How to Pronounce Tricky Sounds in the Japanese Language

5 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Japanese Words and Phrases for Traveling

The Japanese language has some distinct sounds that are can be tricky to pronounce. To be understood in Japanese, you need to know how to pronounce these sounds, which tend to give English speakers some trouble. Once you get the hang of it, the Japanese sound system isn’t as difficult as you may have thought.

Romanized Japanese is a system that converts the traditional kanji symbols of Japanese into the letters used in English. There are mainly two systems of rōmaji; the most popular is the Hepburn system, which focuses more on reflecting the accurate sounds of Japanese.

Rōmaji sometimes uses symbols to help you get the pronunciation right. The following are some symbols that might be new to you.

  • Macrons (that cute little line) — as in okāsan (mother), otōsān (father), and yūbinkyoku (post office) — tells you to make a long vowel sound.

  • Two identical vowels in a row — as is the adjective ureshii (happy) — tells you that the second vowel can change depending on the form, as in ureshiku and ureshikatta.

The following are some of the more unusual pronunciation rules for rōmaji letters:

Rōmaji Letter Pronunciation Rule
Sets of two identical consonants — pp, bb, ss, etc. Don't say the letter twice; just hold the sound a moment longer. The letters sound like a single consonant preceded by a brief pause. For example, gakkō is pronounced gahk-kohh.
r Made by tapping the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth. It is similar to the brief flap sound in "lettuce" or "letter" in American English. Make sure not to curl the tongue!
f — occurs before the vowel u A soft sound pronounced by bringing the upper lip and the lower lip close to each other and gently blowing air.
ts Sounds like the ts in "cats." Although it doesn't start words in English, it is quite common in Japanese.
i and u These vowels are whispered when they occur between two voiceless consonants, such as p, t, k, s, sh, ch, ts, and h, or at the end of a word when preceded by a voiceless consonant. For example, ashita (tomorrow; pronounced ah-shee-tah) may sound like ashta to you.
ei Sounds like a long vowel (ē). For example, the word sensei (teacher; pronounced sehn-sehh) usually sounds like sensē.
g Sounds nasalized, especially when it occurs between vowels, as in Ikaga desu ka (How is it?; pronounced ee-kah-gah deh-soo kah).
n followed by p, b or m Sounds like m. For example, tenpura (tempura; pronounced ten-poo-rah) sounds like tempura.
n followed by k or g Sounds like it's being articulated at the back of the mouth, as in ginkō (bank; pronounced geen-kohh).
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