29 Jul Updated: A pronunciation guide to Japanese words including panko, udon, sake and more
The Tokyo Olympics has been taking a lot of my attention now that it’s finally arrived, and I’m glad it seems to be running well, with few health issues even though Tokyo outside of the Olympics is suffering from an increase in Covid-19 infections. I hope the competition can continue, and that the Paralympics in several weeks can also be held.
I decided I needed to update this blog post from 2009 — it’s still the most-read post on my site — because the inspiration for it, a panko-encrusted fish sandwich created by the Wendy’s fast-food chain, doesn’t even exist anymore. When they introduced the sandwich with a television ad campaign, the spots always irritated me because of the way they pronounced “panko.” Since then, panko – the traditional Japanese breadcrumb — has become a common ingredient for baking and frying in the US, and I still hear it mispronounced, without Wendy’s help.
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, many Americans pronounce this 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!”
The other, and more immediate reason I want to revive this post and add some words, is because of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, now being held a year late because of the Covid pandemic. I enjoy the ways that NBC is broadcasting the games live and on demand, and putting lots of clips on YouTube. Although I assume the broadcasters got coached on pronouncing not just the dizzying variety of foreign athletes’ names, but also Japanese words, many are mangled, or are inconsistent – often by the same anchor or reporter, within the same report. “Tokyo” is probably the word that gets the most varied treatment.
First, 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.” And 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. 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?”
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. And it should be noted that if we understand each other in America, that’s pretty much okay. Language is about communication, and we’re communicating… with each other. but if you say things American-style in Japan, they may not know what you’re trying to say. Even brand names where Japanese companies have marketed Americanized pronunciations in the US (Nikon and Toyota are pretty obvious examples) won’t sound familiar to native Japanese if you say them like you would at home. Just sayin’…
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? 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 hella hilarious conversation one time about how, to a Japanese person these words all basically sound alike (seriously): “hot,” “hat,” “hit,” “hard,” “heart,” “hold,” “hut,” “head” 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 is not pronounced “A-ni-may” like “animal” — it’s “ah-ni-meh.” The differences might sound subtle or trivial, but if you say it the “American” way in Japan, people may not understand you.
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.”
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.
Donburi – “Donburi” is a description of a basic Japanese dish: A rice bowl, where rice in a bowl is topped with any number of foods, from meat and fish or tempura or vegetables, or everything. A Beef Bowl, which many Americans are now familiar with, is a “gyu-don.” “Gyu is beef, and “don” is short for domburi, the actual bowl itself. “Tendon” is Tempura on a bowl of rice; “Katsudon” is a Tonkatsu fried pork cutlet on rice (see “Tonkatsu vs Tonkostu” below) and so on. You get the idea. The generic term, “donburi,” is often mispronounced as “don-BURRY.” Pleas say “dohn-bu-rri.” Thank you.
Emoji – Did you know the fun graphical shortcuts everyone uses in texts, emails and now even emails with emotive smiley faces are a Japanese invention? There was an earlier word, “emoticon” (emotion+icon) that was in use by 1994, but maybe it sounded too much like a Transformer robot. A Japanese mobile phone employee created variations of smiley faces and called them “emoji” — “e” is art or picture, and “moji” is character, like a text character. Japanese were early to adopt texting over mobile phones (I remember seeing people on Tokyo sidewalks with their faces and thumbs buried in their flip phones in 1994) and a graphical way of expressing common responses was a brilliant time-and-thumb-saver. Emoji became a worldwide phenom when Apple added them to the iPhone 3G launch in 2008. Americans say it as “ee-MOW-jee,” but in Japan it’s “eh-moh-jih,” short clipped syllable.
Furikake – Everyone in Japan grows up with furikake, which is a topping you sprinkle over rice that can include any number of savory ingredients like nori or wakame dried seaweed flakes, fish flakes or little bits of fish, sesame seeds and so on. It’s now becoming familiar in the US, and a friend pointed out that Americans often call the stuff “furry COCK-y,” which just cracks me up. It’s “fooh-rrih-kah-keh.”
Futon – The traditional Japanese sleeping mat (and cover — we grew up with thick warm futon that were used both beneath us and on top) 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.”
Gyoza – The Japanese word for the Chinese “potsticker” dumpling is too often spoken as “ghee-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 syllables, “Toh-Kyo” but is often stretched into “Toe-kee-yo.”
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.
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-rro-shi-mah,” with shorter syllables and no emphasis. The “R” should be a little bit trilled, not a Western “R’ sound like “roe.”
Honcho – This isn’t so much a mispronunciation as it is an acknowledgement that some Japanese words have been coopted and become English words over time. Honcho as in “head honcho” is a straightforward word that means “boss” or “bigshot.” It’s a slight adaptation of the Japanese “han cho,” or “squad leader.” American GIs adopted the word (like they adopted “sukoshi” and turned it into “skosh”) in the years after WWII. Although Americans tend to say “HAWN-choe,” the clipped Japanese pronunciation is “hahn-choh.”
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.
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 “karra-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?
Karate – While we’re at it, I should add this popular Olympic sport a Japanese martial art that was first introduced at the 1964 Olympics, the first time the games were held in Japan. Like Karaoke, “kara” is short for “karappo, or “empty. “Te” is simply, “hand.” So karate is fighting with an empty hand. Cool, huh?
