Pronunciation I


第1課: Pronunciation I: Vowels 日本語の音韻体系①・母音

For your first lesson, you will learn about the vowel sounds of Japanese. Vowels are sounds like “ah” and “eh,” but every language – including Japanese – will have its own quirks to them. 

The Five Vowels of Japanese 日本語の母音・5つの音

American English is said to have 14 distinct vowel sounds, whereas Standard Japanese only has five distinct vowel sounds: /a/ (ah), /i/ (ee), /u/ (oo), /e/ (eh) and /o/ (oh). The approximations in parentheses are meant to serve as a general guide.

/a/Katana (sword) Sakana (fish)Aka (red)Atama (head) Anata (you)
/i/ Ichi (one)Ni (two)Imi (meaning)Mimi (ear(s))Shichi (seven)
/u/ Kutsu (shoes)Mizu (water)Yuki (snow)Ikutsu (how many?)Umi (sea)
/e/ Eki (station)Mise (store)Kaz(wind)Tegami (letter)Pen (pen)
/o/ Otoko (man) Okane (money)Koko (here)Soto (outside)Ocha (tea)

Next, we’ll look at each vowel individually!

The Japanese /a/ 日本語の「ア」

The Japanese /a/ vowel is made more central in the mouth than in English. The best way to approximate this sound is by beginning with the vowel sound made in words like “ay” without the final “ee” bit. To practice this, say “ah” but cut it short. 

Aa (ah!; oh!)Asa (morning/hemp)Ana (hole) Taka (hawk)
Yama (mountain)Hana (flower/nose)Tana (shelf)Karada (body)

The Japanese /i/ 日本語の「イ」

The Japanese /i/ is never pronounced like the English word “I.” The Japanese /i/ always sounds like “ee.”

Higashi (east)Nishi (west)Hashi (chopsticks)Kita (north)Kami (god)
Ima (now)Ki (tree)Itachi (weasel)Minami (south)Kani (crab)

The Japanese /u/ 日本語の「ウ」

■Don’t Round Your Lips 唇を丸めて発音するな  

 Of the five vowels, /u/1 is the most peculiar. Although the sides of the lips compress together, the lips are not rounded and protruded as they are when pronouncing the English /u/. Because of this, the Japanese /u/ is described as being unrounded.

Kuni (country)Niku (meat)Yuube (evening)Basu (bus)Isu (chair)
Natsu (summer)Fuyu (winter)Haru (spring)Tsunami (tsunami)Inu (dog)

■Be Careful of Non-Standard Pronunciation  非標準語の発音に要注意
Though he unrounded /u/ is so uniquely Japanese, many dialects utilize the rounded /u/ found in English. As such, not all Japanese teachers emulate the standard pronunciation.

The Japanese /e/ 日本語の「エ」

The Japanese /e/ is made with the tongue midway in the mouth but with the lips unrounded. To the English ear, it is nearly identical to its English counterpart, but one’s native dialect of English may hinder oneself to pronounce this sound properly, so remember to never make the Japanese /e/ sound like “ey.” 

Megane (glasses)Eki (liquid)Kaze (a cold)(painting)Erebeetaa (elevator)
Kame (turtle)Same (shark)Kesa (this morning)Me (eye(s))Sekai (world)

The Japanese /o/ 日本語の「オ」

■Front/Back Mid-Vowels  前舌・後舌中母音

The Japanese /o/ is also made with the tongue midway in the mouth.  The difference between /e/ and /o/ is where the highest point of the tongue is positioned. For /e/, it’s at the front of the mouth, but for /o/, it’s at the back of the mouth. 

■/o/ vs /oo/ 「オ」と「オー」の区別

Don’t pronounce /o/ just like the word “oh.” Unless you are dealing with an actual long vowel, Japanese vowels remain crisp, and even when they are doubled in length, each part is treated as a separate syllable; thus, “oo” = “oh-oh.”

