Japanese has 5 vowels: /i, ɯ, e, o, a/ Japanese vowels are of two kinds: short vowels (a,i,u,e,o) and long vowels (aa,ii,uu,ee,oo). A long vowel is pronounced approximately twice as long as a short vowel. These two types of vowels make the meaning different.

Japanese Short and Long Vowels

  short vowel meaning long vowel meaning
a kado corner kaado card
i biru building biiru beer
u kuro black kuuro air route
e deta exited deeta data
o koto #koto kooto coat

#koto is a Japanese traditional musical instrument.

Japanese vowels are pronounced as monophthongs, unlike in English; they are similar to their Spanish or Italian counterparts. However, the high back vowel /ü/ listen (help·info) is somewhat centralized as well as “compression rounded”, rather than protrusion rounded as [u], or unrounded as [ɯ]. More precisely, /ü/ is pronounced with the lips compressed toward each other but not spread to the sides. The IPA transcriptions on the right side of the diagram at right are suggested by Okada (1999). Note, however, that there is no IPA symbol for lip compression, so no transcription will be complete. /ü/ is transliterated as u.

Japanese a is a low, non-palatal, non-retracted low vowel, IPA [ɑ], though it is also often represented as [a]. It is between the English a in “father” and the English a in “dad”. The Japanese o listen (help·info) is a “flat” o, unlike the English one, which is a diphthong. Try to keep your tongue lowered while pronouncing the Japanese o, and also try to keep your lips from moving while pronouncing the Japanese o. The i is like English ee in “feet.” The e sounds to English speakers like a mix between short e in as in “bed,” and long e as in “lay,” though it is closer to the former than the latter.
In most phonological analyses, all vowels are treated as occurring with the time frame of one mora. Phonetically long vowels, then, are treated as a sequence of two identical vowels, i.e. ojiisan is /ojiisaN/ not /ojiːsaN/.

Although the phonotactics of Japanese lead some to believe that the language lacks diphthongs, this may not be correct. A diphthong could very basically be defined as two vowels pronounced in one syllable; given this definition of diphthongs, Japanese, like so many other languages, would have them. In English, a diphthong such as the one in eye is pronounced as a vowel with a following off-glide: [aɪ̯] or [aj]; in Japanese the sequence in ai 愛 'love' is pronounced just as it is in 'eye' in English. At least phonetically, this suggests that diphthongs may occur in Japanese.
Within words and phrase, Japanese allows long sequences of phonetic vowels without intervening consonants, although the pitch accent and slight rhythm breaks help track the timing when the vowels are identical.
[hoo.o↓o] hōō o (鳳凰を) 'phoenix (direct object)' [to↑o.oo.o↓.o↑oɯ] tōō o ōu (東欧を覆う) 'to cover Eastern Europe' (this artificial example is not something that would normally be said)


Consonants: /p,b,t,d,k,g,m,n,ɸ,s,z,ʃ,ʒ,ŋ,h,ts,f,s,z,sh,j,ts,tɕ,j,ɰ/. 
accent: high and low pitch accent, equal stress in each syllable (no stress accent)

Japanese Consonant Inventory


Stop p/b t/d     k/g    
Nasal m n          

ɸ s/z ʃ/ʒ   ŋ   h
Flap   ɺ          
Approximant       j ɰ    

* Voiceless stops /p, t, k/ are slightly aspirated: less aspirated than English stops, but more so than Spanish.Voiced stops /b, g/ do not always achieve full occlusion, being sometimes realized as fricatives or approximants. /g/ is realized as [ŋ] in many dialects (only intervocalically), especially in eastern Japan.


