Japanese Pronunciation

It’s often been said that Japanese pronunciation is one of the easiest aspects of the Japanese language. And guess what – it’s true! But it still takes some practice, and we’re here to help you with it. We’ll introduce you to the ins and outs of Japanese pronunciation and show you how it differs from English pronunciation.

Japanese Sounds and Syllables

Let’s first take a look at how Japanese sounds work. Compared with other languages, the Japanese alphabet has a relatively small set of sounds, with only 14 consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w, g, z, d, b, p) and 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u). In Japanese there are no such words as the English word “strength”, which has clusters of three or more consonants. Japanese is made up of syllables, which are made up of one consonant and one vowel. The only exceptions are the vowels and the ‘n’ sound, which stands alone.

Examples of Japanese words:
C= consonant V=vowel

こ・こ・ろ ko・ko・ro “heart” CV・CV・CV
げ・ん・き ge・n・ki “energetic” CV・C・CV
あ・か a・ka “red” V・CV

Stress

Let’s think about stress in English for a moment. Try saying the words “important” and “interesting” out loud. When you say these words out loud, you’re putting emphasis, or stress, on a certain syllable. In “important”, the stress is on the “port” syllable. In “interesting”, the stress is on the “int” syllable. If you haven’t studied phonetics before, it’s probably something that just comes naturally that you’ve never noticed before! Because correct English pronunciation puts emphasis on certain syllables, English is known as a stress language.
Japanese, on the other hand, doesn’t have stress! It’s a stress-free language! (Until you start learning kanji, perhaps…) In Japanese, each syllable is held for the same length of time and is given equal stress. Stressing only certain syllables will instead sound unnatural, so keep this in mind when pronouncing Japanese. Let’s take a look at a word in Japanese and compare how it is pronounced in Japanese and English.
Let’s take the word teriyaki, a cooking technique where meat is marinated.

English pronunciation: [ter-uh-YAH-kee] Note how the third syllable is stressed.
Japanese pronunciation: [teh-rih-yah-kee] In Japanese, each of the syllables gets the same amount of stress.

This might sound like a lot to consider, but remember that learning good pronunciation is one of the easier aspects of Japanese! Interestingly enough, while pronouncing Japanese tends to be easier, perfecting your Japanese accent is actually quite difficult.