Fundamentals of Japanese – Part 1: Pronunciation

Welcome to the first installment in a series of posts I’m going to be writing about the fundamentals of the Japanese language. Part 1 will be an introduction to the post series as well as covering an aspect of the language I feel is the very first step one should start with when learning it – pronunciation…

I apologize in advance for the introduction being so long, but I feel it’s all important stuff that should get out of the way now.

Introduction

Why am I making this post series?
I had a “Learn Some Japanese” page on my old AnimeYume.com fan site for many years. At first it was just a list of common words and phrases until I decided to do more with it, dividing it into sections much like the ones I’ll be doing for this post series. However, it was terribly outdated as I didn’t even know how to type Japanese characters on my computer back then, and of course my knowledge of Japanese has improved significantly since. So I figured it’s time for it to be updated and I want to see how much better I can make it all these years later, especially here on the blog where I’ll be able to get reader feedback through comments.

I’m not going to be doing all the posts in this series back-to-back. I’ll still continue to do my regular anime-related posts in between and have a Fundamentals of Japanese post every once in a while.

Background
I’ve discussed my background in Japanese in several past posts already, but for those who don’t know, I first began dabbling in a few Japanese words in the early 2000s and began formally studying the language at my junior college in 2004. I took all the Japanese classes that college had to offer (up to Intermediate) and I even had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan for a month with some classmates. When I transferred to a university in 2007, I continued my studies and took courses in Japanese literature, history, art history, politics, and Japanese language up to the end of Advanced. I joined the Japan club at both colleges I attended and got my B.A. in East Asian Languages & Literature. Right after I graduated in 2009, I had another lucky opportunity to spend three weeks in Japan via a private organization. Since then, I’ve been trying to keep up my study of the language through self-study at home, using the many textbooks I have and sites like Lang-8.

As of now, I feel like I have a good grasp of Japanese grammar and only need to learn more kanji (I know about 500+ as of now) and vocabulary. I would say I’m roughly 30%-40% fluent, which obviously isn’t enough to formally teach it to others, but I do feel I know enough to give potential learners a good foundation in the basics of the language.

Aren’t there enough Japanese-learning resources available already?
Probably the main reason I want to do this post series is because, while there certainly are plenty of other Japanese-learning sources out there, from my experience with the kinds of textbooks and teaching methods that are used, I feel that often the fundamentals of the language are glossed over in order to get right to memorizing words and grammar aspects. That happened to me in my very first semester of Japanese where we just went right to learning polite Japanese phrases and didn’t even discuss things like proper pronunciation, how the writing system works, the basics of the grammar, etc. So I ended up having to get separate textbooks on my own and teach myself the fundamentals we didn’t learn in class. I suppose they feel that most people don’t want to learn Japanese as much as just memorize enough to help them in business situations or to get through a vacation in Japan, and aren’t serious about really understanding the language. I think this is why a lot of English-speakers tend to struggle so much in beginner/intermediate Japanese; I feel it’s important to learn about the language first before jumping right into using it. If you don’t have a good foundation in the beginning, things get even more difficult later on.

So again, I know there are plenty of other sources for learning Japanese, but I feel there are a lack of sources that offer a good overview of the very basics. So that’s what I want to give here. And since this is still an anime blog, I’ll try to add anime references when I can to make it more fun, like in sample sentences and such ^_^

Goals
With what I said above, my goal for this post series is to give people starting to learn Japanese from scratch a good foundation in the fundamentals of the language so they can then continue to learn it on their own if they want, or just take what they’ve learned from it to enhance their anime fandom XD Even though the series is intended for people who are total beginners with Japanese, I hope those who already know Japanese will find it interesting too. Any feedback is appreciated!

—–

Now that the long intro is out of the way, let’s get started!

Fundamentals of Japanese – Part 1: Pronunciation

Japanese is a very syllable and vowel-centric language; with only one exception, all of its syllables are made up of a consonant plus one of the following five vowel sounds:

a as in “father”

i as in “machine”

u as in “recuperate”

e as in “set”

o as in “coal”

A breakdown of all the possible syllables in the Japanese language are as follows:

The five basic vowels: a i u e o
k+vowel: ka ki ku ke ko
g+vowel: ga gi gu ge go (always a hard “g” sound, like in “go”)
s+vowel: sa shi su se so (always a soft “s” sound like in “sew”)
z/j+vowel: za ji zu ze zo
t/ch+vowel: ta chi tsu te to
d+vowel: da ji zu de do (the repeats of “ji” and “zu” will be explained in a later section)
n+vowel: na ni nu ne no
h/f+vowel: ha hi fu he ho
b+vowel: ba bi bu be bo
p+vowel: pa pi pu pe po
m+vowel: ma mi mu me mo
y+vowel: ya yu yo
r+vowel: ra ri ru re ro (the “r” sound is soft, somewhere between an English “l” and “r”)
w+vowel: wa, wo
And lastly, the one lone consonant: n