  • /t, d, n/ are apical and denti-alveolar (i.e. the tongue apex contacts the back of the upper teeth and the front part of the alveolar ridge). Before /i/, these sounds are alveolo-palatal; before /u/ they are alveolar.
  • /s, z/ are laminal alveolar. Before /i/, these sounds are alveolo-palatal.
  • /r/ (transcribed ɺ̠ above) is a lateral apical postalveolar flap. It is similar to the Korean r. To an English speaker's ears, its pronunciation lies somewhere between a flapped r /ɾ/ (as in American English better and ladder), an l, and a d, sounding most like d before /i/ listen (help·info), and most like l before /o/ listen (help·info). Spanish speakers often associate it with a soft r, as in pared.
  • The compressed velar /w/ is essentially a non-moraic version of the vowel /u/. It is not equivalent to IPA [w] since it is pronounced with lip compression rather than rounding. (English /w/ is rounded. The IPA symbol /w/ does not quite capture this pronunciation.)
  • N is a moraic nasal, fully a stop before another stop, where it becomes homorganic with that consonant, but not achieving full occlusion before fricatives or between vowels, where it is realized as a nasal vowel. Word finally before a pause, it may be realized as a uvular nasal stop, a bilabial nasal stop, or as a nasal vowel. Not all analyses include this abstract archiphoneme; some treat the coda nasal as /n/. 
  • h assimilates to [ç] before /i/ listen (help·info), and to [ɸ] before /u/ listen.
  • Q is realized as the first half of a geminate obstruent. Other, less abstract analyses reject Q in favor of simple geminate consonant clusters, e.g., /pp/, /tt/, /ss/, etc.”

The following website provides the Japanese syllable sounds: http://www.kanji.org/kanji/japanese/kanaroma/kanaroma.htm


Sentence structure

Typical sentence structure: Subject + Object + Verb

  • Example: Hana ga ichigo o tabeta. (literally means “Hana a strawberry ate.”)
The subject and the object are often omitted by the speakers when it is understood by the context. Japanese is a pro-drop language, meaning that the subject or object of a sentence need not be stated if it is obvious from the context.
  • Example: ichigo o tabeta. (“a strawberry ate”) OR tabeta. (“ate.”)


While the language has some words that are translated as pronouns, these are not used as frequently as pronouns in some Indo-European languages, and function differently. Japanese “pronouns” also function differently from most modern Indo-European pronouns in that they can take modifiers as any other noun may.

  • Example: The big eh ran down the street. (ungrammatical)
 But one can grammatically say essentially the same thing in Japanese:
  • Okii kare-wa michi-o hashitte itta. (grammatically correct)

The choice of words used as pronouns is correlated with the sex of the speaker and the social situation in which they are spoken: men and women alike in a formal situation generally refer to themselves as watashi or watakushi, which men in rougher or intimate conversation are much more likely to use the word ore or boku.Different words such as anata, kimi, and omae may be used to refer to a listener depending on the listener's relative social position and the degree of familiarity between the speaker and the listener.

Plural form in Japanese

Japanese often does not mention the grammatical number.


  • hon: a single book or several 
  • hito: person or people
  • ki: tree or trees



  • Japanese includes a large number of loanwords borrowed not only from Chinese but also from English and other languages. 
  • Japanese also invented pseudo-English words.

Example: “nighter” for night games, “salaryman” for the salaried worker


Japanese can be divided two types of morphemes:

  • Root
  • Affix (suffic, prefix)

Examples of combination of morphemes

type of combination



root + root

deep in the mountains
root + suffix
prefix + root o-cha tea

Written Japanese

Written forms

Japanese use two separate forms of phonetic script (hiragana and katakana) in combination with Chinese characters (called kanji.)
Hiragana and katakana were developed from Chinese characters. They consist of 48 characters used for different purposes: Hiragana is used for writing native Japanese words, particles, and verb endings whereas katakana is used for writing loanwords, for emphasis, for onomatopoeia, for company names, logos, advertising, and for the scientific names.

Romanization Systems

The romanization of Japanese uses Latin alphabets. Altough there are several systems for romanizing Japanese, the two main used ones are the Hepburn system and the Kunrei system. Romanized Japanese has been taught in the elementary school. The primary usage of romaji is to input Japanese into computers and other electric devices. Therefore, almost all Japanese are able to read and write Japanese using rōmaji.

