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Understanding Japanese

Pronunciation 2

By Sara Aoyama

In the last column I gave you guidelines for pronunciation of the five vowel sounds in Japanese, and also for some of the consonants. I’m sure that you noticed there were some missing consonants, though. That’s what I will address in this column. So, here are a few more lines to add to the Japanese alphabet chart that we are now familiar with:


The GA line corresponds to the KA line. In the Japanese syllabary, KA becomes GA when two extra strokes are added in the upper right hand. So KA looks like this:


And GA looks like this:


The SA line changes to the ZA line, the TA line changes to the DA line, and the HA line changes to both the BA and PA line. When it becomes PA, instead of the two extra strokes in the corner, there is a small circle.

So we have HA , BA and PA all looking pretty similar:


Now that you’re feeling confused, let’s talk about what all this really means for a martial artist!

The best example is found in the kicks. We have mae-geri, mawashi-geri, kansetsu-geri, and yoko-geri. These are translated as front kick, roundhouse kick, joint kick and side kick respectively. You might then deduce that the word for kick must be geri. But it isn’t. The verb “to kick” in Japanese is keru. The noun form comes from that and is keri. So, why do all those kicks end up as geri, you may wonder. The reason for this is because some Japanese sounds change when they are combined with other words or syllables. Often k changes to g, t to d, h to b or p. There are probably rules for when and how these changes are made, but adult native speakers of Japanese seem to instinctively know how to do it correctly, much as we English speakers instinctively know how to use ‘a’ and ‘the’ correctly.

I picked kick or keri as an example for two reasons. The first reason is because the kicks come up often in our training. It’s a good place to start to become aware of how words combine in Japanese. The second reason I picked this as an example is because it just won’t do to be going around talking about geri. In Japanese geri means diarrhea. Just to sidetrack a bit, this is also an occasion for me to remind you to get your pronunciation right for this word. If you want to speak about giri or obligation, do make sure that you are not inadvertently pronouncing it as geri!

Because the Japanese language has limited sounds there are many words that sound the same. Kumo means spider and cloud. Hashi means chopsticks and bridge. It’s usually obvious from the context which word the speaker is referring to. And when the language is written it is clear by the kanji (Japanese character) which word it is. If two Japanese are chatting and the word is not clear, you’ll often see them clarify it by writing the character in the air or on their hand, or by giving another example of the character in a different word.

In the martial arts world, here are some examples of things that change in combination:

Karami --> garami ex. Ashi-garami

Harai --> barai ex. Ashi-barai

Tachi --> dachi ex. Heiko-dachi

Kamae --> gamae ex. Hotoke-gamae

Tsuki --> zuki ex. Jodan-zuki

The last example, tsuki, is not a very good example to give you, but it gives me an opportunity to point out that these things are not always clear. You will hear both jodan-zuki and jodan-tsuki. If those around you are using zuki in combination, that’s fine. But when it stands alone, it probably should be tsuki.

Lastly, I would not want to give you the impression that syllables that begin with these sounds –G, Z, D, B and P-- are always only seen due to combination. All of them stand alone as well. For example, the bu of budo is always bu. The getsu of hangetsu is always getsu. And the also the do of budo, karate-do, judo etc. is always do…. At least in Japanese. It is, however, a long sounding do (dou) but we’ll get to that on another day!

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About the Author:

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, where she majored in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she trains in Shorin-ryu Karate. Currently she continues her studies in Kishaba Juku karate under Sensei George Donahue and is also a student of Tai Chi Chuan. She is a freelance Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD., and “Karate Kyohan” by Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Aoyama is a regular contributor to

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