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Understanding Japanese

Pronunciation Part 1

By Sara Aoyama

I was recently watching The Sound of Music on television. Remember that movie? Julie Andrews was singing “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” My tai chi instructor also often says “Begin at the beginning.” So, that’s what we are going to do, and to me pronunciation is the beginning. It’s important to get it right from day one, before bad habits set in. Happily, pronunciation of the Japanese language is one of the easiest aspects of learning the language. Why? Because unlike English language pronunciation, Japanese pronunciation stays completely consistent. What that means is that if you see KARA or SEI in any word at all it will always be pronounced the same.

This is nothing to take for granted. Think about English. How is “to” pronounced in these words?

Tough
Too
Toe
Tom
Tore

It’s a wonder that non-native speakers of English just don’t give up! It’s a lot easier with Japanese where TO is always going to sound like “toe.”

As with English, the Japanese have an alphabet of sorts. Children chant it in school to learn it, and it determines the order of the dictionary. It looks, in part, like this:

A I U E O
KA KI KU KE KO
SA SHI SU SE SO
TA CHI TSU TE TO
NA NI NU NE NO
HA HI FU HE HO
MA MI MU ME MO
YA YU YO
RA RI RU RE RO
WA
N

Actually, it doesn’t look like this, as in Japanese we’d be reading from the right and going down rather than across. But we can chant it reading across each line from left to right here.

My simple guide for the pronunciation of vowels is:

A as in father
I as in me
U as in you
E as in pet
O as in go

As you read each line across, the sound you are reading should rhyme with the sound above or below it. A, Ka, Sa, Ta, Ha and Ma all rhyme. If you practice like this you can always have perfect pronunciation.

Consonants are not much more difficult. I’ve marked some that have slight differences in red. For example, there is no Si sound -- it becomes Shi. There is also no Ti sound, and it becomes Chi. I can already hear some of you Okinawan Karate-ka protesting. Yes, you will hear the ti sound in the Okinawan dialect(s). But let’s keep Julie Andrews in mind and start with standard Japanese before we tackle the dialects. Another wise comment from my first Japanese teacher was that “you’ll spend the first year learning all of the rules and then the rest of your life learning when to break them.” So, as you read through the chart pay attention to the exceptions, but hold on to your AIUEO pronunciation no matter what the consonants are doing. If you’re not Jewish like me, the Tsu sound may give you problems, but you know this sound at the end of a word (boots, cats) so now just learn to say it at the beginning of a word. Don’t get antsy about it. You’ll get it! We have already incorporated one word into the English language with this sound in it, which is tsunami (of Japanese origin of course). Also, you’ll notice that some consonants are not on the chart. We’ll get to them soon, but meanwhile just apply the AIUEO pronunciation rules if you encounter any of them

The last full line in the chart has some potential for problems. You’ve probably already heard that there is no L sound in Japanese and that Japanese cannot differentiate between R and L. The RARIRURERO line is simply how somebody has chosen to represent these sounds in English. I do feel they are closer to an R than an L, but not a hard R. As you pronounce these syllables, your tongue should touch lightly to the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth. When you pronounce L your tongue actually touches the back of your front teeth. Just move it up and back a bit from that spot. Someone once said “It’s between an L and an R, but think D when you say it.” That’s very good advice if it makes sense to you! I would say to you not to worry about it so much. It will come.

It is said that there is no accent in a Japanese word, or that each syllable gets equal stress. We say baNana but the Japanese put no accent on that middle syllable and simply say ba na na (yes, that’s how you say banana in Japanese).

At this point, if you didn’t already know it, you’re probably realizing that most English speakers are pronouncing karate wrong. You now have the tools to pronounce it correctly, but should you? If I can offer an opinion on this, I will say that you should pronounce it correctly when in the company of other knowledgeable karate-ka, but go ahead and stick with the norm for conversations with relatives, friends, and the general public. If you do pronounce it correctly with those not in the know, they will think either that you don’t know what you are saying, or that you are being pretentious. We should never lose sight of the fact that language is for communication, and for words that have become part of the English language (albeit incorrectly) we will just have to be “bilingual.” If you’re a teacher, though, you might want to make sure your students do know how karate is pronounced in Japanese.

In the next column we will continue with pronunciation and some syllables that we haven’t covered yet. But please note that there is only one final consonant in Japanese --an “N” sound found in such words as joudan-age or zazen or kanpai. (Note: this N is sometimes replaced by an M when romanizing but it is the same sound in Japanese). What this means is that you will never find a Japanese word or syllable ending with a t, s, k, r etc.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with some words to practice:

Takashimaya
Akasaka
Kashikomarimashita (break it down like this: ka shi ko ma ri ma shi ta)
Arerugii (this is the Japanese word for allergy)
Honda (see the difference now?)
Mikimoto
Ukekaeshi
Nana korobi yaoki
Emakimono
Yoroshiku onegai shimasu


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About the Author:

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, where she majored in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she trains in Shorin-ryu Karate. Currently she continues her studies in Kishaba Juku karate under Sensei George Donahue and is also a student of Tai Chi Chuan. She is a freelance Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD., and “Karate Kyohan” by Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Aoyama is a regular contributor to FightingArts.com.


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Japanese, pronouncing Japanese, Japanese pronunciation, Japanese language, understanding Japanese


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