Japanese Onomatopoeia: Teaching Sound and Feeling Words

Japanese Onomatopoeia: Teaching Sound and Feeling Words
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Definition of Japanese Onomatopoeia

Explain the definition of Onomatopoeia. Give a few examples from English. Onomatopoeia is not unique only to the English language.

Many other languages have words that are derived directly from sounds. However, the Japanese language gives this concept a unique twist and not only makes words from sounds, but also feelings and other forms of perception. This vocabulary is collectively called ‘gitaigo’ or ‘giseigo.’ These words are also unique in that they almost always contain repetition. Merely saying ‘waku’ will not convey the meaning of ‘waku waku,’ for example. Similarly using ‘doki’ is not the same as using ‘doki doki.’ Once used to the Japanese syllabic sounds, it may be easy to figure out what some of these terms refer to; others are more culturally rooted and require study.

Teaching Commonly Used Examples

Recite these expressions to the students. Have the students practice saying the words, and understand the repetition of the syllables helps express the feelings the words define.

Ira ira suru (suru means do) Ira ira suru means to be very angry

Shiwa shiwa means to be very wrinkly.

Suba Suba means slippery

Hara Hara to be in suspense

Gera Gera to guffaw

Waku waku means to be excited.

Doki doki is to have your heart pounding.

Pera pera means to speak fluently.

Zara zara means to feel rough in texture

Fuwa fuwa means to feel light or soft

Beta beta is to feel sticky

Botsu botsu is to happen gradually

Soyo soyo is to be gentle or soft

Nuku nuku is to be warm and snuggly

Reasons for Usage

Explain these words add zest and feeling to an otherwise drab sentence in Japanese.

Saying, “Nihongo wo hanashimasu,” simply put, means ‘I speak Japanese.’ Yet, if you say, “Nihongo wo perapera hanaseru,” you convey more meaning. You are claiming to be fluent in Japanese. Hopefully, you are not just boasting, since it is more appropriate to downplay your abilities in Japanese.

Teaching Some Specific Usage

Tell the students this will enhance their Japanese experience, as these words are not only used in everyday speech but also in cultural jargon.

Traditional Japanese taiko drumming did not use written music as in the Western style of music, written out on measures and staffs, but voiced the sounds to be made on the drum. For example, a strong pound on the drum is ‘don.’ Hitting the rim is tsuku. They could chant out these patterns and other drummers would know what and how to play. Don don doko don would be easily understood by another taiko player.

Poetic Meaning

Explain that developing an ear for these feelings is also useful in poetry, when the descriptor is much more vivid when it comes from the senses. These words, as they repeat, also flow off the tongue softly so as to promote the peacefulness of Japanese poetry forms such as the tanka and haiku.


Tell students, instead of guzu guzu suru (grumbling) about having another Japanese task to master, shinbun o youndeimasu (read a newspaper) and you will speak pera pera no nihongo (fluently in Japanese), more like a native speaker.