(Updated with Judo terms - 2008)
This purpose of this article is concerned only with introducing the Martial Artist to pronouncing the Japanese language (Nihongo) as it is written in English using the Roman (Latin) alphabet. This method is called the “Romanization of Japanese” or “Romaji” and is the main method for those using or reading Japanese that can not read Japanese characters.
Reading Japanese characters (ideograms) is very complex and difficult to master. The Japanese use three different sets of characters, Kanji (borrowed from Chinese characters), and two syllabic scripts, Hiragana and Katagana. An “ideogram” is a graphic symbol, a picture, that represents more of an idea rather than a set of letters to explain a word.
Why bother learning Japanese ?
Many Dojo today, use plain English throughout their training, others use a mixture of Japanese and English, often the Japanese is used when a technique being trained, is part of the “grading” syllabus and therefore required to be known, and plain English when other training or techniques are used that do not form part of the syllabus.
So why bother ?
1. Most Japanese Martial Arts have a syllabus that would require some threoretical knowledge of a technique and its pronounciation and translation in Japanese.
2. If you are serious about studying a Japanese Martial Art in depth, it is part of the tradition and culture of the Art to use Japanese.
3. It stops you getting embarrassed when someone instructs in Japanese and you do not understand what they are saying.
4. You may have always wished that you could pronounce Japanese better or be able to read the “Romaji” better.
5. It enables you to pass on the knowledge to others, as part of yours and their on going training.
6. To make sense off and break down words that you may come across and are unfamiliar with.
7. There is a trend to reverse the demise of the use of the Japanese lanaguage in Japanese Martial Arts throughout the western world.
However, it should always be remembered though that pronouncing Japanese better will not make your techniques better. This article is for those who have an interest in understanding and pronouncing Japanese as used in the Martial Arts. The real aim is to make learning the Japanese language more interesting.
Pronouncing Japanese is actually quite easy.
Like the German language, Japanese spelling is entirely phonetic, unlike English.
This means that it is spoken exactly as it is written, which makes reading a lot easier. In its basic “Romaji” form, Japanese is written vowel, consonant, vowel, etc, etc, etc, or starting and ending vice versa and spoken in syllables.
For example : -
NAGE KOMI = Na Ge Ko Mi
KATAME WAZA = Ka Ta Me Wa Za
UDE GARAMI = U De Ga Ra Mi
With simple to pronounce variations to this e.g,
SEOI NAGE = Se Oi Na Ge
TAI OTOSHI = Tai O To Shi
Unlike English, there is no nonsense like you get in trying to remember the different pronunciations of the final syllable in the words "rough", "through" and "though", even though they are spelt exactly the same. English is considered one of the hardest languages to learn.
With Japanese pronunciation, what you see is what you get. The reverse of this is that what you DON'T see, you DON'T get. In other words, don't insert ANY sounds unless they are written down in black and white, because they are not there.
For example, you often hear people put a "y" sound at the beginning of "URA" (as in URA NAGE – rear throw) - however this should be pronounced "OO-RA", not "YOO-RA". If it was supposed to be pronounced "YOO-RA", it would be spelt "YURA", exactly as you would expect.
Quite simple to understand and generally, it is. The main parts which can take some practice are the vowel sounds, plus the glottal stop.
There are five vowels in Japanese, just like English. The difference is that the sounds are very pure in Japanese. Welsh speaking people, tend to speak Japanese quite easily because Welsh vowel sounds are also considered pure.
The following is a brief guide.
a - the sound "a" is ALWAYS pronounced as in "dart" or "start", NEVER long as in "rat" or "cat". In English, we tend to stretch out the "a" sound in "dart", so we might think of it as a long sound. It isn't really; it's just different. In Japanese, it is short.
e - the sound "e" is pronounced as in "red" or "fed".
i - the sound "i" is pronounced short as in "pin" or "thin", NEVER as in "wine" or "fine".
o - the sound "o" is pronounced as in "rot" or "dot", NEVER as in "wrote" or "vote".
u - the sound "u" is pronounced as in "put" or "soot", NEVER as in "run" or "fun"
The most difficult one to get used to is the "o" sound.
Say the English word "no" out loud, very slowly and clearly.
