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An Overview of

Pronouncing Japanese
& Introduction to Japanese Syllabaries

for people with no intention of learning Japanese

(Generally More Than You Actually Need To Know)

Spoken Japanese

The Absolute Minimum to Remember About Japanese Pronunciation:
Japanese words have no stress.
I is pronounced very high in the mouth.
Final U in words ending in SU and TSU is (nearly) silent.

Japanese words spelled in Roman letters are pronounced pretty much the way they look, but here are a couple things to note:

Written Japanese

Since Japanese words spelled in Roman letters are pronounced pretty much the way they look, the rest of this page is devoted to a discussion of the two syllabaries used in written Japanese.

The Chinese Connection. Several nations around China, most notably Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, borrowed both writing and a large vocabulary of Chinese loan words during the glory days of China’s Táng dynasty (period 12, AD 618-907). Today Vietnamese is written with Roman letters (supplemented with tone marks and other diacritics), and Korean is written its own alphabet.

Kanji & Kana. Modern Japanese continues to use some borrowed Chinese characters (called kanji 漢字 in Japanese) in combination with two syllabaries, hiragana 平仮名, used for “native” words, and katakana 片仮名 used for “imported” words, including importations from English, but excluding importations already in Chinese characters. Words that are not ultimately borrowed from Chinese are rarely written with kanji.

Kanji have stable meanings (at least outside of their use in proper names), but because they have been pushed into service both for borrowed Chinesee terms and for native Japanese words, many kanji do not have single "readings" in Japanese. They will instead have one reading in a word borrowed from Chinese and another in a word that is not of Chinese origin. For this reason, one often sees texts with tiny kana beside or above the kanji to show the reader which pronunciation of the kanji is intended.

Persistence. Why has Japanese retained any kanji rather than using its syllabary exclusively? Here are some factors that, together, make up a probable reason:

It therefore seems improbable that Japanese kanji will go away any time soon.

The two syllabaries look quite different from each other, but both sets of graphs (letters) are derived by simplification from Chinese characters, usually with some relationship to the Táng dynasty Chinese pronunciations of the characters.

The following table shows the underlying Chinese characters, with their modern Mandarin pronunciation. Comparing the kana with the Chinese, the resemblance is usually pretty clear. Note that in some cases the two syllabaries do not borrow from the same Chinese character; in most, they do.

Japanese
Syllable
Hiragana Hiragana
Source
Katakana Katakana Source
if different
a 安 ān 阿 é, ā
i 以 yǐ 伊 yī
u 宇 yǔ
e 衣 yī 江 jiāng
o 於 yú
ka 加 jiā
ki 幾 >jī
ku 久 jiǔ
ke 計 jì 介 jiè
ko 己 jǐ
sa 左 zuǒ 散 sàn
shi 之 zhī
su 寸 cùn 須 xǔ
se 世 shì
so 曾 zēng
ta 太 tài 多 duō
chi 知 zhī 千 qiān
tsu 川 chuān
te 天 tiān
to 止 zhǐ
na 奈 nài
ni 仁 rén 二 èr
nu 奴 nú
ne 襧 zhǐ
no 乃 nǎi
ha 波 bō 八 bā
hi 比 bǐ
fu 不 bù
he 部 bù
ho 保 bǎo
ma 末 mò 万 mò
mi 美 měi 三 sān
mu 武 >wǔ 牟 móu
me 女 nǚ
mo 毛 máo
ya 也 yě
(yi)
yu 由 yóu
(ye)
yo 與 yǔ
ra 良 liáng
ri 利 lì
ru 留 liú 流 liú
re 禮 lǐ
ro 呂 lǔ
wa 和 hé 輪 lún
wi* 為 wéi 井 jǐng
(wu)
we* 惠 huì huì 慧
wo 遠 yuǎn 乎 hū
n ぬ nu (Jap.) 尓 ěr
*Abolished in 1946.

Not shown in this table: The use of two small jots to the upper right of an unvoiced stop makes it a voiced one. The use of a tiny circle to the upper right of of any of the glyphs in the H row makes it begin with P instead. (Combining the circle and the two jots converts this to B.) Because Modern Japanese distinguishes long vowels and, in some cases, long consonants, some combinations of signs are used to signal this.

This table is slightly revised from information given in: Nakamura, T., 1964 Enciklopedieto Japana. Osaka: Kosmo. Pp. 84-86.