Combinations of some of the above syllables with “ya”, “yu”, and “yo” are also used to create new syllables:
k + y syllables: kya kyu kyo
g + y syllables: gya gyu gyo
s + y syllables: sha shu sho
ch + y syllables: cha chu cho
j + y syllables: ja ju jo
r + y syllables: rya ryu ryo
n + y syllables: nya nyu nyo
m + y syllables: mya myu myo
h + y syllables: hya hyu hyo
b + y syllables: bya byu byo
p + y syllables: pya pyu pyo

In certain words there are also double consonants, such as “kekkon” (marriage) and “issho” (together). These are simply pronounced with a slight “stuck” emphasis on those consonants.

…and that’s it for all the possible sounds in Japanese. Not too difficult at all compared to other languages. While English letters have different pronunciations depending on the letters around them, like the “e” in “elephant” pronounced differently than the “e” in “screen,” and the silent “e” at the end of a lot of words, Japanese syllables always sound the same no matter what word they’re in. So once you know how to pronounce all the above syllables in bold, you’ll be able to say any Japanese word correctly! =)

Now I just want to cover a few more points about pronunciation:

Romanization

The process of writing Japanese words into English is called romanization (the written words are called romaji.) Certain sounds in the English language such as “l,” “v,” and “c” by itself, do not exist in Japanese. So these letters are often written differently in romaji depending on how they sound. “l” is usually replaced with “r,” “v” is usually replaced with “b,” and “c” is replaced with “k” or “s” depending on how it’s pronounced in the word. To give examples, the name “Lina” would be written as “Rina” in Japanese and the name “Celty,” though officially spelled with a “C,” would be written with an “S” since that’s how it’s pronounced.

Because just about all the syllables in Japanese are made up of a consonant plus a vowel, writing an English word or name that has consonants together can be tricky. Often it comes down to taking whatever syllables in the Japanese language sound most like the word. For example, the word “drink” would be written in Japanese as “dorinku,” using the syllables “do,” “ri,” “n,” and “ku.” The name “Alice” would be “Arisu” (a+ri+su) and “Light” would be “Raito” (ra+i+to). People even have different preferences on how they want to romanize the Japanese syllables, for example, some prefer “zu” to be written as “dzu” or “ja” to be written as “jya.” So just be aware that there could be more than one correct way of writing a Japanese word in English.

Long Vowels

There are certain Japanese words pronounced with a long vowel sound, such as “shuumatsu,” “kouen,” and “bataa.” It’s important to take note of which vowels have a long pronunciation and which do not because some words may seem to be exactly the same without this distinction. For example, “shuujin” means “prisoner” while “shujin” means “husband;” “oba” means “aunt” while “obaa” means “grandmother;” “biru” means “building” while “biiru” means “beer.” Correct romanization of these words is important to clarify meaning, but sometimes they are disregarded when written in English. For example, the correct romanization of “Tokyo” is “Toukyou.” But “Tokyo” is considered the correct spelling of the word in English. Since long vowel sounds aren’t as essential in English as they are in Japanese, they’re sometimes omitted as a means of simplifying the word for English speakers. However, they’re extremely important when writing correctly in Japanese because the Japanese characters used in words are different depending on whether the vowel is long or not. The way I see it, “Tokyo” is English while “Toukyou” (to+u+kyo+u) is romaji.

—–

That’s all for Part 1. Now that I’ve talked about how Japanese is pronounced, in Part 2 I’ll be going over how it’s written by discussing its three different alphabets. I plan to have Part 2 up sometime before April is over.

In the meantime, I’ll be back in 3-4 days with an anime post next time! ;)

—–On to Part 2: Reading

31 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Kal says:

    Oh! nice! The pronunciation part is not much of a problem for me, as the vowels have the same pronunciation in Spanish (my 1st language). But the double vowels and consonants make sense… I had heard many words that sound similar, but seemed to have different meanings. I can put attention to that now. I’m not actively learning Japanese, but I try to pay attention to what is being said, and what the translation is when watching anime, and try to connect the dots. Anyway, good read, I like it.

  2. chikorita157 says:

    Since I know how to pronounce it since I studied all the kana and gotten used to how they say stuff from Japanese music and anime, it kind of angers me when other people who try to say Japanese pronounce it wrong. Still, Japanese is a heck lot easier to pronounce than english words, even though I’m native in English.

