Pronunciation of Japanese Terms

In the average karate lesson we tend to use many Japanese terms, "Mae-geri", "Kekomi", "Sensei", and "osu". Are we pronouncing these terms correctly, and why are they spelt using our western alphabet? This article hopes to shed light on some of these questions.

Written Japanese
Japanese is usually written using a mixture or kanji (pictographs) and hiragana, and for foreign words they use a phonetic spelling written in Katakana.

So "Karate" using kanji can be written "空手" ("kara" & "te"), or "からて" ("ka","ra" & "te").

Japanese using the Roman Alphabet
When we write the japanese words down using our western alphabet, we are actually using a system devised by James Curtis Hepburn which was first published in 1887. This is called Hepburn Romanization (usually shortened to "Romanji"), and uses a system of consonants and vowels to represent the sounds made in japanese, basicaly it is a phonetic spelling of the japanese words using our alphabet, the problem comes when we try to pronounce them like English words.

The wikipedia page on kana has a table of all the hiragama and katakana - with links to a page on each one (there is a sound file you can play on each page to hear what it should sound like).

Vowel Sounds
One of the most common problems with reading romanji by westerners is that we tend to pronounce our long vowel sounds, so for example: -

* "Karate", becomes "Carrotty" (listen to the correct pronunciation on this site)
* "Kata" becomes "Car tar"

Correct Pronunciation of Romanji
The Preface of third edition of Hepburn's original dictionary explains that: -

In transliterating the Japanese sounds into the Roman letter, the following system has been adopted in this work:--

a has the sound of a in father, arm.
e has the sound of ey in they, prey.
i has the sound of i in machine, pique, or like the sound of e in mete.
u has the long sound of u in rule, tune, or oo in moon, excepting in the syllables tsu, zu, and su, when it has a close sound, resembling, as near as possible, the sound of u pronounced with the vocal organs fixed in the position they are in just after pronouncing the letter s.
o has the sound of o in no, so. The horizontal mark over o and u indicates merely that the sound of o and u is prolonged.
ai has the sound of ai in aisle, or like eye.
au has the sound of ow in cow, how.
ch is pronounced like ch in cheek, cheap.
sh is pronounced like sh in shall, ship shop.
f has a close resemblance to the sound of the English f, but differs from it, in that the lower lip does not touch the upper teeth; the sound is made by blowing fu softly through the lips nearly closed, resembling the sound of wh in who: fu is an aspirate, and might, for the sake of uniformity, be written hu.
g in the Tokyo dialect has the soft sound of ng, but in Kyoto, Nagasaki, and the southern provinces it has the hard sound of g in go, gain.
r in ra, re, ro, ru, has the sound of the English r, but in ri is pronounced more like d. But this is not invariable, as many natives give it the common r sound.
se in Ky?to, Nagasaki, and the southern provinces is pronounced she, and ze like je. The final n, when at the end of a word, has always the sound of ng; as, mon=mong, san=sang, min=ming, but in the body of a word, when followed by a syllable beginning with b, m or p, it is pronounced like m, as, ban-min=bamming, mon-ban=mombang; shin-pai=shimpai. Before the other consonants it has the sound of n; as, an-nai, bandai, hanji.

The sounds of the other consonants, viz., b, d, h, j, k, m, n, p, s, t, w, y and z, do not differ from their common English sounds.

You will recall that I wrote "Osu" rather than "oss" at the beginning of this article, hopefully now you should know why - (see u above). But what does this strange word mean?

Rob Redmond has produced an extensive article at, entitled Appropriate Usage of Osu. In this he gives some possible meanings for the word "osu" - one is a contraction of "Ohayo Gozaimasu" (roughly translated as "good morning"), another is a contraction of "Onegaishimasu" (meaning "please"), there are several other suggested translations and I suggest you read his article if you're interested.

So ... Does it matter how you pronounce your Japanese?

If you're travelling to Japan or need to have verbal communication with Japanese, then you probably should try and get your pronunciation correct, but you're hardly likely to use words like "Mae-geri", or "Ude-uke" in normal conversion. You are much better off trying some language courses if you want to learn Japanese.

If you're studying and training in karate, then it is nice to know how Japanese pronunciation should differ from that practised in your dojo, but to avoid confusion try to use the pronunciation that your sensei uses.