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Disclaimer: this page is maintained by an American student whose extremely limited Japanese vocabulary was learned almost entirely in martial arts classes. Any corrections or suggestions, especially from native speakers, would be very much appreciated.

Hints for Japanese Pronunciation

Japanese pronunciation is fairly simple, and actually pretty consistent compared to English. The hardest things for Americans tend to be:

  • Long vowels: if you see a double vowel (ii) or one with a bar over it like ō or ū in a word, drag the vowel out for two beats — Tōkyō is not “Tokyo”, but “To-o-kyo-o”.
  • Doubled consonants, as in matte (“wait”) or kekkō (“adequate”, “OK”): say the preceding vowel more quickly than usual, and insert a little pause between the consonants — mat-te, kek-ko.
  • The letter r. Americans generally don’t touch their tongue when saying r; the Japanese r is more like l, or d. If you know Spanish, it’s kind of like an r trilled once. Once you get it and you’re feeling good about yourself, move on to ryū, as in isshin-ryū.
  • The “ts” sound at the beginning of words, like tsuki. We’re used to it at the end: “cats”, or “boots”.

The muddiness between m and n. N is rarely as sharp as in English, it’s more like in French un, and when followed by a p or b the sound becomes something closer to m, but there’s no way to represent an m in Japanese writing without a following vowel. There is a character for a standalone n, so that’s the way it’s written, and most transliterations have used n. This means the word for newspaper, shinbun, actually sounds like “shimbun”. Some writers show the pronunciation in transliterations, so you’ll see kenpō written kempō, or enpi as empi.

In Japanese, the initial consonants of certain words change when they’re used as the second part of a compound word. It’s called rendaku. K, for example, becomes g; t changes to d; h to b or p.

If you’re really dedicated, there are lots of resources on the web. This is a good intro to Japanese pronunciation, and has a good set of basic lessons with audio.

Dōjō = training hall

gi = uniform

karate = empty (kara) hand (te)

kiai = spirit yell

kiotsuke! = “Attention!” The literal translation means to attach or adhere (tsukeru) one’s spirit and mind (ki).

obi = belt

rei = bow

sensei – teacher

tachi rei – standing bow

za rei – seated bow

gyaku = reverse or opposite

hajime = “Begin!”

harai = noun from the verb harau, to sweep or brush off, to us this means a sweeping technique. It is an example of rendaku: harai becomes barai in a compound like gedan barai or tegata barai.

kata = formal exercises; standard sequences of movements or techniques.

keri = a kick, from the verb keru, to kick. This is a great example of rendaku: since we almost always use keri in a more descriptive compound phrase, you’ll usually hear it as geri in the dōjō: mae geri, yoko geri. If you want to say “kick” by itself, though, say keri

kumite = sparring: controlled fighting to practice the application of techniques from kata. Several types of kumite exist: Jyu-kumite (free-sparring) and yakusoku-kumite (planned technique).

kyū = rank under black belt

tsuki = a strike with the sense of lunging, thrusting, stabbing: straight punches.

uke = a defensive block; it can also describe the attacker (and therefore recipient of a defensive technique) in a demonstration.

uchi = a battering, crushing or circular strike: backfists or hook punches, not straight punches.

bo – wooden staff

dan – black belt ranks

kime – mental focus

no = of, from. Japanese grammar is very different from English, and the object precedes the preposition. “My name is John” would be “Watashi no namae wa John desu” — “The name of me is John.” (More literally, it’s “me of name John is.”) This should help you make sense of names like Kyan no sai (“the sai of Kyan” (Chotōku, Shimabuku’s Shōrin-ryū sensei)) or hiji no ato tsuki (“backward strike of elbow”).

o = In Japanese, prefixing words with o- implies that they are bigger, or grander, or more honored. Here, for example, o-uchi means “big punch”.

otoshi = a drop or fall, from the verb otosu. Commonly seen in the names of judo techniques. In our kick otoshi geri, it probably refers to the relatively low position from which the kick is delivered, or dropping off the fight line. In some styles, otoshi geri is used to describe an axe kick, where the contact is made as the foot is coming down.

ryū = school of thought; style (of martial arts), method, or mode.

sai = pronged metal weapon

shinpan  = Referee

shiai = competition

arigatō gozaimasu = Thank you.

dō itashimashite = You’re welcome, don’t mention it.

dōmo = Thanks.

dōmo arigatō gozaimasu = Thank you very much.

dōzo = please, as in “This way please.” or “Please begin.”

hai = yes; but also many other uses: “I’m listening”, “I understand”, or even “Pardon?”

hai, sō desu = yes, that’s right; I agree

iie = no (very blunt and direct; it’s more polite to give a negative answer by repeating the verb in the question in its negative form: if you’re asked wakarimasu ka? (“Do you understand?”) it would be better to answer with wakarimasen (“I don’t understand.”) than a curt iie).

konban wa = good evening

konnichi wa = good afternoon

ohaiyō gozaimasu = good morning

onegai shimasu = please, when asking for something, as in “Please help me.” or thank you for doing this for me.

sumimasen = Excuse me; pardon me; sorry; thanks.

ichi = one

ni = two

san = three

shi = four

yon = four (We tend to count with yon instead of shi, as some say shi is a homophone for death. It’s certainly not wrong to use shi.)

go = five

roku = six

shichi = seven

nana = seven

hachi = eight

kyū/ku = nine

jū = ten

jū-ichi = eleven

ni-jū = twenty

ni-jū-ichi = twenty-one

san-jū = thirty

hyaku = 100

ato = behind (also: after, later)
choku = frequent (many times) direct; straight
chūdan = middle level: used to describe techniques generally used between the obi and the shoulders.
gedan = lower level: used to describe techniques generally used below the obi.
hidari = left
jōdan = upper level: used to describe techniques generally used at the shoulders or above.
mae = front; forward
migi = right
shoba = could be an Okinawan pronunciation of soba, “beside”; the standard Japanese s is reportedly softer in the Okinawan dialect. The kicks shoba geri and shoba konate are delivered to the side or at an angle.
ushiro = reverse; to the back: ushiro geri is a kick delivered to an attacker behind you.

ashi = foot

atama = head

empi = elbow (the front)

hiji = elbow (the point)

hiza = knee

kakato = heel

koshi = the ball of the foot, or, confusingly enough, the hip or waist. We’re typically referring to the ball of the foot.

kote = forearm

nukite = hand held open and stiff like a spear for a fingertip strike

seiken = the front of the first two knuckles of a fist, which is what we most commonly strike with.

shotei = the heel of the palm

shutō = the outside edge of the hand.

sokutō = the outside edge of the foot, specifically the last few inches by the heel

te = hand

tegata = hand used like a sword in striking

tettsui = hammer fist

uraken = the back of the fist; more specifically the backs of the knuckles of the seiken.

If you're interested in checking out our classes before you sign up, you're welcome to observe. You can even try one week for free.

Holloway’s Isshin-Ryu Karate School offers classes for ages five and up. We emphasize traditional instruction in Isshin-Ryu basic exercises, kata (forms), bunkai (applications of kata to self-defense) and sparring. Kids are taught tumbling as well.