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Japanese orthography

Japanese text is written with a mixture of kanji, katakana and hiragana syllabaries. Almost all kanji originated in China, and may have more than one meaning and pronunciation. Kanji compounds generally derive their meaning from the combined kanji. For example, Tokyo (東京) is written with two kanji: "east" () + "capital" (). The kanji, however, are pronounced differently from their Chinese relatives. For example, in modern mandarin Chinese, these two kanji would be "Dongjing". The name was chosen because Tokyo was to be the eastern capital of Japan, relative to its previous capital city, Kyoto (京都). (Some other kanji compounds use characters chosen primarily for their pronunciations. Such characters are called ateji.) In addition to native words and placenames, kanji are used to write Japanese family names and most Japanese given names.

Centuries ago, hiragana and katakana, the two kana syllabaries, derived their shapes from particular kanji pronounced in the same way. However, unlike kanji, kana have no meaning, and are used only to represent sounds. Hiragana are generally used to write some Japanese words and given names and grammatical aspects of Japanese. For example, the Japanese word for "to do" (する suru) is written with two hiragana: (su) + (ru). Katakana are generally used to write loanwords, foreign names and onomatopoeia. For example, retasu was borrowed from the English "lettuce", and is written with three katakana: (re) + (ta) + (su). The onomatopoeia for the sound of typing is kata kata, and is written with 4 katakana: (ka) + (ta) + (ka) + (ta). It is common nowadays to see many businesses using katakana in place of hiragana and kanji in advertising. Additionally, people may use katakana when writing their names or informal documents for aesthetic reasons.

Roman characters have also recently become popular for certain purposes in Japanese. (see rōmaji)

Japanese pronunciation

Throughout Wikipedia, a modified version of the widely accepted Hepburn romanization is used to represent Japanese sounds in Roman characters. The following are some basic rules for using Hepburn to pronounce Japanese words accurately.


  • The vowels a, e, i, o, and u are generally pronounced somewhat similarly to those in Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Slavic languages.
  • The vowel u is similar to that of the oo in moon, although shorter and without lip-rounding. In certain contexts, such as after "s" at the end of a word, the vowel is devoiced, so desu may sound like dess.
  • Japanese vowels can either be long (bimoraic) or short (monomoraic). The macron denotes a long vowel.
    • Long a, o and u sounds are usually written with macrons as ā, ō and ū. The notation "ou" or "oo" is sometimes used for a long "ō", following kana spelling practices.
    • Long e and i sounds are usually written ei /ee and ii, but in neologisms are instead written with macrons as ē and ī.
    • Circumflexes (âêîôû) occasionally appear as a typographical alternative to macrons, especially in older texts.

Japanese vowels can be approximated in English as follows:

vowel a i u e o
British Received Pronunciation between cap and cup as in feet as in boot as in vet as in dog
General American as in father as in feet as in boot as in hey as in know

Moraic n

  • An n before a consonant is moraic (its own mora).
  • A moraic n followed by a vowel or y is written n' to distinguish it from mora that begin with the consonant n.
  • The moraic n has various phonetic realisations:
    • Before an n, t, d or r, it is pronounced [n].
    • Before a k or g, it is pronounced [ŋ].
    • Before an m, b or p, it is pronounced as [m]. It is written as m in some versions of Hepburn, but as n in Wikipedia’s modified Hepburn.
    • It is otherwise pronounced as [ɴ] or [ɯ̃].


  • Consonants other than f, r, g, and n at final or before r are generally pronounced as in English.
  • The consonant f is bilabial: the teeth are not used, and the sound is much softer than the "f" of English. [tōfu] "tōfu"
  • The consonant r is a flapped or tapped consonant. To an English speaker's ears, its pronunciation lies somewhere between a flapped t (as in American and Australian English better and ladder), an l and a d. [kirei] "beautiful"
  • The consonant n at final or n before r is uvular: This consonant is a sound made further back, as of making a nasal sound at the place to articulate the French ʁ. [shinryaku] "invasion"
  • Double consonants (kk, tt, etc.) basically indicate a slight, sharp pause before and stronger emphasis of the following sound, more similar to Italian than English. Spelling anomalies:
    • double ch is written as tch (sometimes cch),
    • double sh is written as ssh and
    • double ts is written as tts.

When a consonant is followed by another of the same letter, the first consonant is written with a chiisai (made-smaller) tsu (つ/ツ). Exception: Double n. In this case, being as n (ん/ン) is a single consonant, it can be written by itself. (Ex: Woman: Onna-おんな)

Japanese names

In Japan the given name always comes after the family name:

  • Example: 福田康夫 (Fukuda Yasuo). 福田 ("Fukuda") is the family name.

However, to reflect the Western convention of listing the given name first and the family name last, some Japanese people born since the establishment of the Meiji era (1868-09-08) conform to the "given name, family name" order in western texts. So 福田康夫 (Fukuda Yasuo) is listed as "Yasuo Fukuda". On Wikipedia, normally Western order is used for people born from the first year of Meiji (1868) onward.

See also

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