First, we need to start with the sounds that are available to us. For that, we look at written Japanese, which is made up of three parts.
Hiragana and katakana are phonetic syllabaries, which is a fancy way of saying two things:
While hiragana and katakana look different, they both represent the same sounds, they just have different uses. Kanji are the characters borrowed from China, but luckily, you don’t have to worry about kanji or katakana right now. Let’s focus on hiragana and how understanding it can help you with Japanese pronunciation.
Each hiragana symbol represents a syllable sound. This is different from English in a few different ways. First, just because you know how to pronounce a word in English doesn’t mean you know how to spell it. English is notoriously difficult to learn for many reasons, but a big one is that spelling and pronouncing words can be a big headache. We have words like colonel, recipe, through, and threw. It’s a fascinating mess.
Japanese, on the other hand, has mostly kept up with how words are pronounced and written. This means that what you see is (almost always) what you get, and if you can say it, you can spell it, and vice versa1.
UNDERSTANDING THAT JAPANESE IS MADE UP OF PHONETIC SYLLABLES IS INCREDIBLY HELPFUL WHEN IT COMES TO UNDERSTANDING HOW TO PRONOUNCE THEM.
Each hiragana symbol represents a syllable.
There are vowels: あいうえお
And consonants plus vowels: かきくけこ (and the rest)
Instead of splitting up their individual sounds, Japanese keeps these sounds in larger chunks. For example, if you wanted to express the sound か in English it would be spelled “ka” with the consonant k and the vowel a. For ち it would be two consonants to make the sound ch (c+h) and the vowel i. Instead of separating everything into its smallest part or combinations to represent unique sounds (like ch) with letters, Japanese uses syllables to make the same sound using fewer symbols.
I could get a lot deeper into syllables and how they differ in Japanese, but this is enough to understand pronouncing Japanese for now. If you’d like to learn more, you can alway head over to our article on haiku, and read the section on mora (the Japanese equivalent to syllables).
Understanding that Japanese is made up of phonetic syllables (syllables that directly correlate to a sound) is incredibly helpful when it comes to understanding how to pronounce them.
Every sound in a language, Japanese included, can be explained by the place where the sound originates and the movements of your mouth, nose, and throat. We’re going to learn some terms that you can use to help understand these sounds in Japanese.
In some languages, these placements and the variations between them can get complicated, but Japanese doesn’t have many sounds compared to languages like English or Mandarin or Russian, so you’re already at an advantage!
Let’s begin with the least complicated sounds in Japanese: vowels. Vowels are made when the air coming out of your lungs is not blocked by anything. That air travels from your lungs, vibrates through your vocal cords, and out of your mouth without anything else getting in the way.
The only thing that distinguishes vowel sounds from each other is the placement of your tongue as the air comes out of your mouth.
Two things are important for us to know:
For height, the tongue can be in the high, mid, or low position.
For dimensions, the tongue can be front, center, or back.
Let’s look at all of the Japanese vowels:
あ = low, center
い = high, front
う = high, back
え = mid, front
お = mid, back
That’s it! Those are all of the vowel sounds in Japanese, and the best thing is that they pretty much never change. They’re always pronounced the same way, no matter what word they’re in, and what they come before or after doesn’t change them. This is rare in other languages, like English, where the vowel “a” could be pronounced differently depending on where it is in a word.
Say these words aloud:
Did you feel your tongue move around? They are all short words with “a” as the middle vowel, but each of them are made with your tongue in a different position in your mouth. This is one of the reasons that English can’t be called a phonetic language. Those are actually four different sounds, and in IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) we use four different symbols to represent them because, for the sake of pronunciation, they’re different vowels.
So while it may seem that we have the same number of vowels as Japanese in English, it’s only true for the written language. In reality, English is a much more phonetically rich language—there are actually more sounds than it seems!