What you say is two quite separate sounds, like this - "NNN-OO".
You think you are making one sound, when you are actually making two.
Try saying the English word "not", however just leave out the final "t".
This is how to say the "o" sound in Japanese.
Cleary from the above, the vowels are very simple and pure in Japanese.
Stress In Pronunciation
In English, each word has the stress on a particular syllable.
For example, using the word "particular", the stress comes on the second syllable, "par-TIC-u-lar".
It sounds odd if it was pronounced "PAR-tic-u-lar" or "par-tic-U-lar" etc.
So, in English, the voice raises and lowers on different syllables in different words.
However there is NO stress in Japanese.
If you hear two Japanese people talking, their voices do not rise and lower continually stressing different syllables. Their voices sound flat.
Therefore to speak Japanese just pronounce everything completely flat, with identical stress on every syllable, and you'll be fine.
The Glottal Stop
The slight variation to pronouncing Japanese is the “Glottal Stop”. This is the only slightly tricky part.
When you see two consonants written together in Japanese, like the two t's in "itteki" or the two k's in "tsukkomi" or the two p’s in “ippon”, then you need to put in a Cockney-style glottal stop immediately before the consonant, pause for a tiny fraction of a second, then pronounce the consonant sound itself a little bit more harshly, with a slightly explosive sound. Really this is just a very slight pause in the flow of the word.
This is perhaps quite hard to imagine from a written description, though it's easy to demonstrate in person. Anyway, it only really occurs in a few words you are likely to come across in the Martial Arts, although these are quite frequently used ones.
"Cloudy" or "Muddy" Sounds
This is what you sometimes get when you stick words together, when the second word starts with a consonant - the consonant at the start of the second word gets "cloudy".
Therefore the two words “Kesa” and “Katame” are pronounced Kesa Gatame rather than Kesa Katame when they are placed together.
The Japanese say that the first consonant of the second word has got "cloudy" or "muddy",
Here are the main examples:
“K” goes to “G” for example: Kaeshi = Gaeshi
therefore Ko Uchi Kaeshi becomes Ko Uchi Gaeshi
“T” goes to “D” for example: Tachi = Dachi
Therefore Jigotai Tachi becomes Jigotai Dachi
“TS” goes to “Z” for example: Tsuki = Zuki
therefore Gyaku Tsuki becomes Gyaku Zuki
“H” goes to “B” for example: Harai = Barai
therefore De Ashi Harai becomes De Ashi Barai
Points On Basic Grammar
So the basics of Japanese pronunciation are now covered, we now go on further to understand some basics of Japanese grammar.
Verbs and Nouns
All Japanese verbs end in "-u". Thus, the verb "to reap" is "Garu", or the verb "to carry" is "Seou", etc.
To turn any verb into a noun (more or less), just knock off the final "-u" and replace it with "-i". Thus, "Gari" means "a reap", and "Seoi" means "a carry".
Finally : -
To get the "-ing" ending in English, as in "kicking" (verb - keru), take off the whole final syllable from the Japanese verb, and replace it with "-tte". Thus, "kette" means "kicking".
Similarly, "mawatte" means "turning", from the verb "mawaru", to turn, and "okutte" literally means "sending", from the verb "okuru", to send.
One final grammar thing - there are no plurals in Japanese whatsoever. Thus, we speak of one Kata, two Kata, three Kata.
Don't put an "s" on the end.
Just think of it like the English word "sheep". You wouldn't say one sheep, two sheeps, three sheeps, The same principle applies in Japanese.
Words and Bits of Words
Japanese is what is technically called an "agglutinative" language, like German, which simply means that you can stick words together to make up longer words.
Thus, in English we have "Ground Techniques" as two separate words, but in Japanese the two words "Ne" and "Waza" can get stuck together to make ONE word, "Newaza".
Most of the words you encounter in the Japanese language that are used in Martial Arts, for example, the names of techniques, etc, are like this.
The above is by no means complete or exhausted, however it should give the reader some insight into understanding, pronouncing and using basic Japanese terminology in the Martial Arts.
For further reading and practice, refer to the Terminology article and attempt using the above rules along with the terms in the article.
© 2004 reproduction by authors permission only. Updated 2008.