How to pronounce Japanese words

To represent the pronunciation of consonants and vowels, IPA, International Phonetic Alphabet symbols are used in this page.

Summary

Vowel letters are pronounced as in the Italian or Spanish language, consonant letters are pronounced as in the English language.

Vowel letters

A

Represents [a].
It is pronounced like "a" in German word "mann" or "u" in English word "but". Not like "a" in English word "man".

E

Represents [e].
It is pronounced like "e" in English word "get".

I

Represents [i].
It is pronounced like "i" in English word "it".

O

Represents [o].
It is pronounced like "o" in German word "oft", not like "o" in American English word "hot".

U

Represents [u].
It is pronounced like "u" in German word "mutter" or in English word "put". Never like "u" in English word "but".

Ā or Â

Represents [a:] (long a).
It is pronounced like "aa" in German word "haar" or "ar" in British English word "car".

Ē or Ê

Represents [e:] (long e).
It is pronounced like "ee" in German word "tee". "a" in English word "cake" is approximate, but not the same.

Ī or Î

Represents [i:] (long i).
It is pronounced like "ih" in German word "ihr" or "ee" in English word "feel".

Ō or Ô

Represents [o:] (long o).
It is pronounced like "oh" in German word "ohr". "o" in English word "so" is approximate, but not the same.

Ū or Û

Represents [u:] (long u).
It is pronounced like "uh" in German word "uhr" or "oo" in English word "food".

Notes

Consonant letters

B

Represents [b].
It is pronounced like "b" in English word "best". But sometimes the phoneme represented by this letter is pronounced unconsciously as [β], which is like "b" in Spanish word "haba".

Incidentally, most of the Japanese can not distinguish between the voiced plosives and the voiced fricatives. So, they can not tell the difference between "b" and "v" by hearing or by speaking.

C

Usually not used.

CH

Represents [tʃ].
It is pronounced like "ch" in English word "child" or "tsch" in German word "Deutsch".

D

Represents [d].
It is pronounced like "d" in English word "do".

DZ

See Z.

F

Represents [ɸ].
This consonant is approximate to "f" in English word "full", but not the same. Strictly speaking, "f" in Japanese is pronounced not using the lower lip and the upper teeth, but using both lips.

G

Represents [ɡ].
It is pronounced like "g" in English word "get", never like "g" in English word "angel".

In other positions than the beginning of a word, the phoneme represented by this letter is also pronounced as [ŋ], which is like "ng" in English word "sing", or [ɣ] which is like "g" in Spanish word "lago". The former sound (ŋ) is considered as a model, but fading out nowadays.

H

This letter represents:

The "h" sound is never dropped in Japanese.

Some people use this letter in meaning of lengthening out the preceding vowel, just like German orthography. However, the /h/ sound can appear in the middle of a word in Japanese. So some people dislike this "lengthening use" because it causes ambiguity. For example: "ohi" can be considered as "o-hi (/o:çi/)" which means "queen" or as "oh-i (/o:i/)" which means "throne" or "many".

HY

Represents [ç].
It is pronounced like "ch" in German word "Ich" or like "h" in English word "huge".

J

Represents [ʒ] or [dʒ].
The phoneme represented by this letter has two phonetic varieties. One is like "s" in English word "fusion" or "j" in French word "je". The other is like "j" in English word "joy" or "dsch" in German word "dschungel".
These two consonants had been distinguished until about the 16th century in Japanese, but now most dialects do not have the distinction. You therefore can pronounce this letter as either [ʒ] or [dʒ].

Some sensitive people, when necessary to distinguish, use "zh" for the former consonant [ʒ], and "j" for the latter consonant [dʒ].

K

Represents [k].
It is pronounced like "k" in English word "kind".

L

Usually not used, because the Japanese language does not have consonant /l/. But rarely, "l" is used as a variant of "r" mainly to make some word pretend to be a Western word.
Anyhow, even if you find the letter "l" in Japanese text or hear the /l/ sound from a Japanese (especially singers), it is a mere variant of /r/.

M

Represents [m].
It is pronounced like "m" in English word "me".

N (before a vowel)

This letter represents:

N (syllabic nasal)

The Japanese language has one unique sound called "syllabic nasal". It is usually written as "n", but "m" is also used when before labial consonants /p/, /b/ or /m/.
This "syllabic nasal" does not have its own particular sound, but has several phonetic varieties. Its sound varies according to the position where it appears:

However, in fact, you do not have to be sensitive to these differences, because most of the Japanese usually do not recognise that these varieties exist in actual pronunciation of the syllabic "n". You can even always pronounce [n] for every syllabic "n".

The only thing you have to take care is not to pronounce the syllabic "n" and the next vowel continuously, when a vowel follows a syllabic "n". In such a case, you have to put a pause between them. Otherwise, some confusion may be caused; for example:

NY

Represents [ɲ].
It is pronounced like "gn" in French word "champignon", in Italian word "segno" or "ny" in English word "canyon".

P

Represents [p].
It is pronounced like "p" in English word "put".

Q

Not used.

R

Represents [ɾ] or [r].
It is pronounced like "r" in Scottish English word "rose" or "tt" in American English word "matter". That is, "r" in Japanese is usually pronounced as a tap or flap. Some people pronounce it as a trill.

S

Represents [s].
It is pronounced like "s" in English word "so", not like "s" in German word "so" or in English word "is".

SH

Represents [ʃ].
It is pronounced like "sh" in English word "shall", "sch" in German word "schein" or "ch" in French word "chou".

T

Represents [t].
It is always pronounced like "t" in English word "ten". Never like "tt" in American English word "better".

TS

Represents [ts].
It is pronounced like "ts" in English word "cats" or "z" in German word "zu".

V

Not used. The Japanese language does not have consonant /v/. See also B.

W

Represents [w].
It is pronounced like "w" in English word "way".

X

Not used.

Y

Represents [j].
It is pronounced like "y" in English word "you", "year" or "j" in German word "jahr".

Z

Represents [z] or [dz].
The phoneme represented by this letter has two phonetic varieties. One is like "z" in English word "puzzle", the other is like "ds" in English word "cards" or "z" in Italian word "zucchini".
These two consonants had been distinguished until about the 16th century in Japanese, but now most dialects do not have the distinction. You therefore can pronounce this letter as either [z] or [dz].

Some sensitive people, when necessary to distinguish, use "z" for the former consonant, and "dz" for the latter consonant.

This letter is never used to represent sound "z" in German word "zwei".

ZH

Seldom used. See J.

Notes