A pronunciation guide for Japanese words including “panko,” “udon,” “sake,” “anime” and “karaoke”

WendyWhile 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

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96 Responses to A pronunciation guide for Japanese words including “panko,” “udon,” “sake,” “anime” and “karaoke”

  1. Linda Absher says:

    What drives me crazy is how Americans pronounce Okinawa: ” o-KA-na-wa” instead of “o-ki-na-wa”. Then there’s my middle name, which is son confounding most people don’t even try: Ueki (“oo-eh-ki”). A small blessing, I guess.

  2. Susanito says:

    Don’t forget futon! Instead of FOO-TON, it’s f’tohn.

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    OMG, those are great additions, so I’ll amend the blog post. Thanks!

  4. Kitt says:

    My peeves: banzai and bonsai

  5. yoko says:

    “(BTW, Japanese doesn’t really have intonation, that is, emphasized syllables, except that in conversation, I think some syllable do get emphasized.)”

    Japanese isn’t tonal the way Chinese and Vietnamese are, but it has a high tone and a low tone– and that’s it. One of my Japanese teachers would direct us like conducting music as to which tones were high and which were low. There’s a rhyme and reason to when high and low tones were used, but it’s too long to get into here.

    Your last name, for example, is low-high-high-high– a-SA-KA-WA. One of my teacher’s names, in contrast, is high-low-low. WA-ta-be. My last name is also high-low-low.

    I am more annoyed when my name is mispronounced. I somehow don’t mind the mispronunciations of the words you mentioned, though. I think most people I meet pronounce them close enough to be okay for me. My husband, though, tends to pronounce gyoza as goyza, and that’s clearly wrong.

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Yoko, thanks for the clarification. It makes perfect sense, and explains why, even though I’ve always been told there’s no intonation, I hear different tones. I’ve always heard my name (spoken by Japanese) as low-high-low-high, though. Pretty interetsing!

    And Kitt, thanks for the reminder on “bonsai.” I HATE it when people say “banzai”!

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    Joz, great random rant! Wish I’d seen it when you wrote it in 2007.

  8. Dani Greer says:

    Small world – the Queen of Bees leaves a comment. Kitt, do you work with Gil?

    Okay, what about wabi sabi?

  9. Gil Asakawa says:

    I haven’t heard a lot of people even use the term “wabi sabi,” so I haven’t heard a mispronunciation of it… Have you heard it mangled? This one’s pretty straightforward, but then I think a lot of these words are…. Thanks, Dani!

  10. mona says:

    I have just spent the last 30 minutes or so going through your list of mispronounced words to see if I am in fact guilty. I find many of the differences to my ear so slight that I probably failed miserably. I wondered though how many Japanese have felt the same inadeqacy in trying to pronounce such words as choir, colonel, school, soldier,tongue,campaign,or sword. This little twist in the english language is designed soley to drive everyone crazy. I was also wondering about some ethnic words I grew up with. How come a bear is pronounced bare, but a bagel with cream cheese is a schmear, but pronounced schmeer. And lastly, I thought your name is ah-sa-ka-wa, but maybe Im wrong, but I grew up with Wertzberger, so good luck with that .

  11. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Mona, you got my name right, and that’s all that matters! And, I’m OK with bear/schmear because …, well, I don’t know why. I do love my bagels with a schmear, though! Finally, I always thought “Wertzberger” was a fine name!

  12. alienation says:

    One way to explain panko and tempura is that they are borrowed from the Portugese words “pan” and “tempora”.

    Pan is pronounced the same as the Spanish word pan, meaning bread. “ko” is short for kona, which means powder. pan-ko means bread powder.

    Tempora refers to the lenten time. Portugese traders would eat batter fried vegetables.

  13. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi John, thanks a lot for the historical insight — it makes perfect sense. I’d forgotten how the Portuguese brought a bit of their culture with them as the only foreigners allowed for several centuries in Japan. I wonder, though, how many European Americans are familiar, even subconsciously, with those words’ Portuguese origins? Fascinating stuff!

  14. Correct me if I’m wrong, and perhaps it’s just my secret editor coming out there, but what you appear to be saying in this post is that it irritates you that Americans don’t pronounce Japanese words the way you have learned to say them. You admit that it doesn’t bother you when you mispronounce words from other languages (burrito, croissant), but you think that the rest of us should learn to say Japanese words, most having to do with food, the way you say them so you don’t get irritated?

