Spoken Japanese consists of simple syllables, generally consisting of a vowel, or a consonant plus a vowel. There are few complex consonant clusters. All vowels and consonants have consistent pronunciation.
▶ The basic five syllables (Vowels)
[a] – the sound “a” in “father”, but shorter.
[e] – similar to the vowel “e” in “egg”, but the mouth is not opened as wide.
[i] – similar to the vowel “ee ” in “eat”, but shorter.
[o] – similar to the first part of the “o” in “go”, with less lip-rounding.
[u] – similar to the vowel “oo” in “look”, but lips are not rounded, but spread.
[k] – as in “cut”.
[sh] – as in “seashore”.
[tsu] – like [ts] in “pets” or “cats”.
[kyu] – think of “cute”. The consonant plus semi-vowel ([ya], [yu],[yo]) becomes a single syllable.
[g] – like [g] in “go”. If it comes either in middle or end of word, depending on the region, it can be pronounced like [ng] in “song”. Either way is fine.
e.g. yomigaeri, yugure, tsugeru, tsurugi
[w] – as in “want”. Try not to round your lips.
[fu] – think of “who”. It is pronounced with a slight amount of friction between your upper and lower lips. As if you are about to blow out a candle, or whistle. Don’t pronounce like English [f].
[r] – Japanese [r] is not an English rolled [r], but more like a [d] (as in a British butler saying “very good, madam”). This sound is made by slightly lightly tapping the tip of your tongue just behind the teeth. About the same place your tongue hits when saying English [l].
▶ Double consonants [tt], [ss]
[tt] is similar to the “t” sound in the English word “cutter”.
[ss] is similar to the “s” sound in the English word “dressing”.
▶ Whispered Vowels
There are sometime vowels that are whispered in Japanese.
They are [i] and [u]. They are usually silent when they are before p, t, k, s, sh, etc.
e.g. kuchi – pronounced as ‘kchi’, tachisukumi – ‘tachiskumi’, futari – ‘ftari’
▶ Syllabic consonants
[n] is pronounced as follows.
Before the consonants [n], [t] and [d], it is pronounced “n” as in “night”.
e.g. nento, ten no
Before the consonants [k], [g] and [ng], it is pronounced “ng” as in “sing”.
e.g. shinko, tenkyu
Before the consonants [m], [p] and [b], it is pronounced “m” as in “moon”.
Before the vowels and other consonants not mentioned above, it is pronounced as a nasal vowel.
e.g. konjiki, tenshi