10 Apr A pronunciation guide for Japanese words including “panko,” “udon,” “sake,” “anime” and “karaoke”
NOTE: This 2009 blog post on an older version of my website remains to this day (end of 2022) the most-read content I’ve produced. Please click here to read (and see a video) of this post wioth newer words added.
While we’re on the topic of pronunciation, I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, since Wendy’s began airing TV commercials for their new Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich. The commercials seem to have stopped, but the sandwich is still available at select locations across the country.
The commercial got Erin, our son Jared and me all riled up every time I saw it because it mispronounced “panko” whenever it was mentioned. Panko is the traditional Japanese breadcrumb coating for fried food, and it’s become something of a hip ingredient in American restaurants and kitchens. So it’s cool that Japanese food (starting with sushi a couple of decades ago) are catching on in the US and becoming mainstream.
However, it irritates me that so many Americans, including the guy on the TV commercial, pronounce the word as “PAN-koe,” like “pants.” The Japanese pronunciation is “pahn-KOH,” with the first part more like “pawn” — almost like “punk” — and the second like Homer Simpson’s “DOH!”
Here’s a caveat about this rant of mine: Language evolves, and as cultures merge and are assimilated, words and pronunciation patterns change and are re-invented. I’m sure the British still think Americans are buffoons for mangling their language, mispronouncing words and using “incorrect” words like “trunk” for a car’s “boot” or hood for a car’s “bonnet.”
I’m the first to admit that I don’t follow my own rules about Japanese words for other languages. I don’t walk into a Taco Bell and order a “bu-RRRIT-toh.” I don’t order a “kwassahn” at the bakery when I want a croissant. I say “kraw-sahnt.”
Servers at Thai restaurants snicker when I ask if I pronounced “yum nue” (spicy cold beef salad, truly yummy) correctly. Vietnamese servers guffaw out loud when I ask if I’ve said “bun dac biet” (combination grilled meat over rice noodles) right. Amazingly, I always think I’ve nailed it, but the guffaws come anyway.
And by the way, when you go to the Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of “pho” noodle, it’s NOT pronounced “foe” or even “fuh.” A server explained to us that you have to add a slight upward lilt to the end of the word, as if you’re asking a question. So it’s, “Hi, can I have a medium bowl of fuh?”
Erin and I may not get it exactly right, but the point is, we’re aware of our inadequacy at pronouncing other languages, and we always try to learn and say it correctly.
On the other hand, let’s face it, people in other countries aren’t any better at pronouncing English, so turnabout is fair play, right?
I know that Asians — and specifically Japanese, since I have first-hand experience — have a lot of trouble with English. My mom and an exchange journalist and I had a helluva hilarious conversation one time about how to a Japanese person, these words all basically sound alike (seriously): “hot,” “hat,” “hit,” “hard,” “heart,” “hold,” “hut” and a handful more. They had a terrible time pronouncing what they saw as the miniscule, subtle differences between those words.
When it comes to Japanese words, however, we’re in a transitional period for language because so many Japanese things, including food, music and pop culture, have become hip and popular in the US in the past couple of decades. We’re still getting used to Japanese words and some of them are newly mangled while some (like “karaoke”) are pretty much institutionalized in their mangled form.
Even though it seems like it should be easy, because Japanese is a phonetic language and you can break down words by syllables, I guess it’s not. A lot of people get Japanese words wrong, and they don’t seem to care. They say it the way they can — or are willing to say it — and the “correct” way be damned. This is America, dammit. We speak Engrish here.
People think Japanese words are hard to pronounce, but most are very straightforward. I’ve grown up with people freaking out when I introduce myself and they see my last name, but when I explain that’s it’s only four syllables and it sounds a little like “Kawasaki,” which everyone seems to be familiar with and comfortable with, they settle down. Still, I answer to a silly array of mispronunciations: my favorite is “Ask-a-COW-wuh.” Moo, I answer.
Some of the difficulty comes in the inability to transliterate certain phonetic sounds across cultures. The “R” and “L” stereotypes of Japanese trying to pronounce English, for instance. Or the trilled “R” sound in Spanish that doesn’t have a corollary in English. So in many cases, you can come close to converting a Japanese word into English, but it might not be 100%.
I’ve even heard Japanese Americans mangle Japanese words — many have never been to Japan and didn’t grow up speaking any Japanese. The late Congressman Bob Matsui used to say his name as “MATT-sooey” instead of “Mah-tsui,” and I shook my head every time I heard it.