    You say you know that Asians have problems with English pronunciation, and that they are working on that, but when you speak of Americans’ problems with Japanese words, you write: “and it’s like they don’t care.” All language is difficult. Don’t stereotypes work both ways?

  15. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Leland, I wondered how long it would take your secret editor to appear!

    Yes, and yes to your questions. All languages are difficult to the people who don’t speak them. And, if I lived in Japan, I would hope I’d be writing columns and blog posts chiding Japanese for mangling English words (or, like many sites like Engrish.com, making fun of Japanese for mangling English words). They’re not working hard on saying English correctly, BTW, and I didn’t say they were. But, I don’t live in Japan, and I am irritated at the mispronunciations here in the US.

    Ultimately, I realize that like karaoke, “you people” are bound to always say it wrong. But I think it’s worth pointing it out now. If Mexican Americans pointed out the correct way to say “burrito” before the wrong way became de facto accepted use, I (we) may be saying it more like Spanish.

    I know it’s all part of the process, and we’re in a transitional period. The words at issue are mostly food because Japanese culture has passed the hipness stage in the US mainstream and is becoming absorbed into American pop culture, and food is an early and easily appropriated aspect of culture.

    If I knew more about the anime subculture, I’m sure there are a ton of words having to do with anime that are mangled too, but as you know, we’re all about the food!

    But I tellya, I’m not the only cranky Japanese (or Asian) American on this issue. It’s about dominant culture over minority culture, and I think a lot of AAPIs feel it in many slight and silly, but very real, ways.

    BTW, when you say “the way you have learned to say them…” isn’t it possible that the way I have learned to say them is the correct way? That phrase comes across as a conceit of white privilege to me!

  16. I think it’s great that you bring up the subject, and you know I don’t mind you being cranky, or that others are cranky about it, too. I just think that, on this post, you didn’t make your point very well, and in subtle ways I think you stereotyped Americans to do so, which to me, weakens your case.

    For instance, the use of we in this sentence: “We 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.” Are you speaking for every Japanese-American or yourself? And here: “A lot of people get Japanese words wrong, and it’s like they don’t care.” Again, who are you talking about here? It’s subtle, but it’s there.

    And I didn’t mean to suggest that you haven’t done your research on pronunciation. I have learned to pronounce words differently over the years. I grew up, like many people from Missouri, saying Warshington instead of Washington. It was a tough habit to break. But aren’t there dialects in Japanese, areas where people say the same words different ways, or is English unique in that way? We’re all over the place in America over pronunciation of English words, why should you expect more? Is there only one way to pronounce a word, for goodness sakes? All I was suggesting is that, when it comes to pronunciation, you make it sound as if it’s your way or the highway 🙂

  17. Milligan says:

    Thanks for this list. I think I pronounce most of them correctly, but although I have tried again and again, I cannnot seem to pronounce “Hiroshima” correctly. And I can’t hear the difference between what a Japanese speaker is saying and what I am saying. Usually I end up putting emphasis on one of the sounds, and it always sounds funny to them. Also, I found that most people in Japan didn’t ever ask for sake, but ordered it as nihon-shu instead, so that’s what I usually ask for. It also has the bonus of letting you know if the staff in a restaurant are really nihonjin or not.

  18. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for the comment, Milligan! Also for the tip on “Nihon-shu.” I haven’t heard it much, but that’s because I’m Japanese American and JAs tend to us an outdated form of Nihongo, and also because I’m allergic to alcohol and would never have any occasion to order the stuff.

    I do acknowledge some of the fine points of pronunciation are subtle and hard to discern. Even since I’ve written this, I’ve given up on “karaoke” and “origami” — words that have been in use in the West for years. They’re too far gone. But the relatively new words just coming on the scene, like “panko” and “udon” — I’m hoping to ctach some of those earlky enough so Americans learn right away how to say them correctly.

  19. saeb says:

    It seems to me that the reason these words are mispronounced in the first place is due to the inherent conditioning of the tongue since birth to be able to produce certain sounds and not others, and unless a person practices producing foreign sounds, compensation through known sounds would be necessary. Personally I think that it’s futile to try to get people on the street to exert an effort to get the words out properly just for the sake of doing it right. I mean everyone is already busy enough just getting by life, that’s how our society-system is for afterall…

  20. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Saeb, thanks for the comment! I agree, much of the problem is in the fact that certain languages use certain muscles in the mouth and tongue, and it’s just hard to tell your brain to say something correctly. Also, I think we hear words filtered through our own language, so we hear things one way when they’re actually being spoken another.

