Onomatopoeia is something we don’t really use a lot in English, but it’s used all the time in Japanese. In case the weird spelling of this word is throwing you off, onomatopoeias are basically sound words. So in English this includes words like bang, crunch, meow, and so on. 

Using Onomatopoeia in Japanese

We don’t use them in English as much because they tend to sound a bit more childish. However, onomatopoeia in Japanese are used all the time, and using them can help your Japanese sound even more native.

I’ve broken up different types of onomatopoeia to hopefully make them a bit easier to understand, but this is definitely one of those things where you’ll want to listen to native speakers to really get it down. Some of these categories might overlap, but hopefully they’ll make sense. 

Japanese Onomatopoeia :Double Words

A big chunk of onomatopoeia you’ll hear will come in the form of a two syllable word repeated twice (or with a minor sound variation in the second part). Examples of this include the sound of something spinning (guruguru ぐるぐる) or the sound of something sparkling (pikapika ピカピカ)

There are a ton of these, and I’ve even heard Japanese people make them up on the spot. As you learn more of them, it’ll be easier for you to learn which sounds are associated with the sounds in the language. Then you’ll be able to understand new onomatopoeia, even if you haven’t heard them before. 

Sometimes these ones don’t directly correspond with how we would translate them. For example, the word “perapera” (ペラペラ) means “fluent.” The sound it mimics is that of people talking. Also, if you ask someone how they’ve been feeling lately, and they say “barabara” (バラバラ), it means they’ve been so-so, even though it directly translates to “scattered.” 

Japanese Onomatopoeia : Standalone Sounds

Sometimes onomatopoeia won’t come in the form of these doubled words. There are a lot of standalone sounds that work like English onomatopoeia. For example, to say “bang,” you can say “don” (ドン) in Japanese. 

Animal sounds are also included in this. Cats say “nyan” (にゃん) and dogs say “wan” (ワン). You can even use these sound words to refer to the animals themselves. A cat can be called a “nyanko” (にゃんこ), but it definitely sounds childish. It’s kind of like saying “kitty cat” in English.

Some words are used so often, you may not even realize they are onomatopoeia. The word “yukkuri” (ゆっくり), meaning “slowly,” is one of those. You probably already have a few other onomatopoeias in your vocabulary, even if you don’t realize it.

Japanese Onomatopoeia : Repeated, Lengthened, and Shortened Sounds

A sound can be repeated or lengthened to add effect. You may see examples of this in anime or manga. One I’ve seen a lot is the sound “go” (ゴ) repeated to indicate an ominous presence.

The sound of silence in Japanese is “shiin” (シーン), and I’ve seen it lengthened to add emphasis. I’ve also seen this done with the sound of staring, which is “jii” (ジー).

On the other side of the spectrum, sounds can be cut short too. The sound “gut” (ぐっ) is the sound of pulling, and the cut off of the word indicates the force behind it. 

Japanese Onomatopoeia : Sounds Taken From Other Words

Onomatopoeia are often made to mimic the sounds they describe, though some of them actually come from existing Japanese words. A good example of this is the word “yurayura” (ゆらゆら), which is the sound of swaying. It comes from the word “yurasu” (揺らす) which means “to sway.” 

By this point, you may have noticed that onomatopoeia kind of switch between being written in hiragana and katakana. The truth is, some of them can even be written in kanji, like “yurayura” (揺ら揺ら). The way they are written generally depends on the context they are used. 

Manga and other media that intends to be easy to read will generally write them in katakana, however you will also see them written in hiragana pretty regularly. These words are sound words, so they tend to be spoken more than written. Seeing them written in kanji will probably be very rare. 

Japanese Onomatopoeia : Region Specific Sounds

Along with all of these different types of sound words, you may also come across some region specific variations. When I lived in Kansai, instead of saying “barabara,” a lot of people would say “bochibochi” (ぼちぼち). They meant the exact same thing, it was just the Kansai dialect

You may come across more variations based on where you go or live in Japan.

This is another one of those things that it will be really good to listen for. Knowing onomatopoeia can help a lot, especially if you don’t know the word for something and you are trying to describe it. 

Some Examples of Japanese Onomatopoeia

Japanese onomatopoeias for sounds

Sound effectOnomatopoeia
Lightちかちか
Train clackingがたんごとん
Knockingこんこん
Thunder rumbling, or large object rolling わいわい
Heavy rainざーざー
Thunder rumbling, or large object rolling ごろごろ
Crashがしゃん
Rustlingさわさわ
Scattered rain, going through pagesぱらぱら
Ringing りんりん

Japanese onomatopoeias for conditions

MeaningOnomatopoeia
humidむしむし
shinyつやつや
Stickyべとべと
Steamyほかほか
Spicyぴりぴり
Shocked with lightびりびり
Soaked with sweat, to be lazyだらだら
Sparklingきらきら
Wetびしょびしょ

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