In English, we use letters to represent sounds; however, in Japanese, we use characters. There are three kinds of these characters in Japanese: hiragana, katakana and kanji. We also use rōmaji to help with the pronunciation of Japanese.
Rōmaji and Japanese pronunciation
Rōmaji is the romanization of Japanese words to help with beginners Japanese pronunciation. Rōmaji uses the same letters that we use in English. We will be providing you with the rōmaji whenever we introduce you to a Japanese word to help you with pronunciation, so let’s get familiar with how it works!
Rōmaji is read the same way as you would read a text in English; however, since we are reading Japanese, the pronunciation is a little different. Let’s take a look at some real life Japanese examples to figure it out!
Note : Rōmaji should only be used as a reading aid until you’re familiar with the Japanese writing system - you won’t see any rōmaji in Japan!
An Important Note on Japanese Characters
Each audio example has four lines. The first shows what you would see written in Japan - normally kanji, or kanji mixed with kana (hiragana and katakana). Sometimes, though, there is no kanji for a word, so it will just be kana.
The second line is kana with spacing. This is a reading guide for you, to help you figure out how each word is pronounced using the Japanese alphabets.
The third line is rōmaji. This will help you to pronounce the Japanese characters and read what is written in Japanese.
The fourth line is English, where you can see how to translate the Japanese.
Let’s take a look at some sounds in Japanese so that you can get familiar with the pronunciation. Although they might look like they are pronounced the same way as English when you see the rōmaji, they can sound quite different! Don’t worry though, we’re here to show you the ropes.
Japanese has five vowels. Nearly every single syllable (unit of sound) in Japanese has a vowel in it, so it’s important to be able to pronounce them correctly. If you can learn to pronounce these five, the rest of the sounds in Japanese will be easy!
The five vowels in Japanese are similar to the English: “A,” “E,” “I,” “O” and “U.” Let’s take a look at how the pronunciation is different in Japanese.
sounds like "a" as in "art”
sounds like "ee" as in "meet”
sounds like "oo" as in “food”
sounds like "e" as in “bed”
sounds like "o" as in "orange"
The sounds should be short and clipped, and you should always pronounce vowels the same way as above when you see them written in rōmaji.
Unlike English, most consonants in Japanese cannot make a sound without a vowel. Nearly all consonants need to join with a vowel to make a syllable.
Now that you can pronounce vowels, consonant sounds will be easy to pronounce! All you have to do is add a consonant sound before the vowel sound! These are also short and clipped.
Give these ones a try!
sounds like “ca" as in "car”
sounds like "kie" as in "cookie”
sounds like "coo" as in “cool”
sounds like "ke" as in “kept”
sounds like "co" as in "cord"
Most of these consonants sound very similar to English, but there are a few that are a little different. Here’s some tricky ones for you to practice!
Japanese Pronunciation Tips
The “F” Sound
In Japanese, the “f” sound is created with pursed lips, like you’re whistling, and is a very subtle sound. Listen to the examples below and practice it for yourself.
Practice Your Pronunciation With Rocket Record
Rocket Record lets you perfect your Japanese pronunciation. Just listen to the native speaker audio and then use the microphone icon to record yourself. Once you’re done, you’ll get a score out of 100 on your pronunciation and can listen to your own audio playback. (Use a headset mic for best results.) Problems? Click here!
The “R” Sound
Another tricky sound is the “r” sound. The Japanese “R” is a sound between an English “L” and “R,” and it’s actually closer to the “l” sound.
The Special Character ん
The character ん (n) is the only consonant that can stand alone without a vowel. Pretty special, right?
The character ん (n) can come at the end of a word or in the middle. It is a little tricky because its pronunciation changes depending on the sound that follows it - let’s explain what we mean by that.
When ん (n) has a vowel after it or comes at the end of a word, the vowel before ん (n) becomes longer and nasalized.
When ん (n) is followed by "n," "t," "d," "s" or "z" sounds, it is pronounced as the letter "N" as in the English word “train.”
hello / good day
When ん (n) is followed by an "m," "p" or "b" sound, it is pronounced like the letter “M” in the English word “mother.”
Lastly, when ん (n) is followed by a “k” or “g” sound, it is pronounced like the “ng” sound in the English word “song.”
electricity / light
These different pronunciations of ん (n) are very subtle, so don’t worry too much if it’s hard to tell the difference at first! The main thing to remember is that the character ん (n) is the only consonant that does not need to go with a vowel.