    But that said, I think there could be more of an effort made for Americans in this global era, to pronounce foreign word with at least a bit more authenticity. I think a lot of people are just lazy, and don’t take the time to hear things correctly — even English words. Like President Bush II saying “nuculer” for nuclear, for instance, or lots of folks who say “real-ah-tor” for realtor.

  21. Erinne Keffer says:

    Can you please spell out how you would pronounciate mommy, Okaasan, and Otasan for daddy? Also would it be appropriate for my young children to say tou-chan for daddy?

    thank you

  22. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi, sure:

    Oh-KAAH-sahn (mother)

    Oh-TOE-san (father — it’s like “TOH” with an elongated “O” sound)

    TOH-chan (or “TOE” like above. You don’t need to emphasize the “U” part much)

    I should say that some people out there may think I’m wrong, and in fact I may be wrong, since I’m not a fluent Japanese speaker. ut these are how I would pronounce these words…. 🙂

  23. Michelle says:

    I loved this post. Thanks for sharing!!!

  24. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for reading, Michelle!

  25. Denise says:

    One of my biggest pet peeves is the dude on Iron Chef who says some rendition of “konbawa” that I can’t even repeat! It is nothing like Konbawa….more like “Corny bow wow”…he should just say “Good evening” and be done with it!

    Loved your site! We were having a discussion about the pronunciation of futon and you helped me win an argument with my 18 year old son…not something I get to do often! Thanks!

  26. Gil Asakawa says:

    Glad to be of help, Denise!

  27. Nathalie says:

    I am a 20 year old chinese girl on my way to learning japanese. I have been practicing my pronunciation for some time now, and I am happy with the results. it really helps to listen to audio cds to get it right. I can kind of relate to people pronouncing my language words wrong. In cantonese chinese “lo mein” would be the precise term for chinese noodles but in mandarin chinese it’s “lao mian”. It kind of bothers me for chinese food there’s all these different pronunciations of foods since i only speak mandarin chinese and because it can lead to great ignorance amongst some people of what any chinese language actually sounds like. another thing is “chow mein”. It’s pronounced “chow mein” only because it originates from the Taisahan chinese dialect of the Taishan people who came to America. I wonder how many people actually know that in the world. I think it’s because chinese food has different names because its’ origin of culture is from different parts of china or asia therefore the language would be sound different, too. That’s why I hate it when I hear people going “ching chong chang cho” as if that’s really how any chinese language sounds like. it pisses the shit out of me. yes, mandarin chinese is the official language of china but there are well over a dozen of dialects with greater prominence over others depending on which part of china it is. For example, the Guangdong area of China has a prominence in cantonese chinese. It’s one thing for someone to simply not have the linguistic skill (like the way to move your tongue or mouth to make the sound of the word) and i know i shouldn’t complain but i can’t help but feel dejected when someone can’t even try to pronounce a word like, “Lian” without being like, “Li .. uh … aun?” it’s so awkward.

  28. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Natalie, thanks so much for your comment. I think Chinese dialects are incredibly hard,a dn also Vietnamese and other languages. I studied Latin in high school, which was easy (so closely related to English). And I obviously grew up listening to, if not always speaking, Japanese so I find that Japanese is kind of simple for me to pronounce. But I’m always asking Chinese and Vietnamese friends for guidance when I try to say things in their languages.

    I wouldn’t mind people mangling Japanese so much if they just made an attempt to TRY and say things correctly. But so many people just pronounce things the way they’ve always pronounced it, and they act like you’re the one who’s wrong if you try to correct them. That’s what gets me going….

  29. Harusami says:

    Loved the rant Gil! “Pan-ko,” “carry-oh-key” and “you-don” have been my pet peeves.

    Here’s a funny story about the word “karaoke.” My Japanese-born mother loved her karaoke set-up, and often had her friends over to sing, mostly old school enka songs. Most of her friends had their own karaoke machines as well and they all took turns having potluck karaoke parties.

    She made the acquaintance of an older issei woman and was visiting her for tea when in their small talk my mother asked if she had karaoke.

    “Oh yes! I have a garage full!” The elderly woman proudly exclaimed. “I can show you!” She walked my mother to her garage…it was filled with shelves of empty pickle jars. This woman was very “old school,” and before the newer meaning of “empty orchestra,” “karaoke” used to mean “empty pickle jar.” My mom nearly peed herself laughing over that one.

  30. Gil Asakawa says:

    That’s a hilarious story, Harusami — I’ll have to ask my mom about that because she probably would remember calling takuwan jars “karaoke” back in the day.

