Today, I’m feeling pretty わくわく (wakuwaku: “excited”)! Are you うずうず (uzuzu: “itching to get started”)?
Because today we’re learning onomatopoeia!
You may think, why do I need to learn onomatopoeia? Maybe you’re thinking of American onomatopoeia, that seems to be only in comics (“bang” and “kaboom”) and children’s books (“woof woof” and “meow meow”). But Japanese onomatopoeic expressions are so common! You will be doing a serious disservice to your language skills if you don’t at least learn the basics. You’ll be hearing them every day!
Plus, you can level up your Japanese conversation skills by expressing yourself with Japanese onomatopoeia.
Editor's note: before we get started, if you’re looking for an online Japanese course, here’s the course I actually recommend: Japanese Uncovered – Learn Japanese Through the Power of Story, a course with a fascinating new method.
Here's a Quick “Japanese Onomatopoeia” Video I Made To Get You Started:
Japanese sound effects are used in everyday speech to not only describe sounds, but also feelings. Many people think Japanese is vague, and to an extent, it is — until you get into onomatopoeia. With thousands of onomatopoeia, Japanese feelings and true meaning are uniquely expressed through sound effects.
Feeling いそいそ (isoiso: “enthusiastic”) now? Let’s get learning!
What is Onomatopoeia?
Onomatopoeia are any words, expressions or phrases that aim to imitate or recreate a sound or feeling. As I mentioned above, we use these words in English to express things like noises and animal sounds. We often see them in comics and children’s book or even make the noises while playing with our kids. Sounds like “moo moo” for a cow, or “vroom vroom” for a car.
Japanese takes this to a whole new level, though. In Japanese, the onomatopoeia have a lot of nuance to express sounds of animals, nature, and inanimate objects, as well as feelings and movement. The five types of Japanese onomatopoeia are:
- Giongo: Sounds made by non-living things, like cars or the wind.
- Gitaigo: Sounds that describe states of being, like feeling sticky with sweat or muggy weather.
- Giseigo: Sounds from living things, like animals and people.
- Giyougo: Sounds that express descriptive movement that we would normally think of as verbs in English. Expressions like falling into deep sleep or walking around without purpose.
- Gijougo: Describe feelings, like a shiver down your spine when you get an eerie feeling.
To simplify, you could think of only two forms. Giongo and Gitaigo — words that express sounds, versus words that express feelings/conditions.
Getting Started with Japanese Onomatopoeia
The first question you may have is, “How do I write onomatopoeia in Japanese?”
The rules are pretty loose with this one. But generally speaking, words that copy sounds are written in Katakana (so most Giongo), and words that express feeling/conditions are expressed in Hiragana (most Gitaigo, etc.).
Sometimes it depends on the type of sound, too. The look of Katakana are all very hard and square-like, while Hiragana is rounded and soft. So to that extent, sometimes the tone of the word is associated with the type of Kana — Hiragana are used for softer sounds and Katakana for harder ones.
But, like I said, it’s a mixed bag how they are written. The good thing is, this means you don’t have to worry so much about writing it correctly! And if you need help getting started with learning Kana, check out this guide to Hiragana vs Katakana.
The other thing you should know is that Japanese onomatopoeic expressions have three main grammatical forms:
- Double form: わくわく (wakuwaku, excited), ぺらぺら (perapera, fluently speaking). This form expresses a continuing state of the sound or feeling, like how you speak fluently the whole time you have a conversation, or you feel excited for quite a while. When it’s doubled and the vowel is lengthened, it means the sound drags on, like グーグー (gu- gu-, snoring).
- と form: はっと (hatto, gasp), ぞっと (zotto, shivers down your spine). This form expresses a sound that is short, quick, and cut off. Like how a gasp comes out quickly or the shivers down your spine last only a second.
- り form: のそり (nosori, to walk lazily), しょんぼり (shonbori, crestfallen, dejected). り form is used when the sound or action is slow and drawn out. It’s the opposite of と form, like how you walk slowly or feel dejected for a while.
Some words end in ん (or ン in Katakana), which is used to express an echo or length to the sound, like ゴンゴン (gongon, banging).
Grammar and Tips When Learning Japanese Onomatopoeia
So how do you use Japanese onomatopoeia in sentences?
When paired with と before a verb, they become an adverb. For example:
突然、風がビュンビュンと吹き始めた。(Totsuzen, kaze ga byunbyun to fuki hajimeta)
“Suddenly, the roaring wind began overhead.”
They can also be used to quote someone making that noise, like a laugh:
テレビを見ている間、旦那さはゲラゲラと笑いました。(Terebi wo mite iru aida, dannasan wa geragera to waraimashita) “While watching TV, my husband laughed loudly.”
Sometimes the onomatopoeia use に (ni) before a verb, especially when describing a state or condition. It makes the verb more descriptive, like:
母はカンカンに怒りました。(Haha wa kankan ni okorimashita.) “My mom was furious.”
怒る (okoru) means “to be angry” but when you add カンカン (kankan) it becomes “to be furious.”
You can also turn onomatopoeia into a verb with やる (yaru) or する (suru), both of which mean “to do” or “to be in a state of.”
