3 Tips on Japanese for English-Speakers

In traditional Okinawan karate, we promote the culture that created our art. Language is an influential part of culture. The Japanese language remains the most enduringly difficult part of my martial arts training. Like a thorn in my side, it occasionally causes agonizing discomfort. Yet it’s survivable. And I don’t even notice it or think about it at other times.

On the other hand, learning a new language keeps my training interesting and challenging in a mental way. Exposure to the language makes karate training more well-rounded and fun. In my extra-curricular Japanese studies; my trip to Japan and Okinawa; and my years in traditional karate, I have picked up a few language tips and tricks that can help martial artists.


When we write Japanese for our students, we note that the spelling is phonetic, for pronunciation purposes only. If you look at how a dojo in New Zealand writes these words for their English-speaking students, they often write them differently due to the nuances of accents. Even a dojo from the south (in the United States) has some differences to how I would write them – due to regional pronunciations. To me, the best spelling gets the local region of other-language speakers the closest pronunciation to that of Japanese speakers.


The “r” sound when speaking Japanese is not the same as in speaking English. Note the “r” in the word karate. With correct pronunciation, it does not sound like it has the word raw in the middle. The “r” in is more like a hard “r” or a soft “d” sound. Or like a hybrid of the two. It is tricky if you grew up with little to no exposure to spoken Japanese. But with a little practice, native English speakers can get it. Here’s a very helpful video for the “r” sound.


Another aspect to note is the long vowel in Japanese speaking. Some vowels have a literally longer duration when spoken. This is why you can’t say that haiku poetry truly has five, seven and five syllables. In a study, audio recordings of haiku in Japanese tend to actually be shorter than most English 5-7-5 haiku when spoken. Take the word “no.” In romaji, it is iie. The “i” (pronounced “ee” as in “bee”) is almost twice as long as the “e” (pronounced “eh”). So “no” is like saying “eee-yeh.” I hope I haven’t confused you too much, just take your time when pronouncing the longer vowel sounds.

I enjoy spending a little time regularly brushing up on or learning nuances of the beautiful, intricate Japanese language. But the important thing for martial artists is to focus on our consistent physical practice, in addition to using on our Dojo Kun values every day in every situation. So let’s get back to training…practice, practice, and practice again.

Jenifer Tull-Gauger  Ryukyu Kempo Japanese martial arts

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