  31. John says:

    So funny. I noticed this commercial just the other day. What’s awful, though, is that I was at a dinner party the other day discussing different methods of frying fish when I was VERY sternly corrected by a wonderfully self-important person who looked at me with disdain and said “pain-c0, pain-co, it’s pain-co.” To my girlfriend’s astonishment, I didn’t even attempt to correct her. What was that about arguing with a fool…? Regardless, we all make pronunciation mistakes. It’s the desire and effort to correct one’s pronunciation–and to speak correctly–that matters. It’s a bit of self-discipline that has gone away in our (once?) great society.

  32. John says:

    To Leland: Japanese is a “sound-poor” language, which means that aside from drawing out the lengths of some syllables in Japanese, the language is incredibly easy for Americans to pronounce correctly. The sounds of the Japanese language are a complete subset of the sounds of English or a great many other languages. So–justifiably so–it is incredibly difficult for the native Japanese speaker to pronounce many basic English sounds (I can attest to this as I taught English there for a time). When one “can,” and so easily at that, we English speakers have no excuse but to pronounce foreign words better. On the flip side, I’ve spent years in Germany and the Netherlands and I still, for the life of me, cannot pronounce the throaty “ach,” but it is clear to a native speaker that I am at least trying and aware that the sound should be there.


  33. B. Y. says:

    How amusing that you write , “like pawn, almost like punk.” How do you expect everyone to get it right when you, the self-described expert, cannot tell us what is really sounds like. I never mind when foreigners mispronounce words. I’m happy that they are trying and seldom have a problem understanding what they mean. Lighten up. By pronouncing it pan -ko, I understood what the Wendy’s ad was about. I’m sure that was their point.

  34. Pingback: Gil Asakawa: Denver’s Annual Kohaku Uta Gassen Singing Contest Is Extreme Karaoke — In Japanese |

  35. Ellie Day says:

    I hate that Japan is in the news for this ongoing earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. However; it does give our reporters the pronunciation challenge once again. (I too cringed every time I heard NAH.ga.no instead of Nah.ga.noe) Correct me if I’m wrong, but should not Fukushima rhyme with Hiroshima? Hi.ROH.sh’ma….Fu.KUH.sh’ma. It’s been a long time but I recall that when you have a “shima” or “shita” ending, you slightly accented the preceding syllable and the following syllable’s “i” about disappears…at least that’s how I heard it in the Yokohama area, where Yamashita Park was Ya.MAH.sh’ta..the i about disappears, etc.

  36. Gil Asakawa says:

    It’s funny, Japanese is supposed to be an :unaccented” language but I hear emphases all the time. So, yes, I agree with your pronunciation of Fukushima, though I wouldn’t put that much of an emphasis on the “Koo” syllable. It’s definitely not “FOO-Koo-SHEE-Mah,” though!

  37. Pingback: Gil Asakawa: Thoughts on the Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake and Tsunami from a Japanese American in Denver | Solar Energy| | Blog and Videos sites.

  38. Albert Jeans says:

    I think most teachers of Japanese in the U.S. do students a great disservice by saying that there are no accents in Japanese. That’s how I learned Japanese and now I’m having a really hard time learning the correct pronunciation. For example, the word for dog, “inu” , has the second syllable at a higher tone, whereas the word for cat, “neko” has a falling tone. As you and a few others mentioned in previous posts, there tones in Japanese, mostly two. If you don’t pronounce the words correctly, people will often fail to understand you, just like in English. Maybe because the correct pronunciation is so difficult to learn, Japanese teachers feel that it’s better for non-native speakers to speak atonally.

  39. Gil Asakawa says:

    Great point — thanks, Albert!

  40. Pingback: Japanese Pronunciation - Foreign Loan Word Tips

  41. SelphieFairy says:

    Humans have a tendency to use “shortcuts” in order to make words for them easier to say. So of course, it’s normal for native-english speakers to make mistakes like this, especially they even make mistakes in english!! For example, I’m annoyed when I hear people pronounce “hierarchy” as “high-archy.” Um, no. There are three syllables: “High-er-archy.” But us humans lazy find it too difficult to say “er” and “ar” right next to each other so we just smoosh them together. “Library” and “February” also get turned into “Liberry” and “Febuerry” a lot, since it takes more effort to get that first ‘r’ in there. English is such a complex language compared to Japanese, however. Japanese words are just pronounced how they’re spelled. So sometimes I don’t understand why people can’t pronounce something like “sake” correctly. “Tokeeyo” I can understand. “Ohkuhnawa”, too. But.. “socky?” Wtf did that even come from?

