Japanese in Karate - Part 1

Japanese in Karate - Part 1

This article was written by Philip Whittome of the Guildhall Wadokai in London (great club and a lovely group of people). The aim of this article is to give people who do not speak Japanese a better understanding of the correct pronunciation etc of the Japanese terms that are used in everyday karate training. I think that is a great piece of writing that is very informative and very easy to follow.

Philip read Japanese at Cambridge and graduated with a Double First class degree. He also studied for a year at Keio University in Tokyo and Nanzan University in Nagoya . Philip trained in Wado-Ryu at Meiji University in Tokyo during this period, and was later on the Cambridge University karate team (Shotokan). He then took a break from karate for a number of years, but is now currently studying under Ken Harrison (4th dan) at the Guildhall Wadokai in London, part of the East London Wadokai. 

If any of you would like to contact Philip he can be emailed at: philip.whittome@investecmail.com

I feel sure that you'll enjoy and learn from this article and I'm very grateful to Philip for allowing us to feature it on this site.

All the best,



By Philip Whittome


Why Bother?

Ever been embarrassed when your instructor yells something incomprehensible in Japanese, everyone else jumps, and you are left standing like an idiot? Or are you an instructor who has always secretly wished that you could pronounce all this mumbo-jumbo you have so carefully learnt, a bit better? If either of these apply to you, this article is for you.

But why bother? What difference does it make? There are lots of clubs where almost no Japanese is used, yet where the standard of karate is very high. One thing for sure, pronouncing Japanese better will NOT make you any better at karate. There is nothing mystical about using Japanese rather than English, really this is just part of the tradition. This article is just for those who have a personal interest, for whatever reason, in better understanding and pronouncing the Japanese used in karate. If this does not apply to you, no problem - stop reading here.

Assuming you are still reading, what follows in this Part 1 and in Part 2 is a brief guide to Japanese pronunciation, followed by a bit of a mish-mash really - some comments on counting, kata names, a bit of very basic grammar, bits of words to build up your vocabulary, etc. etc. Dip in according to interest, read and memorise the lot, completely ignore, whatever suits you best. The real aim is both to make it a bit more interesting, and also to make it all easier to remember - personally I always find it easier to remember what I understand, rather than just rote learning.

Pronouncing Japanese

Pronouncing Japanese is easy (honest!). Like German, but unlike English for example, Japanese spelling is entirely phonetic. This means that it is spoken exactly as it is written, which makes life a lot easier - no nonsense like you get in English trying to remember the different pronunciations of the final syllable in the words "rough", "through" and "though", even though they are spelt exactly the same. Can you imagine how hard it must be trying to learn English as a foreign language? Japanese is much simpler (as long as you don't try to learn the written characters - but that's another story).

So with Japanese pronunciation, what you see is what you get. The flip side of this is that what you DON'T see, you DON'T get. In other words, don't insert ANY sounds unless they are written down in black and white, because they ain't there. For example, you sometimes hear people put a "y" sound at the beginning of "ura" (as in uraken, back-fist) - but this should be pronounced "OO-RA", not "YOO-RA". If it was supposed to be pronounced "YOO-RA", it would be spelt "yura", exactly as you would expect.

Simple, eh? On the whole, it is. The main things which take a bit of practice are the vowel sounds, plus the glottal stop.


There are five vowels in Japanese, just like English. The difference is that the sounds are very pure in Japanese. The vowels are apparently pronounced exactly as in Italian, but this is not much help for those like me who don't speak Italian, so here is a brief guide.

a - the sound "a" is ALWAYS pronounced as in "dart" or "start", NEVER as in "rat" or "cat". In English, we tend to stretch out the "a" sound in "dart", so we might think of it as a long sound. It isn't really; it's just different. In Japanese, it is short.

e - the sound "e" is pronounced as in "red" or "fed".

i - the sound "i" is pronounced as in "pin" or "thin", NEVER as in "wine" or "fine".

o - the sound "o" is pronounced as in "rot" or "dot", NEVER as in "wrote" or "vote".

u - the sound "u" is pronounced as in "put" or "soot", NEVER as in "run" or "fun" (unless you're a northerner!)

The most difficult one to get used to is the "o" sound. Just say the English word "no" out loud, very slowly. What you are actually saying is two quite separate sounds, like this - "NUR-OO". Yes, you really are - try it again, a bit louder, a bit slower, listening carefully to what you are saying. Now explain to the guy sitting next to you who is giving you strange looks not to worry - there, that's better. See what I mean? You think you're making one sound, you're really making two. Now try saying the English word "not", but just leave out the final "t". That's it! Congratulations - you have just mastered the "o" sound in Japanese.

