Japanese Language: Pronounciation



Unlike English, Japanese vowels are always pronounced the same. In English, for example, the letter 'a' is pronounced differently in these words: 'father', 'ache', 'and', 'cat'.

In Japanese syllabaries, the vowels are always put in this order:

 Letter   Pronounced like   Hiragana   Katakana 
a 'a' in 'father'
i 'i' in 'machine'
u 'ue' in 'blue'
e 'e' in 'hey'
o 'o' in 'go'

There is only one consonant that is not followed by a vowel: in hiragana , in katakana , it is pronounced as 'n' or 'm', depending on the context.

Consonants in Japanese are generally softer than the corresponding sound in English. Aside from the n / m mentioned above, consonants are always followed by a vowel to make a syllable. Again, the order shown below is the standard order for Japanese syllabaries. Note: syllables that break an expected pattern are shown in red.

NOTE the Japanese characters here are just showing off. The main point is to see how to pronounce the romaji in the sample vocabulary and statements pages.

 Syllable   Pronounced like   Hiragana   Katakana 
ka 'ca' in 'calamity'
ki 'key'
ku 'coo' as in 'cool'
ke 'Kay'
ko 'co' in 'cold'
sa 'sa' in 'salsa'
shi 'she'
su 'Sue'
se 'say'
so 'so'
ta 'ta' in 'tarp'
chi 'chee' in 'cheese'
tsu "s you" in "it's you"
te rhymes with 'stay'
to 'toe'
na last 'na' in 'banana'
ni 'knee'
nu 'new'
ne 'neigh' in 'neighbor'
no 'no'
ha 'ha'
hi 'he'
fu between 'hu' and 'fu'
he 'hay'
ho 'hoe'
ma 'ma'
mi 'me'
mu 'moo'
me 'may'
mo 'mow'
ya 'ya'
yu 'you'
yo 'yo!'
ra between 'ra' and 'la'
ri between 're' and 'lee'
ru between 'rue' and 'loo'
re between 'ray' and 'lay'
ro between 'roe' and 'low'
wa 'wa' in 'wander'
o 'oh'

The above (both tables and the n / m) comprise the 46 syllables in the kana. The gaps shown represent characters that are no longer used in modern Japanese.

But the talk about "only 46 syllables" is a bit disengenous, I'm afraid. Some of the above syllables may have a special mark appended to produce a new sound. The marks are shown as two small dots (  ゛, called "nigori") or a small circle (  ゜, called "maru"). The additional sounds are as follows:

 Syllable   Pronounced like   Hiragana   Katakana 
ga 'ga' in 'garage'
gi rhymes with 'glee'
gu 'goo'
ge 'gay'
go 'go'
za rhymes with 'spa'
zhi 'gee' / 'ji'
zu 'zoo'
ze rhymes with 'say'
zo rhymes with 'so'
da 'do' in 'Don'
dJi rhymes with 'dee' in 'deed'
dzu rhymes with 'zoo'
de 'day'
do 'doe'
ba 'bo' in 'bob'
bi 'bee'
bu 'boo'
be 'bay'
bo 'bow' in 'rainbow'
pa 'pa'
pi 'pea'
pu 'pooh'
pe 'pay'
po 'po' in 'poet'


Furthermore, there are some combinations that produce separate sounds. In particular, the -ya, -yu, and -yo syllables may be written small following the "-i" form of most other syllables. The result is written as two syllables but pronounced as one. Here we are:

 Syllables   Pronounced   Hiragana   Katakana 
ki + small ya kya きゃ キャ
ki + small yu kyu きゅ キュ
ki + small yo kyo きょ キョ
shi + small ya sha しゃ シャ
shi + small yu shu しゅ シュ
shi + small yo sho しょ ショ
chi + small ya cha ちゃ チャ
chi + small yu chu ちゅ チュ
chi + small yo cho ちょ チョ
ni + small ya nya にゃ ニャ
ni + small yu nyu にゅ ニュ
ni + small yu nyo にょ ニョ
hi + small ya hya ひゃ ヒャ
hi + small yu hyu ひゅ ヒュ
hi + small yo hyo ひょ ヒョ
mi + small ya mya みゃ ミャ
mi + small yu myu みゅ ミュ
mi + small yo myo みょ ミョ
ri + small ya rya りゃ リャ
ri + small yu ryu りゅ リュ
ri + small yo ryo りょ リョ
gi + small ya gya ぎゃ ギャ
gi + small yu gyu ぎゅ ギュ
gi + small yo gyo ぎょ ギョ
zhi + small ya ja じゃ ジャ
zhi + small yu ju じゅ ジュ
zhi + small yo jo じょ ジョ
bi + small ya bya びゃ ビャ
bi + small yu byu びゅ ビュ
bi + small yo byo びょ ビョ
pi + small ya pya ぴゃ ピャ
pi + small yu pyu ぴゅ ピュ
pi + small yo pyo ぴょ ピョ


All vowels and some consonants may appear as doubled. Doubling never changes the tone or sound. But doubled vowels hold their sound about twice as long and doubled consonants are actually repeated. Doubling in romaji, in these notes, is shown simply by repeating the doubled letter. Other texts have slightly different approaches, and in kana doubling is represented somewhat differently, but we won't worry about that here.