    But ultimately, there’s no reason for anyone to really worry about correct pronunciation unless they’re studying the language. And even then, how words are pronounced, spoken, written, etc… they’re all arbitrary, anyway. Language changes all the time and people have all kinds of accents. there isn’t necessarily always a “correct” way of saying things.

  42. Ami says:

    What’s the difference between a mispronounciation like how north americans pronounce panko/wasabi/etc without the japanese accents, and how you don’t order a burrito in a Spanish accent? Why does one make you cringe and the other one is acceptable?

    When I’m speaking in English, I feel like a pretentious ass switching to the accent for just one or two Japanese words.

  43. Lonewolf says:

    Gil…thanks for the great commentary…I concur with your approach to language and proper pronounciation. I am half Japanese, half American myself and have strived to speak properly with whatever language I am using…whether that be English, Japanese, or whatever. Some of my co-workers tease me when I page one of our Columbian employees by saying his name as intended, not the Americanized pronounciation. I feel it as a show of respect to that person and their culture to try and speak properly in their language. I expect the same from a foreigner who speaks to me in English.
    What is really sad for me is to watch Japanese TV now and hear the language changing into this mismash of American and Japanese. I feel that the lost of traditional words is a loss of culture and I fear the Japanese may be losing some of its unique identity…time will tell as the living language grows and changes, if Japan, or for that matter, any culture’s language will survive the American English infulence

  44. Gil Asakawa says:

    I know what you mean about English popping up more and more in Japanese. My mom grumbles that she doesn’t understand Japanese today when she reads a magazine or watches NHK satellite news, because of all the “katakana,” foreign words sprinkled throughout. What’s funny for me is I can understand more of the news because I can spot the English words…

  45. Pikaciao says:

    It cracks me up when people say “kowai” instead of “kawaii” xD

  46. daniel says:

    Let’s no forget- language is used for communication. You use the pronunciation that allows you to be understood by the person intended to receive the message. In America, that means the “mispronunciation” of Japanese words may result in a higher chance of being understood by the target audience- Americans. This isn’t “wrong” as you would have us believe by your rant, but rather a product of cultures. Languages evolve as they travel from place to place, and it’s not “wrong” for that evolution to occur. You’re applying a social stratification to the pronunciation of words that benefits nobody except those with the pretense to feel better about themselves by “correcting” those that say it wrong.

    For example, I’m in the Midwest. If I go to a high-end butcher and ask for Kobe beef I say Koh-BEE because that is what’s ACCEPTED in my local culture. That is what is understood. It’s not “wrong.” Languages purpose is to communicate successfully, and I’ve communicated successfully if the person easily understood my order. Now, if I was in Japan or another culture where the pronunciation was expected to be koh-beh, then I’d need to pronounce it that way to be effectively communicating.

    Change between cultures is what makes the world interesting. Evolution of language is how we’ve gotten to the point where there are countless languages and dialects- they didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s not “wrong” to pronounce things differently if that’s what’s easiest for your culture to understand and associate with that object, action, etc.

    In short- this comes across as resentful and pretentious rather than trying to be truly helpful. This guide is fine for those of us that may need or want to travel to Japan and be understood, but there’s absolutely no reason to be upset when these words are pronounced by the MAJORITY as what you perceive to be “incorrectly.” It’s just elitist, and has no practical benefit to society as it does absolutely nothing to make communication more efficient. Rather, it just makes communication less efficient when you try to force a pronunciation that isn’t familiar to the intended audience.

  47. Cathleen says:

    yesterday in my ceramics class I said sake correctly, and the guy next to me corrected me saying ‘Sah-kee’ so I told him that the e was pronounced eh and if it were ‘sah-kee’ it would be spelled saki, and he goes ‘well, I lived in Japan for 2 years and never had a problem”. And I am thinking, yeah, you were a soldier over there surrounded by other Americans, but I was nice and just said that I had had a person fluent in Japanese correct me a long time ago. Which is why I googled it and found your article, thanks, I was in fact saying some of these things wrong. It’s irritating when people say it wrong, but even worse when they try to correct you for saying it right. And so many people don’t know what I mean when I say manga the right way, I have to mispronounce it for them to understand me, URG! BTW, your link for the audio for Teriyaki goes to the audio for anime, whoops! Thanks again, great article.

  48. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Cathleen, and I’ll fix the link to the audio. Thanks for the heads-up!

  49. Gil Asakawa says:

    I’ve fixed the link! Thanks again….

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