As may be clear from this, the vowels are very simple in Japanese. This is why so-called upper class English people tend to be absolutely rubbish at pronouncing Japanese - they just can't stop themselves making the vowel sounds too complex, they've been subconsciously conditioned from childhood to think of complex vowels as more sophisticated, more upper-class. In Japanese, they're not sophisticated, they're just wrong, as we saw with "o" above. Welsh people, on the other hand, tend to be good - Welsh vowel sounds are pure. In the words of the song, keep it "pure and simple every time".


In English, each word has the stress on a particular syllable. Take the word "particular", for instance - the stress comes on the second syllable, "par-TIC-u-lar". It would sound pretty odd if it was pronounced "PAR-tic-u-lar" or "par-tic-U-lar" etc. So people often ask, where does the stress come in the Japanese words in karate, and do I have to remember it for every word?

The good news is - there is NO stress in Japanese. If you hear two Japanese talking, it doesn't sound like "duh-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh", it's just "duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh". So, you don't even need to think about this question! Just pronounce everything completely flat, with identical stress on every syllable, and you'll be fine.

The Glottal Stop

This is the only slightly tricky bit. When you see two consonants written together in Japanese, like the two t's in "okutte" or "kette" or the two k's in "tsukkomi", then you need to put in a Cockney-style glottal stop immediately before the consonant, pause for a tiny fraction of a second, then pronounce the consonant sound itself a little bit harshly, with a slightly explosive sound. Don't go over the top though, and spit in the face of the person you're talking to - it's really just a very slight pause in the flow.

This is perhaps quite hard to imagine from a written description, though it's easy to demonstrate in person. In any case, it only really occurs in a few words you are likely to come across in karate (although they are quite frequently used ones.), so don't sweat it - if you really can't get it, it's not the end of the world.

"Cloudy" or "Muddy" Sounds

This is what you get sometimes when you stick words together, when the second word starts with a consonant - the consonant at the start of the second word gets "cloudy". Ever wondered why the two words "mae" (front) and "keri" (kick), are pronounced "maegeri" (front kick) rather than "maekeri" when they are put together? The Japanese say that the first consonant of the second word has got "cloudy" or "muddy", like when you get strange-coloured bits suspended in your tapwater after the plumber's been round (if your plumber is anything like mine). Here are the main examples:

k goes to g   Example: mae + keri = maegeri

t goes to d   Example: shiko + tachi = shikodachi

ts goes to z   Example: gyaku + tsuki = gyakuzuki

h goes to b   Example: gedan + harai = gedanbarai

Actually, you don't really need to know this - as long as you remember that "maegeri" means front kick, you don't need to know why. Personally, I just find it makes it easier to remember if you know why.


Here are the numbers up to ten :

1 - ichi

2 - ni

3 - san

4 - shi

5 - go

6 - roku

7 - shichi

8 - hachi

9 - ku

10 - ju

If for some unaccountable reason you wanted to count higher, it is much simpler than in English. Eleven is just "ju-ichi" ("ten-one"), twelve is "ju-ni", and so on. Likewise, twenty is "ni-ju" ("two-tens"), thirty is "san-ju", and so on. And yes, you guessed it, twenty-one is "ni-ju-ichi" ("two-tens-one"), twenty-two is "ni-ju-ni" and so on. All very logical and simple (see, it is an easy language really.)

"Sho" (as in "shodan", first dan) means "first". However, there is no Japanese equivalent to "second" - from second onwards, just use the normal numbers, so "nidan" means second dan, "sandan" means third dan, and so on.

Pronunciation and Spirit

Actually, when you hear Japanese karateka calling out numbers as they train, they typically sound nothing like the nice, clean, correct pronunciations above. It sounds more like this:

1 - ich

2 - i

3 - han

4 - hi

5 - o

6 - hok

7 - hich

8 - hach

9 - ku

10 - ju

Don't even bother trying to memorise these sounds, that is not the point. The point is, that the words should be pronounced with spirit and great force, each in one syllable only. Instead of forming the words in your throat, try to concentrate on the breathing - force the sound up from your belly as your stomach tenses strongly with each number, and just "shape" the sound a bit with your throat as it passes through. Each count should be like a kiai. Call out the count on impact, not before starting the technique. On ten, redouble this effect with the "ju" sound coming out like a roar of defiance. Really focus on this one, and visualise this as the single blow that will destroy your target. Counting should not be an exercise in correct pronunciation, it should be a form of psychological training to teach yourself how to focus.

That's it for Part 1. In Part 2 we'll look at the meaning of the kata names, a bit of very basic grammar, and some bits of words to build up your vocabulary.

© Philip Whittome 2003

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