Romanization systems
kana Hepburn Kunrei
a a
i, j, y i
v, u v
ye ye
vo, uo vo
ca ca
qi,qui qui
cu, qu cu, qu
qe,que que
co co
きゃ qia quia
きょ qio, qeo quio
くゎ qua qua
ga ga
gui gui
gu, gv gu
gue gue
go go
ぐゎ gua gua
ぎゃ guia  
ぎゅ guiu guiu
ぎょ guio guio
sa sa
xi xi
su su
xe xe
so so
しゃ xa xa

しょ xo xo
za za
ii, ji ji
zu zu
ie, ye  
zo zo
じゃ ia, ja ia
じゅ iu, ju ju
じょ io, jo jo
ta ta
chi chi
tçu tçu
te te
to to
ちゃ cha cha
ちゅ chu chu
ちょ cho cho
da da
gi gi
 づ  zzu  dzu
 で de de
 ど  do  do
 ぢゃ  gia  gia
 ぢゅ  giu  giu
 ぢょ gio  gio
 な  na  na
ni ni
nu nu
ne ne
no no
にゃ nha nha
にゅ nhu, niu nhu
にょ nho, neo nho
fa fa
fi fi
fu fu
fe fe
fo fo
ひゃ fia  
ひゅ fiu  
ひょ fio, feo fio
ba ba
bi bi
bu bu
be be
bo bo
びゃ bia  
びゅ biu  
びょ bio, beo  
pa pa
pi pi
pu pu
pe pe
po po
ぴゃ pia  
ぴょ pio  
ma ma
mi mi
mu mu
me me
mo mo

mia, mea  


mio, meo  
ya ya
yu yu
yo yo
ra ra
ri ri
ru ru
re re
ro ro
りゃ ria, rea  
りゅ riu  
りょ rio, reo rio
va, ua va
vo, uo vo
n, m, ~ (tilde) n

-t, -cc-, -cch-, -cq-, -dd-, -pp-, -ss-, -tt, -xx-, -zz-

-t, -cc-, -cch-, -pp-, -cq-, -ss-, -tt-, xxxx-

Written marks

The voiceless consonants k,s, t and h are turned into the voiced sounds g,z,d, and b by adding a diacritical mark called dakuten to the write of the kana character. Another mark, called handakuten, is used to write the p sound.

Palatalized sounds (//yoon//)

Syllables ending in i can be followed by a small ya, yu, or yo to form new combinations pronounced as a single syllable. For example, ki is combined with ya to give kya. These palatalized sounds are called yoon in Japanese.

Written system

Japanese is traditionally written in vertical lines going from top to bottom ordered from right to left. However, it is often written in horizontal lines in the same way as the Western written style.

Honorific Language

One of the important characteristics of “Japanese” is to have a sophisticated system of honorific language, called keigo. Keigo is used to show a speaker's respect for the person he/she speaks to. The speaker manipulates the wide range of keigo, included in nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs to show the appropriate degree of politeness.


A number of dialects are spoken from one region to another in Japan, which typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usege. Interestingly, some of the dialects may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country.
Japanese has a standard Japanese (hyojungo) which is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications. Recently, Standard Japanese is more used easpecially by the young people with the influence of TV, radio, and increased mobility within Japan due to the developed transpotation system.

Speech Sound Disorders

Incidence of Speech Sound Disorders

According to the National Institute of Special Education, the incidence of school-age children in special education with an articulation disorders has increased from 27.4% in 1973 to 36.1% in 1991.

Range of Acceptable Intelligibility

Due to lack of published research on speech sound disorders in Japan, it can be assumed that schools would have their own criteria for acceptable intelligibility of speech sounds for their students. If a student has decreased intelligibility, the school would assess them for eligibility of speech services.


Treatment for children with speech and language needs began with remedial education in the post-war period. These children would attend an after-school speech-language training or therapy class that would target either those with reading difficulties or incorrect articulation in their respective dialects. Over the last 30 years, treatment transformed from an after-school program to a part-time class during school, and finally to a resource-room training based on a something called “tuukyu sidou.”
Source: http://www.nise.go.jp/kenshuka/josa/kankobutsu/pub_a/nise_a-9/nise_a-9_5...


Original Contributor : Misako Suzuki, Winter term 2007

References and Resources