Ho(h)o (cheek(s))Sora (sky)Tori (bird)Yoru (night)Koe (voice)
Soko (bottom/there)Tokoro (place)Toori (street)Oto (sound)Kotoba (word)

■Glottal Stops 声門閉鎖音

When either at the start or end of a phrase, Japanese vowels are typically accompanied with a glottal stop. This sound can be heard at the start and end of the phrase “uh-oh.” 

Syllable Boundaries 音節の区切り方

The crisp nature of Japanese vowels affects how vowels next to each other interact. Rather than being pronounced as one syllable, consecutive vowels are pronounced as separate syllables. Syllables are language-specific units of organization for sequences of sounds. So, ai is not pronounced just like “I/eye,” but rather like “ah-ee” with neither part elongated. This also means that “ao” is not pronounced just like “ow,” but simply as “ah-oh” with neither part elongated. 

Short Vowels vs Long Vowels 長短母音の区別

Japanese distinguishes between short vowels and long vowels. Short vowels count as one syllable whereas long vowels count as two syllables. To conceptualize this, view each syllable as one clap. Each clap corresponds to one syllable. Each clap is equal in length, which means vowel length is uniform regardless of how fast the speaker is talking. 

Syllable Boundaries 音節の区切り方

The crisp nature of Japanese vowels also affects how vowels next to each other interact. Rather than being pronounced as one syllable, consecutive vowels are pronounced as separate syllables. Syllables are language-specific units of organization for sequences of sounds. So, ai is not pronounced just like “I/eye,” but rather like “ah-ee” with neither part elongated. This also means that “ao” is not pronounced just like “ow,” but simply as “ah-oh” with neither part elongated. 

■The Mora  「拍」の概念

When syllables are described as being equal in length in relation to one another, they may also be called morae, which is synonymous to the concept of viewing iterations as separate beats/claps. 

Short Example Morae Long Example Morae
 /a/Obasan (aunt) 4 /aa/Obaasan (grandma) 5
 /i/Ie (house) 2 /ii/Iie (no) 3
 /u/Yuki (snow) 2 /uu/Yuuki (courage) 3
 /e/E (painting) 1 /ee/Ee (yes) 2
 /o/To (door) 1 /oo/Too (ten things) 2

 ※Again, “oo” should never be pronounced as a long “u” sound. /oo/ is always a long o. 

■Macron Use  長音記号の使用

When romanizing Japanese text, a macron (¯) may be used to indicate a long vowel. So long as you have grasped Japanese syllable construction, you are free to do this. However, to prepare you for Japanese writing, this practice will be avoided for the time being.  

■Final /n/ 撥音

Obasan is four morae and obaasan is five morae because the final “n” is treated as a separate mora. There are only three valid syllabic/moraic structures in Japanese: vowel (V), consonant + vowel (CV), and consonant (C). We’ll learn more about this in Lesson 2.

Special Long Vowels 特殊な長母音

Pronouncing long vowels is mostly straightforward. However, there are three special spelling conventions that confuse learners. 

“ee” vs. “ei” 「エー」と「エイ」の区別

“ee” is always equivalent to /ee/, which is a long “eh” sound and not an “ee” as in “cheese.” Many words are spelled with a long e in Kana, but they are all of native* origin (rare) or loanwords (common). Ex. “oneesan” (older sister). 

The Standard Japanese pronunciation of “ei” is not so set in stone. Pronouncing it as the vowels “e” and “i” next to each other is always “correct,” but so long as the vowels don’t cross a word boundary*, “ei” is usually pronounced as /ee/ (a long “eh”). For example, the word for clock is “tokei,” but it’s usually pronounced as /tokee/. However, in certain dialects, singing, and careful speech, /ei/ is the preferred pronunciation. 

※Native vocabulary with /ei/ are never pronounced with /ee/ and must always have the sounds be pronounced separately. Exs.: ei (stingray), hei (wall/fence), etc. 

Though it is correct to pronounce “ei” as it is spelled, it is not suggested for native English speakers because they are very likely to pronounce it as a diphthong. A diphthong is what’s called a “gliding vowel” in which two adjacent vowel sounds combine to form a single syllable. The syllables/morae of Japanese don’t allow for diphthongs, and so fusing the “e” and “i” together entirely into a diphthong would sound unnatural. 