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 late NBA player, “KOE-bee” instead of the more subdued “Koh-beh.” The athlete’s father named him after the wagyu beef from Japan, port city, but raised him with the changed pronunciation.
Kyoto – See Tokyo below, or Gyoza above. Kyoto is two syllables — “kyo-toh,” not “kee-YO-toe.”
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.”
Nagano – This drove me crazy during the 1988 Winter Olympics, which were held in the Japanese mountain town. It’s three short syllables with no emphasis: “nah-ga-noh,” not “NAAH-guh-noe.”
Napa – The long-leafed cabbage is pronounced “nah-ppah,” 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.
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.)
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) or “Oh-ree-GAW-me,” but it should be more like “oh-rree-gah-mee,” short clipped syllables without emphasis on any of them.
Panko – Japanese breadcrumbs, often used as a coating instead of flour batter for dishes such as fried shrimp, or in Wendy’s case, their now-long-gone fish sandwich. Instead of “PAN-koe,” try “pahn-koh.”
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.”
Sake – Rice wine has become a staple in not just Japanese restaurants and sushi bars, but everywhere. 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.” The TV folks covering the Olympics mostly say it incorrectly, even though they laugh about drinking it every day. Try saying “sah-keh.”
Sakura – The national tree of Japan, which blooms every spring and showers the country with beautiful sakura blossoms. Denver’s Japanese community has “Sakura Square” downtown with a Japanese grocery store and the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple. Washington DC has the incredible hundreds of Sakura trees planted along the tidal basin , a gift from Japan in the early 20th century. “Sakura, Sakura” is probably most famous Japanese folksong in the world — you know the melody, believe me, even if you don’t think you do. It’s pronounced “sah-ku-rrah,” not “suh-KOO-raw.” It would be like a foreigner saying “shtar shpangled banter.” Okay, maybe that’s not the same, but you get the drift.
Shiitake – I hear the much-loved mushroom called “she-TAW-kee” when it’s actually “shi-tah-keh.” The first syllable is stretched out more than “she” but more clipped than “shee” and the second is more clipped than “taw.” The last syllable is not a long “ee” but a short “eh.”
Shinkansen – Japan’s world-famous “bullet trains” debuted just in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and have set the standards for rail transportation ever since. I just saw a YouTube video where the creator kept saying “Shin-CAN-sen” instead of “Shin-kahn-sen” and it just sounded … wrong, and stood out especially since he went to great care to pronounce most other words in his video correctly.
Skosh – I’m including this here because even though it began life as a mispronunciation, it’s now a commonly used and understood English word listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Skosh means “just a little,” and the Japanese source is “sukoshi,” which American GIs learned during the Postwar Occupation of Japan. It had become common usage by military personnel during the Korean War in the early 1950s, and then by Americans after soldiers went home. Yep, Americans say “s-koh-sh” but Japanese say “soo-koh-shi.” A lot of Japanese and Japanese American shorten the :soo” to just “s’koh-shi.”
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.”
Takayama – I’m the chair of the Denver Takayama Sister City Committee, and love our friends and partners in the Japanese Alps in Gifu Prefecture. I hear people (including Japanese Americans and others who have been to Takayama) say “Tah-KEE-yama” instead of “Tah-kah-yama.”
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.”
Teriyaki – I hear the marinade called “terry-YACK-ee” all the time, instead of “teh-rri-yah-ki” (with a slightly trilled “R”).
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.”
Tonkatsu vs Tonkotsu – This is a two-fer because I think people say either or both incorrectly. They’re two different words for two different things: “Tohn-kah-tsu” is a fried breaded pork cutlet (which uses panko bread crumbs, and I use an air fryer to make it), while “Tohn-ko-tsu” with an “o” is the savory, collagen-rich pork-bone-based soup in the ramen invented in Kyushu. Too many people use the wrong word and mispronounce it, saying “I love ‘ton-KAW-soo’ ramen.”
Tsunami – The March 11, 2011 earthquake off Sendai in Japan resulted in lots of global media coverage of the resulting tsunami, and it’s driven me nuts to hear “soo-NAH-mee,” when it’s pronounced just like the way it’s spelled, with the “T”: “tsu-nah-mi.” Extra credit to a couple of NPR anchors and reporters who said it right even though others on the network didn’t.
Udon – The traditional fat noodle is a staple in Japan that predates ramen, and Americans are starting to order it in restaurants too, 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. But he didn’t, of course. What I really hate is when a server in a restaurant tries to correct me when I order Udon, and says, “Oh, you mean ‘oo-DAWN?’ Sure, we have that.” You can imagine my mini-lecture to the server…
Wagyu – I mentioned Kobe Beef earlier; that might be the most familiar type or “brand” or beef from Japan, but the meat from Kobe is just one of many regional Japanese cattle breeds that are raised rich in intra-muscular fat cells that give the beef an amazing, melt-in-your mouth marbling. It’s also super expensive. The type of beef is generically called “Wagyu,” which I’ve heard mangled as “WAGG-yoo.” It’s “wah-gyu” — “Wa” for Japan and “gyu” means cow or cattle.
Wasabi – Thanks to the 1990s 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” (the TV commercials turned it into a pun for “wassup?”). It should be more precise and not so broad: “wah-sah-bi,” three very clipped syllables with none emphasized more than the others.
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, though, 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: 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“