I originally wrote this article as a blog post in 2009, and it’s been the most popular post on my site ever since. I’ve updated it because of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, now being held a year late because of the Covid pandemic.
I assume the broadcasters got coached on pronouncing Japanese words, but many have been mangled, or are sometimes spoken correctly, sometimes not — often by the same anchor or reporter, within the same report. “Tokyo” is probably the word that gets the most varied treatment.
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 might 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 difference in the first syllable is a softer “eye” sound, and the second syllable rhymes with “loan,” but cut off short.
- 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.”
- Hiroshima — The city in southern Japan that suffered the first atomic bomb explosion, leading to the end of World War II, 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.”
- Kamikaze — The word was popularized after WWII because of the suicide missions by the desperate Japanese military toward 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.”
- 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.
- Kobe — The word wasn’t often pronounced in the U.S. until the rise of the city’s namesake superexpensive 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.”
- 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.”
- 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 sound subtle, like the differences between “hat” and “hot” for my mom.
- Panko — Japanese breadcrumbs, often used as a coating instead of flour batter for dishes such as fried shrimp or, in Wendy’s case, its 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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. 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. To see a much-longer list of words, feel free to visit my blog.
Gil Asakawa is former chair of the Pacific Citizen Editorial Board and author of “Being Japanese American” (Second Edition, Stone Bridge Press, 2015). He blogs at www.nikkeiview.com.