    Also, I think instructional learning for Japanese is very questionable. Some of them actually used a textbook called Japanese: The Spoken Language that only focus on memorizing grammar and phrases completely in Romanji, but not bother teaching much vocabulary and the writing system. This is why I loathe Romanji because it makes reading a heck lot harder since I’m used to reading everything in kana and kanji.

    As for me, I’m making good progress… Only 1/4 in the second book, but I hope to have more than enough for the proficiency test.

    • Yumeka says:

      You reminded me that one thing I probably should have mentioned in this post is that Japanese tends to put emphasis on the first syllable in 3-syllable words while English speakers like to emphasize the middle syllable. For example, if you listen to how they say “Pikachu” in Japanese, it’s pronounced “PIkachu” while in English it’s usually “PiKUHchu.” “Naruto” is often mispronounced as “NaRUto” instead of “NAruto.” I have to raise an eyebrow when I hear people mispronounce character’s names when I know they’ve watched the series in Japanese ~_^

      As to your second point, I think roumaji is necessary in the beginning but should be replaced with kana/kanji as soon as possible. Better to start getting used to Japanese writing sooner rather than later =P

      Glad to hear you’re making progress in your studies. Keep up the good work!

  3. Kyjin says:

    Nice post! One suggestion: maybe put another example for the “e” sound. I usually think of it as the “ay” in “say”.

    I’m actually curious to see your suggestions for instructional books for those starting out. I’m partial to Genki myself, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to use if you’re studying on your own.

    頑張って!読んでいる人のために役に立つそう。

    • Salion says:

      I could be wrong, since I’m just a novice, but when I listen to people speaking Japanese, it sounds to me like there might be a regional difference in whether e is pronounced like “set” or “say”, i.e. people from different parts of Japan seem to pronounce it a little differently. I’d love a second opinion on whether my observation is correct.

      • Yumeka says:

        I don’t know much about the different dialects of Japanese so I wouldn’t know. All the classes I’ve taken and textbooks I’ve used only cover the standard Tokyo-Japanese. If you decide to research that, let me know if you find anything =)

    • Yumeka says:

      I plan to list recommended books in the last post of the series =)

      I used Genki II when I was studying abroad in Japan for a month and it was a pretty good book. Japanese for Busy People was the one I used in my first semester of Japanese and it was not very good >_< はい、頑張ります!

      • Kyjin says:

        Yeah, I’ve heard not good things about Japanese for Busy People. Don’t they have a separate book for hiragana/kanjii or something like that, and the other’s in romaji?

        Genki’s great. :D I used it for my first two years of Japanese. Actually my class wanted to make Mary/Takeshi fanfic at the end of it. Intermediate books are more hit or miss, though I know some good advanced ones now. Anyway, looking forward to your post!

        • Yumeka says:

          When we used Japanese for Busy People in my class, our other required textbook was a kanji dictionary (that also had kana charts). We mostly used JfBP though…luckily I had already taught kana to myself before taking the class so I can imagine how hard it must have been for people who had absolutely no prior knowledge of Japanese XP

          LOL, I remember Mary and Takeshi from Genki! A fanfic about them, hahah, that’s funny XD

      • flipocrisy says:

        I was actually looking for some books as I’ve finally took the plunge and picked up one of those Genki books. I’m going a self-taught route due to my sched not lining up with nearby class offerings. I’d like to believe I got the pronunciation down thanks to some light “immersion” that I’ve been doing (via music & media intake) but not sure how to approach learning the kana as it seems I should get a handle on it before going into this book.

        Looking forward to hearing your recommendations and more in your post series on this.

        • Yumeka says:

          Thanks for reading! I think my post series will be helpful to you, especially the one about kana which will be coming soon =)

          I haven’t used Genki 1 but since Genki 2 was good, I’m sure 1 is good too.

  4. glothelegend says:

    It’s been a while since I learned any Japanese. I took a class in school a few years back and I learned a little but I feel like I’ve forgotten most of it already. Pronunciation is definitely the easy part. I always screw up meanings like kore and sore

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, watching anime can help you retain some things, but taking classes or studying on your own are the only ways to still learn things and not get completely rusty.

