in "boot" but without rounded lips
  • e is similar to "ay", as in "hay", but is a pure vowel rather than a *diphthong
  • o is similar to "oh", but is a pure vowel rather than a *diphthong

*A diphthong (dif-thong) like two vowels in one – it starts as one vowel and ends as another. Notice how the tongue and lips move as you say the English "oh". But for the Japanese 'e' and 'o', you want the pure vowels; this is fairly easy to mimic if you pay attention.

Most of the consonants are identical to the English spelling, or nearly so. Let's look at a few of the more troublesome.

  • The combo 'ts' is found only at the end of words in English, like in "cats", but in Japanese the sound is found at the beginning of a syllable. Try saying "cats", then "tsunami" – it's the same sound.
  • Next is the Japanese 'f' sound, which is made using only the lips, unlike the English 'f' which uses the bottom lip and upper teeth. Think of it as blowing out a candle, but without rounding your lips. The sound is rather quiet, and often sounds close to an 'h'. Note that both 'ts' and 'f' are only found before 'u'.
  • Finally, we have the infamous Japanese 'r' sound, which really isn't an 'r' at all; the actual sounds is somewhere between an 'l' and a 'd'. To make this sound, first say "butter" or "ladder" at normal speed. The sound in these words in normal speech isn't a 't' or a 'd', but a "flap", the same as the Spanish 'r' in "para". The Japanese 'r' is also a flap, similar to the English/Spanish one. It's a tough sound for English speakers to produce intentionally, and you will need to listen and imitate before you can get it exactly right.

Syllable Structure

The Japanese sound system is heavily based on the mora, the basic unit of sound in Japanese. Each mora takes roughly the same amount of time in Japanese speech.

You can think of a mora as a sort of simple syllable. With a couple exceptions, each mora contains one vowel and may start with a single consonant or a combination of a consonant followed by a 'y'.

Here are some examples:

Mora Type Example
a single vowel a
consonant + vowel se
consonant + 'y' + vowel kyo

It's worth noting that the number of moras in a word may not match the number of traditional "syllables".

Example # of Moras # of Syllables
wa 1 1
ho-n 2 1
*kyo-o 2 1
ka-i 2 1
mata 2 2
ryo-ka-n 3 2
*ga-k-ko-o 4 2

*Doubled vowels and consonants will be discussed below.

Notice the 'n' that appears without an accompanying vowel? This is the syllabic nasal sound (Hiragana ん), which gets a mora of it's own. It's pronounced like the 'ng' in "sing" before 'k' and 'g', as 'm' before 'm', 'b', or 'p', and for our purposes, 'n' elsewhere. In Hepburn romanization, it is always written as 'n'. So the n's in "kangae", "sanpo", and "kondo" are are pronounced 'ng', 'm', and 'n' respectively.

Doubled Vowels and Consonants

The vowel of one mora can be lengthened by adding another vowel directly after it. The rule is as follows:

Spelling Pronunciation
aa aa
ii ii
uu uu
ei/ee ee
ou/oo oo

So 'ei' is always a long 'e', and 'ou' is always a long 'o'. Well, not quite. Whenever these pairs are brought together from two parts of a compound word, they are pronounced distinctly. In practice, these two cases are easy to distinguish.

"Doubled consonants" work similarly. The mouth takes the shape of the consonant, and holds it for an extra mora. This results in an extended sound for 's' and 'sh', and a brief pause for the rest. Only certain consonants can be doubled:

Single Double
k kk
s ss
sh ssh
t tt
ch *tch/cch
ts tts
p pp

*tch is the typical spelling, since 'ch' starts with the tongue in the same position as 't', but the second spelling is sometimes used instead.

So, to use the example "gakkou" (school) again, the pronunciation is ga-k-ko-o. Your breath will stop at the first 'k' and resume for the 'ko', and then the 'o' is held for another mora.

Vowel Devoicing

In order to pronounce Japanese correctly, it's critical that you know a bit about vowel devoicing. When the vowels 'i' and 'u' come between two unvoiced consonants (k, s, sh, t, ch, ts, h, f, p), where the vocal cords don't vibrate, or sometimes at the end of a word, the vowel becomes devoiced. This means exactly what it sounds like – the mouth takes the shape of the vowel, but the vocal cords don't vibrate. The resulting vowel sounds "whispered" or non-existant to English speakers.

There are two particular places that you should focus on as a beginner: in the copula (to-be word) desu, which sounds like "des", and the verb suffix masu, which sounds like "mas". The 'u' in both of these is almost always devoiced in normal speech.

Pitch Accent

One other thing you should at least be aware of is that Japanese makes use of pitch accent, as opposed to stress accent in English. This means that each mora in a word may vary in pitch, but not much in loudness or duration.

The full story is somewhat more complicated, but here are the points you should focus on:

  1. Don't place English-style stress on Japanese words – keep the length of each mora even, and try to match the Japanese intonation once you've had a chance to listen to a native speaker.
  2. Fully pronounce each each vowel, unless you know that it should be devoiced. Most English vowels reduce to an indeterminate "uh" sound in unstressed syllables (like the 'a' in "about"), which you want to avoid in Japanese.

And that's it! Yes, you'll need to learn a bit more in order to perfect your pronunciation, but what you know now is completely adequate for a beginner. Whenever you're practicing speaking, simply keep yourself aware of what we've covered so far:

  1. The harder consonants ('ts', 'f', and 'r')
  2. Pronouncing each mora with equal length
  3. Devoiced 'i' and 'u' (especially in desu and masu)
  4. Pitch accent instead of stress accent

A Note on Spelling

As you continue on into the first few grammar lessons, you'll notice a couple places where I note that the Hiragana spelling of a particular particle (grammar word) doesn't match it's pronunciation. Here are the particles in question:

Particle Hiragana Function
wa は (ha) marks the topic of a sentence
e へ (he) marks the direction of movement
o を (wo) marks the object of a verb

Other than these oddities, Japanese spelling is remarkably consistent.

What Next?

Introduction to the Japanese Writing System

Politeness and Formality in Japanese

Names and Introductions

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