Pronunciation



Japanese pronunciation may seem daunting at first, but the great news is that unlike English, every syllable in the Japanese language is pronounced the same way every time! So, it’s fairly easy for English speakers to pronounce Japanese.

Japanese Vowels

The very first group of sounds you will learn are the vowels. There are 5 vowels in the Japanese language (  a | i | u | e | o  )  (Just like in English and Spanish!) The only odd thing is that the vowel order  in Japanese is different from the vowel order in English and Spanish. You are used to seeing these vowels in this order ( a e i o u  ), however in Japanese the order is  (a i u e o ).

*Click video below to study these vowels.

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Great! Now that you have heard how these vowels are pronounced, let’s go over some English examples of how the Japanese vowels are pronounced as part of a word:

  • a is pronounced as in “art” (ex: aoi = blue)
  • i is pronounced as in “pizza” (ex: ie = house )
  • u is pronounced as in “flu” (ex: uma = horse)
  • e is pronounced as in “egg” (ex: en = yen)
  • o is pronounced as in “open” (ex: neko = cat)

 

Double vowels



In the Japanese language there are a handful of words that have repeated vowels. These are referred to as “double vowels”. You’ll easily recognize them since you will see two vowels directly after one another.

For example:

  • okaasan  (mother)
  • tooi  (far)
  • oishii  (delicious)

When you encounter these double vowels all you have to do is elongate the sound of the vowels. For example, in order to pronounce the word “okaasan” pretend you’re at the doctor’s and he’s asking you to open your mouth wide and say “ahhhh”, (well you don’t really have to open your mouth that wide and look silly when saying “mom” in Japanese, but you get the point!) Simply elongate the sound of the vowel ‘a‘.

Here is a table of words that have double vowels for you to practice with:

Words with double vowels Meaning
ookii big
chiisai small
oneesan older sister

I know I said that Japanese vowels are pronounced the same way every time, and that is true for the most part but there are always exceptions to the rule.

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Did someone say “exceptions”?

Don’t worry, let’s review those exceptions one by one in a way that you will understand! 

Exceptions

1. The “u” in the polite copula “desu” (is/am/are) is silent. So it’s not “deh-soo” but “dess” (There may be times when native speakers pronounce the “u” at the end of “desu” but it is very subtle, so subtle that it will take you some time to realize that they are slightly pronouncing the “u”) but again, keep in mind that the “u” is dropped from the word ‘desu’ 90% of the time.

2. The hiragana “hu = ふ” is pronounced not as a sharp “hu” but is pronounced more like a combination between “fu” and “hu”. Regardless of the way it’s pronounced the hiragana character for fu/hu remains the same “ふ” .

Notice how the hiragana “hu” sounds like a combination of hu/fu although it’s written in romaji as “fu”:

ofuro = bath (as in a Japanese style bathtub)
fushigi = mysterious
fuji san = Mt. Fuji
furu = to fall (refers to precipitation from rain,snow..etc)

*So the sound is never a sharp “hu” or “fu”, its a combination of the two.The sound is relaxed as if blowing air through your lips.