Japanese also has double consonants. These are written using a smaller version of the character つ (tsu). When you see two consonants next to each other, like “TT” or “KK," insert a little pause before the “t” or “k” sound. For example:
a little bit
We will go over all of this again in the Writing lessons, so just remember the pronunciation differences for now!
When there are two vowels beside each other or doubled up, it is called a “long vowel” and the pronunciation of that vowel becomes twice as long. In rōmaji, we represent long vowels by using a macron (-) on top of the vowel. For example:
It is important to pronounce these sounds as long vowels because they can sometimes change the meaning of a word entirely! Take these two similar-sounding words as an example - can you hear the difference in the long vowel?
Silent and Short Vowels
In some words, vowels are shortened, or might even sound like they’re not there at all! This is common with the vowels い (i) and う (u) when they are placed between the consonants "K," "S," "T," "P," "H" or when they come after one of these consonants.
When we pronounce these words, we almost leave out the vowel sound altogether. Listen to the examples below and try it for yourself!
little / few
The Japanese language has something called a “stress accent.” Stress accent is about where stress is placed in a word. Each syllable is still pronounced equally in length but changing the stress placement of a word can also change the meaning entirely!
This difference in stress is known as “intonation,” and is something that can be a bit tricky to get used to. But don’t worry: we are here to help!
Have a listen to the intonation in the examples below. The stress in each word is shown in bolding.
Here’s a tip: if you’re not sure which word someone is saying, try guessing the word based on the context of the sentence! It wouldn't sound right if someone was talking about crossing a “chopstick” or eating the “rain,” would it?
On a side note, intonation in Japanese can also change depending on which part of Japan you’re in. In the Kansai region, for instance, the intonation of “candy” and “rain” is the other way around! But don’t panic: most parts of Japan will follow the standard intonation.
Once you learn how to use intonation correctly, your Japanese pronunciation will sound even more natural!
Practice your pronunciation of Japanese
Now that you know the most important sounds in Japanese, let's get some practice with them. We'll use some really important phrases as examples so that you can start speaking right away!
Hello / Good day.
(I am) sorry.
Goodbye. / Farewell.
See you later.
Note that さようなら (sayōnara) or “goodbye” is often said when you will not see someone for a long period of time, whereas じゃあ また (jā mata) or “see you later” is more informal but used more often in daily conversation.
Let’s take a look back at the main points we learned in this lesson!
Japanese is made up of three types of characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
There are five vowels in Japanese - あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e) and お (o) - and each can make a syllable by itself.
All Japanese consonants need to join with a vowel to make a syllable, except for ん (n).
Several Japanese consonants are pronounced differently from English consonants, even if they look the same.
A vowel with a macron over it is called a “long vowel” and is pronounced twice as long.
The Japanese language uses “stress accent,” so it’s important to pay attention to which part of the word is stressed.
Good job! Now that you’ve got a good understanding of how to pronounce Japanese and know some basic phrases, we can start making sentences!
Culture: The Origin of Japanese Characters
With three different sets of characters, the Japanese language is known to be extremely complex. But did you know that before the 5th century, Japan had no written language at all?
In fact, the first recorded mention of the Japanese language wasn’t until the 8th century, when a scholar named Wani introduced the Chinese writing system (what we know now as “kanji” in Japanese) to Japan. At first, these characters were only used in the Japanese courts by bilingual officials, but gradually they became more and more mainstream.
The Japanese had decided to adopt the Chinese characters, simplify them and create a written language of their own; however, they ran into a few problems - the biggest being that Chinese characters were designed for the Chinese language structure, and not Japanese!
There were many words and concepts in Japanese that had no Chinese equivalents and could not be expressed using just Chinese characters. To counter this, the Japanese developed a new writing system to replace these characters and began to use them for their sounds rather than for meanings.
These new characters became known as 万葉がな (man’yōgana) and it was from the cursive style of this script that hiragana was born! Although, at the time, hiragana was not considered a “script”: but more like a style of writing.
Hiragana quickly gained popularity among uneducated women because of how simple it was to write. So much so, that it became known as 女手 (onnade), which translates literally to “women’s writing.”
Then, in the 9th century, the Buddhist priest Kūkai invented katakana as a simplification of 万葉がな (man’yōgana), to add readings and explanations to the Buddist sutras.
Nowadays, these three sets of characters make up the Japanese writing system that we know and use! Now that you know the history of the Japanese writing system, it makes a lot more sense why there are three scripts, doesn’t it?
ancient Japanese writing system
Make It Stick With Rocket Reinforcement
Reinforce your learning from this lesson with the Rocket Reinforcement activities!