Here are some words that I often hear mispronounced, and how they should be spoken (note to my Japanese-speaking friends: I know I say some of these words with an Americanized accent… what can I say, I’m Japanese American!):
Anime – Japanese animation isn’t pronounced “A-ni-mei” like “animal” — it’s “ah-ni-meh.” Th differences might sound subtle or trivial, but if you say it the “American” way in Japan, people may not understand you. (Click for audio)
Bonsai – The art of crafting sculpture out of trees is mispronounced a lot as “banzai,” but that’s a Japanese cheer. The correct way to say it is “bohn-sigh.” (Click for audio)
Daikon – The pungent Japanese radish, which seems to be more and more available in American supermarkets’ produce sections, is often pronounced “DYE-conn.” Try saying “dai-kohn,” where the subtle different in the first syllable is a softer “eye” sound, and the second syllable rhymes with “loan,” but cut off short. (Click for audio)
Futon – The traditional Japanese sleeping mat (and cover — we grew up with thick warm futon that were used both beneath us and as covers) became popular with trendy American yuppies in the ’80s, with hippie stores cranking out clunky beds and convertible sofas that used futon cushions. But those stores’ employees and their shoppers always called them “FOO-tawn.” The Japanese pronunciation is a clipped first syllable, almost just an “F,” and a shortened second: “f’tohn.” (Click for audio)
Gyoza – The Japanese word for the Chinese “potsticker” dumpling is too often spoken as “gee-YO-za,” instead of “gyo-zuh.” Westerners seem to have an innate need to add extra syllables. They also do it to Tokyo, which should be just two syllable, “Toh-Kyo” but is often stretched into “Toe-kee-yo.” (Click for audio)
Harakiri – The act of ritual suicide, which is also called “seppuku” (“stomach-cutting”) was an extreme way that samurai showed fealty to their lords when they failed, or when their lords died (or for lords to exit the world with honor after they failed). It’s most commonly pronounced “harry-carry” by Americans, which drives me nuts. It’s “ha-rra-kiri,” just like it looks. (Click for audio)
Hiroshima – The city in southern Japan that suffered the first atomic bomb explosion, leading to the end of WWII, is today pronounced by Americans as “Huh-ROE-shi-muh,” but it’s actually “He-ro-shi-mah,” with shorter syllables and no emphasis. The “R” should be a little bit trilled, not a Western “R’ sound like “roe.” (Click for audio)
Kamikaze – The word was popularized after WWII because of the suicide missions by the desperate Japanese military towards the close of the war. Today, I hear it in names for drinks or silly sushi rolls, and it’s often pronounced “kaw-maw-KAW-zee” instead of “kah-mi-kah-zeh.” Literally, it means “divine wind” or “wind of the gods”: “kami” is spirit or god, and “kaze” is wind. It refers to a sudden storm that blew out of nowhere and helped repel invaders in ancient Japanese history, and was poetically applied to the doomed young (barely men) pilots that were ordered in suicide missions to slam their planes into US warships because Japan had out of bombs. (Click for audio)
Karaoke – This one gets me but it’s already so established it sounds forced if someone says it correctly. It’s like saying “bu-rrree-toh” Spanish-style in a Taco Bell. Americans universally say “carry-okee,” but the Japanese pronunciation is “kara-oh-keh.” The “R” in the “kara” part is trilled almost like an L, so it should rhyme with “ka-lah.” Karaoke is a shortened combination of two words (Japanese love to do this with words), “karappo” which means empty, and “okestora,” which is a transliteration of orchestra. Literally, karaoke means “empty orchestra”: music with no band. Cool, huh? (Click for audio)
Kobe – The word wasn’t often pronounced in the US until the rise of the city’s namesake, super-expensive beef, and the rise of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ basketball superstar. Now everyone says it like the NBA player, “KOE-bee” instead of the more subdued “Koh-beh.” (Click for audio)
Manga – With Japanese comics and animation becoming so popular in the West, I often hear both anime and manga mispronounced. The word for comics is “mahn-gah,” not “MAN-guh.” (Click for audio)
Nagano – This drove me crazy during the Winter Olympics. It’s three short syllables with no emphasis: “nah-ga-noh,” not “NAAH-guh-noe.” (Click for audio)
Napa – The long-leafed cabbage is pronounced “nah-pah,” not “NAP-puh.” That’s the northern California valley where they make wine, or the auto parts company. Sometimes, the differences may sound subtle, like the differences between “hat” and “hot” for my mom. (Click for audio)
Okinawa – The GIs come back from the Pacific and call the former island nation that’s now Japan’s southernmost state, “OH-kuh-NAW-waw” — it’s as if the Japanese had a drawl, which of course they don’t. Try saying, “O-ki-nah-wuh,” with no emphasis on any syllable. (BTW, Japanese doesn’t really have intonation, that is, emphasized syllables, except that in conversation, I think some syllables do get emphasized.) (Click for audio)