※Japanese words largely come from three distinct sources: the ‘native’ original words of the language, loanwords from modern foreign languages, or Sino-Japanese words (words from Chinese roots). 

Words with /ee/ 

Keeki (cake)Teepu (tape)Meetoru MeterNee (right?; hey) 
Teeburu (table)Teema (theme)Seetaa Sweater Meemee (sound sheep make)

Words with /ee/ or /ei/

Eigo (English)Gakusei (student)Kirei (pretty)Eiga (movie)
Sensei (teacher)Keikan (police officer)Yuumei (famous)Seito (pupil)

※Out of brevity and to not make spelling any more confusing than it has to be, the alternate/standard /ee/ pronunciation is understood from the “ei” spelling. 

■”oo” vs. “ou” 「オー」と「オウ」の区別

“oo” is always pronounced as /oo/, but “ou” may correspond to /oo/” or /ou/ depending on the word. Until you are more comfortable with Japanese, this may be difficult to comprehend, but there are several scenarios that can help you determine which is which. 

Words written with “oo” are always either native or from loanwords. Words that are written with “ou” but are in fact pronounced as /oo/ are almost entirely Sino-Japanese words (of Chinese origin). So long as “ou” constitutes the end of a noun, it is safe to say that it is pronounced as /oo/. However, if it is at the end of the verb, it will be pronounced as /ou/. If it is isn’t a verb but is in fact native in origin, then /oo/ will be the correct pronunciation.

Words Spelled and Pronounced as /oo/

Ookii (big)Koori (ice) Fooku (fork) Koorogi (cricket)
Ooi (Many)Tooi (far)Oozei (great number of people)Soosu (sauce)

Words Spelled and Pronounced as /ou/

Omou (to think)Tou (to question)Tsukurou (to mend)Sasou (to invite)
Ou (to chase)Kou (to beg)Kakou (to enclose)Seou (to carry on one’s back)

※Some words such as tou are often pronounced with /oo/ instead of /ou/, which is a relic from older speech.

Words Spelled as “Ou” but Pronounced as /oo/

Kyou (today)Kouen (park)Douzo (by all means)Tanjoubi (birthday)Ginkou (bank)
Kinou (yesterday)Koucha (black tea)Reizouko (refigerator)Otousan (father)Satou (sugar)

※Of these words, douzo and otousan are of native origin, but the rest are Sino-Japanese words.

■/ou/ across Word Boundaries 単語を跨ぐ「オウ」

“Ou” is also pronounced as /ou/ is when the vowels cross a word boundary. Take for instance ko’ushi (calf) and koushi (lecturer).  Each word happens to be composed of two parts, but the breakup of those parts is not the same. “Calf” is composed of ko- (small) and ushi (cow), whereas “lecturer” is composed of kou (Chinese root meaning “lecture”) and shi (Chinese root meaning “expert”). 

“IU” = “YUU” 「イウ」=「ユー」 

The most irregular spelling regarding vowel pronunciation is the word iu, which is the verb for “to say” because it is pronounced as /yuu/ instead of as /iu/. However, in all other instances in Japanese in which these two vowels are next to each other, they are pronounced normally. Nonetheless, iu is an extremely frequently used word, and so it would be remiss not to mention it.

Summary 概要

In this lesson, you not only learned about /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/, you learned about how exactly each vowel sounds and several other principles of Japanese pronunciation. Short and long vowel distinctions are so crucial, even with the most basic vocabulary. 

If you thought that not much was covered in this lesson, almost all the words in this lesson, minus the showcasing of extreme homophones, appear in the JLPT N5, the elementary proficiency test for Japanese. So, if you do choose to memorize them, you’ll certainly have an advantage. 

Now, let’s begin learning about consonants! 

  1. The proper notation for this vowel in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) used to transcribe all the sounds of the world’s languages is ɯ. ↩︎