      I’ll be discussing “kore” and “sore” later on XD

  5. Yuuhi says:

    Honestly, when I took up Japanese for two years in high school, I wish I had picked up on the utter lack of the teaching of fundamentals. Since that was my first foray into the world of foreign languages, I just assumed that I was learning a language properly and that I was doing well. Those thoughts went out the window when I came to Europe and was forced to actually learn a new language through near total immersion. Even though I wasn’t learning Japanese at the time, my Japanese level grew quickly because through learning German, I learned its fundamentals and I learned that I was missing them in Japanese. It is really the little things that make all the difference.
    I’m looking forward to more of these posts! In terms of learning Japanese, it is informative and honestly, the easiest one to understand that I’ve ever read.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks so much for the compliments! I’m glad you’re finding my posts helpful ^_^

      Yeah, it really is frustrating when you’re not nurtured in the fundamentals during your first shot at learning a language. But the sooner you go back to the basics the better, so I’m glad your time in Europe made you realize it =)

  6. KRILL says:

    VERY interesting. I took enough Spanish to get by, can write well enough and can understand a conversation in person even if I can’t vocalize it. And of course I’m fluent in English XD and Japanese is a language that’s always interested me. It sounds beautiful and I like how words flow which is why even though I don’t understand it I like to hear it. It’ll be fun to learn a bit here and there. I was last attempting to learn the basic parts of writing with characters and also have decided that kanji is something I’ll never learn if not only because I was born where I was. Luck of the draw lol. But English. I have quite a bit of love for IT as well. Language is interesting. I wonder how someone that is bilingual thinks. Because you think in the language you know, but what if you were bilingual? I wonder….

    • Yumeka says:

      I took Spanish during most of my pre-college schooling because it was typically the only language that was offered (at least, no Japanese was offered and I wasn’t particularly interested in another language).

      As much as I love Japanese and criticize English for having too many exceptions to its spelling/grammar/pronunciation rules, I love English too and am glad it’s my first language. I hope I can become fluent enough in Japanese someday so I can answer your question about how a bilingual person thinks ^^,,,

  7. Cytrus says:

    Great work in presenting all of this in a clear and understandable way.

    I see what you’re doing there with the “roumaji” spelling, but it might be worth at least noting that the universally accepted English spelling is romaji.

    One more note for people interested in romanization. While there are indeed different ways of romanizing many words and (no matter what anyone tells you) none of them is more ‘correct’ than the other, it is important to pick one romanization system and use it consistently. The system universally accepted in the English speaking world is Hepburn/Hebon-shiki, as outlined here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hepburn_romanization#Hepburn_romanization_charts

    In texts for/by Japanese speakers, you can sometimes see the Kunrei-shiki system, as seen here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunrei-shiki_romanization

    The latter is more convenient for Japanese speakers and at one point gained the approval of the Japanese government, but Hepburn is still the overall dominant system even in Japan. I would recommend gaining a passive knowledge of Kunrei-shiki later on in your studies.

    • Yumeka says:

      I actually had trouble deciding which spelling of “romaji” to use, but now that you mentioned it, I decided to change it back to the more common spelling without the “u.” No need to make things more confusing =P

      Thanks for the info about the different romanization charts – I didn’t know they had names. It seems like the one I use is the Hepburn one…but I will take note of Kunrei like you suggested.

      I’m glad you’re liking the post series so far. Since you’ve studied Japanese more than me, feel free to offer any additional info you feel like in future posts =)

      • Cytrus says:

        Well, the long ‘o’ written ‘ou’ in the case of katakanago seems kind of weird, doesn’t it? If you write cola in Japanese pronunciation, you would end up with ‘coura’, which just seems counter-intuitive. But that’s just the words you already know from your first language interfering with the new system.

        Romaji is especially pesky because even students of Japanese often end up spelling it ‘romanji’ with an ‘n’, because their language instincts tells them (indeed correctly!) that it refers to ‘roman letters’.

        • kuroneko says:

          Interestingly enough, although I have had the opportunity to read through various Japanese self-study books I have never encountered ‘romanji’ being spelled as ‘romaji’, even though romaji is considered to be the correct spelling… 何とか可笑しいですね… (.___. )

  8. Jo says:

    Thanks for doing this! Looking forward to more of your posts!!

    =)

  9. Marow says:

    I think the pronounciation won’t be too hard for me as I’m from Sweden. From what I’ve heard and seen, Japanese and Sweden are similar in that aspect, at least more than Swedish and English.

    I believe at least, ask me anything language-related and I don’t have a clue about what I’m saying :p

    This fall I’m hopefully going to read a beginner’s course in Japanese and later in spring the “second part” of it. :)

  10. Tzu says:

    Very nice iniciative :) my first language is spanish btw, there seems to be quite a bit of us arround. Perhaps you could use some anime references or resources to help those who are learning, given that most people that come to the blog come for their love of anime. For example, reading young kids manga, like chi (the cat thing) is great to practice kana; or watching raw kids anime is amazing for listening skills (my first was digimon)

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree that kids anime and manga are great for learning Japanese. Japanese children’s books in general are great practice =) I’ve been watching episodes of Pokemon raw for a while now and I can usually understand most of what is said.

      Thanks for reading, glad you’re enjoying the post series ^.^

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