Origami – This one’s kind of tricky, because the main problem with the word for the art of Japanese folded paper, is the rolled or trilled “R” sound, which isn’t part of English. Many people say “oh-RI-guh-mee” (as in polygamy) but it should be more like “oh-rree-gah-mee.” (Click for audio)
Panko – Japanese breadcrumbs, often used as a coating instead of flour batter for dishes such as fried shrimp, or in Wendy’s case, their new fish sandwich. Instead of “PAN-koe,” try “pahn-koh.” (Click for audio)
Ramen – Yes, one of the most familiar of all Japanese words, a staple of college students’ diets everywhere, is often pronounced “raw-MEN” or “RAW-men” by non-Japanese. But the dish is actually a Japanized version of the word for the traditional Chinese noodle, lo mein, and should be pronounced with more of a rolled “R” sound and no strong emphasis on either syllable: “rrah-men.” (Click for audio)
Sake – Rice wine has become a staple in not just Japanese restaurants and sushi bars, but everywhere. But Americans who love the stuff (I can’t stand the taste of it) usually say “saw-kee” as if it were spelled “saki” instead of “sake.” Try saying “sah-keh.” (Click for audio)
Shiitake – I hear the much-loved mushroom called “shee-TAW-kee” when it’s actually “shi-tah-keh.” The first syllable is more clipped than “shee” and the second is more clipped than “taw.” The last syllable is not a long “ee” but a short “eh.” (Click for audio)
Sudoku – The hugely popular numeric puzzle game is often mispronounced. Sudoku should be really easy. It’s like it’s spelled: Soo-doh-koo. But I constantly hear it said as “So-doo-koo,” “So-doo-koh” or “Soo-doh-koh.” (Click for audio)
Tempura – Instead of “temp-OH-ra” or “temp-POUR-uh” for the Japanese fried shrimp and veggies dish, try saying “tem-pu-rrah.” The “U” should not be stretched out, like “poo,” and should be more like the “oo” sound in “look.” (Click for audio)
Teriyaki – I hear the marinade called “terry-YACK-ee” all the time, instead of “teh-rri-yah-ki” (with a slightly trilled “R”). (Click for audio)
Tokyo – You’d think this one would be easy, but many people, including broadcasters, say “Toe-kee-yo” instead of “Toh-kyoh.” It’s two syllables, not three! The same goes for Kyoto: it’s “Kyo-toh” not “Kee-YO-toe.” (Click for audio)
Tsunami – The March 11, 2011 earthquake off Sendai in Japan resulted in lots of media coverage of the resulting tsunami, and it’s driven me nuts to hear “soo-NAH-me,” when it’s pronounced just like the way it’s spelled, with the “T”: “tsu-nah-me.” Extra credit to a couple of NPR anchors and reporters who say it right even though others on the network don’t. (ADDED IN 2011) (Click for audio)
Udon – The traditional fat noodle is a staple in Japan, and Americans are starting to order it in restaurants to, but they have a habit of pronouncing it “ooooo-DAWN.” Try “oo-dohn.” The “oo” part should be short, not dragged out. And the “dohn” part kind of rhymes with “don’t.” My stepson Jared, who used to work in a Japanese fast-food restaurant years ago, wanted to yell at customers who said udon wrong. (Click for audio)
Wasabi – Thanks to the TV commercials for Budweiser and the explosion of hip acceptability of sushi, the green stuff you mix into soy sauce became well-known, though it’s usually pronounced “wuh-SAH-bee.” It should be more precise and not so broad: “wah-sah-bi,” three very clipped syllables with none emphasized more than the others. (Click for audio)
There are also plenty of familiar words that have been mispronounced so long they seem correct: “NAI-kawn” for the camera instead of “Nee-kohn,” “HAWN-duh” instead of “Hohn-da” for the automobile. Just remember, if you say “Hawnduh” in Japan, people won’t know what the heck you’re talking about.
In the end, it’s not about saying everything exactly right. Culture colors everything, so one culture won’t ever absorb things exactly from another. But if you make an effort to get it close, the other culture is bound to appreciate it.
If people just tried to pronounce Japanese words correctly, I’d be happy. Thanks in advance for making the effort.
NOTE: Thanks a ton to everyone who has commented here and on Facebook, or sent me emails directly, to share their own pronunciation pet peeves! I’ve added everyone’s suggestions (and taken the credit as if I’d come up with them). I’d love to see similar blog posts about Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino and other Asian words that have been “lost in translation.”
UPDATE Sept. 5, 2009: I posted a mea culpa, because last night Erin and I realized that we don’t pronounce many Chinese words correctly — like lychee. And now that I think about it, there are many, many words that aren’t familiar to me, so I don’t say correctly. For instance, “Pho” is easy but “Bun Dac Biet” is hard because of added intonation. And, Banh Mi (the wonderful Vietnamese-French sandwich) is even harder for me, and I know I mangle it every time I say it. I appreciate my Vietnamese friends’ patience.
NOTE: I’ve also updated this post on Jan. 7, 2012 because it’s still a very popular post and I noticed I had some sloppy typos in it. I’m also going to post audio files comparing the different pronunciations.
ANOTHER NOTE: Be sure to read my mea culpa, a post I wrote later in 2009 admitting that I’m as guilty as anyone else of mispronouncing foreign words. “Pronunciation of Asian food: I’m guilty, guilty guilty of mangling“