It has been a bit of a hobby of mine to try to pronounce Japanese karate terminology correctly. Ironically, the word “karate” often reads “kah RAH tee” in my head. Once one has even the most basic understanding of Japanese pronunciation, this will grate terribly on one’s nerves. There’s so much wrong with that pronunciation that it could be a study in and of itself. Perhaps it’s a good place to start. But before I do, let me say that I am no expert. But I am an avid student. I read, listen, search, and practice as much as I can.
My hobby really started when I met with my new friend Takahiro for lunch many years ago. While his English was limited, we did our best to connect and communicate. The little Japanese I knew was useless. Even if I did pronounce it correctly, the best I could do was perhaps say something like, “forward leaning upper correct fist shin seven testicles.” This does not make for good conversation. I tried to connect with the most Japanese thing I knew… karate. I said “kyokushin” and it was unrecognizable to him. I was perplexed because I was certain Kyokushin was well-known even to non-practitioners. Hmmm. So I went with explaining the founder, Mas Oyama. I was foiled once again; he never heard of him. I persisted. Once I said “Oyama” separately from “Mas”, he caught on. “Oh, Oyama Sensei!” said Takahiro. I was excited. “Right, Oyama!” I replied. “No, no. Oh ya ma,” said Takahiro. Here’s where it gets hard to describe in writing. If you already know basic Japanese pronunciation, you’ll probably guess what was going on. But let me try to explain anyway. I was saying something like “Oye YA ma.” And at the time, I barely heard the difference. In English (always presume I mean American English with apologies to my British friends), when O an Y are together, the sound becomes Oy, which in Romaji would be something like oi (or at worst oui – おうい). Now French might read that as “we,” but let’s leave that alone for now. I spent the next few minutes practicing the pronunciation of “Oyama” with my friend until he appeared satisfied. And there began my interest in pronunciation.
The good news is that the basics of Japanese pronunciation is actually much easier, in my opinion, than English. Why? Because, unlike English, the rules are nearly always followed and there seem to be few exceptions. When you see Romaji (words spelled phonetically in the roman alphabet), the vowels are always pronounced the same. How does ‘a’ sound? Always the same, unlike as in the preceding ‘always’ and ‘same’ or ‘at’, ‘father’, ‘ate’, or ‘great.’
First, start with the vowels. a, e, i, o, u. As an English speaker, I pronounce the ‘names’ of those letters and worry about the pronunciation later. I have to… because as I’ve already explained, the pronunciation differs based on the word. For Romaji, we pronounce the vowel letters as they sound in speech. If you know Spanish, it’s very similar. Also remember that they are always short. For some single-syllable words in English like “I,” there would actually be two Romaji vowels as in “ai.” Listen to vowel pronunciation here:
There are lots of great resources out there on the pronunciation of Japanese. I really don’t need to duplicate that here. But I will, shortly, start writing about some of the worst bastardizations of karate words I’ve heard and been guilty of using. Maybe others can share similar stories and can correct the mistakes I’m bound to make here as well. We have to start somewhere.