明日はとても難しいテストがあるので、ドキドキする。(Ashita wa totemo muzukashii tesuto ga aru node, dokidoki suru.) “I have a big test tomorrow, so I feel nervous.”
And like other grammatical structures with adjectives or nouns modifying nouns, you can use の to describe a noun:
今日はむしむしの日ね。(Kyou wa mushimushi no hi ne.) “Today’s weather is humid, huh?”
The last tip I have for you before we get to the Japanese onomatopoeia list? There are a few little cheats to help you understand onomatopoeia you don’t know.
For instance, words that include the two tiny marks called dakuten or the tiny circle called handakuten are considered harsher words in Japanese. In fact, I was told that they’re considered more masculine because they sound harsh and less feminine. So if a word has dakuten or handakuten, you can expect them to be loud and noisy sounds.
As an example of this, compare how to say “laughing” in Japanese: クスクス (kusukusu, giggle, chuckle) versus ゲラゲラ (geragera, laughing loudly, guffaw).
Now, let’s get started with some Japanese onomatopoeia!
Japanese Onomatopoeia for Animal Sound Effects (Giseigo)
Let’s learn some cool animal sound effects – like how to say roar in Japanese! (It’s ガオー, gao-)
- ワンワン (wanwan): Woof-woof (dog)
- ニャーニャー (nyanya): Meow-meow (cat)
- モーモー (mo-mo-): Moo-moo (cow)
- ヒヒーン (hi-hin): Neigh-neigh (horse)
- ブーブー (bu-bu-): Oink-oink (pig)
- コケコッコー (kokekokko-): Cockadoodledoo (rooster)
- ケロケロ (kerokero): Ribbit-ribbit (frog)
- ウキウキ (ukiuki): Oo-oo-ah-ah (monkey)
- ブーン (bu-n): Buzz-buzz (bees, or flying insects)
- コンコン (konkon): The sound a fox makes (because — What does the fox say?)
Japanese Onomatopoeia for People Sound Effects (Giseigo)
What kind of sound effects do people make? All kinds! Learn creative ways to express your actions, like how to say “cry” in Japanese. (Try ギャアギャア, gyaagyaa, “to wail or cry loudly”, or シクシク, shikushiku, “to whimper or cry softly”).
- コホンコホン (kohon kohon): A light cough
- ぐうぐう (guu guu): Snoring loudly
- クシュ (kushu): Sneezing
- ワイワイ (wai wai): Children playing, or a group of people talking noisily
- コソコソ (kosokoso): Secret whispering
- キャー (kya-): Screaming
- ズルズル (zuru zuru): Slurping loudly
- ニコニコ (niko niko): To smile (at something funny)
- ジロジロ (jiro jiro): To stare intently
- ガブガブ (gabu gabu): To guzzle a drink
Japanese Onomatopoeia for Inanimate Sound Effects (Giongo)
Ready to learn the sound effects you see in manga, like how to say “bang” in Japanese? (バンバン, ban ban)
- パラパラ (para para): Light, scattered rain, or flipping through the pages of a book.
- リンリン (rin rin): The sound of ringing, like a bicycle bell ring.
- コンコン (kon kon): Knocking
- ゴロゴロ (goro goro): Thunder rumbling, or large objects rolling loudly
- ザーザー (za- za-): Heavy rain
- ゴボゴボ (gobo gobo): Gushing water
- ガタンガトン (gatan gaton): The sound of a train clacking along
- ガシャン (gashan): Crash
- カタカタ (kata kata): Click-clack, or typing
- サワサワ (sawa sawa): Rustling
Japanese Onomatopoeia for States or Conditions (Gitaigo)
How do you describe the feeling of something or a state you’re in, like sweating (カラカラ, kara kara)? What about how to say fluffy in Japanese? (フワフワ, fuwafuwa — it’s also furry, or fleece.)
- キラキラ (kirakira): Sparkling
- グルグル (guru guru): Dizzy
- ぺとぺと (peto peto): Feeling sticky with sweat
- びっしょり (bisshori): To be soaked
- ピカピカ (pika pika): To shine
- ムシムシ (mushi mushi): Humid, uncomfortable hot/sticky weather
- ピリピリ (piri piri): Spicy, hot sensation
- べとべと (beto beto): Sticky
- ダラダラ (dara dara): Lazily
- ほかほか (hoka hoka): Steamy, warm food
Japanese Onomatopoeia for Emotions and Feelings (Gijougo)
Are you feeling ドキドキ (dokidoki, heart racing with excitement or nervousness)? Or ウキウキ (ukiuki, “cheerful”)? Express your inner feelings with more color!
- むかむか (muka muka): Nauseous
- いらいら (ira ira): To be irritated
- びっくり (bikkuri): Shocked, surprised
- のろのろ (noro noro): To feel lazy
- ぼろぼろ (boro boro): To feel mentally drained
- ぞっと (zotto): To have a chill go down your spine, usually from a gross or scared feeling
- むすっ (musu-t): Pouting
- るんるん (run run): Humming happily
- やきもき (yakimoki): So worried that you can’t calm down
- むくむく (mukumuku): Thinking up an idea, inspiration hits
Japanese Onomatopoeia for Movement (Giyougo)
What does running sound like in Japanese? (だだだだだ, dadadadada）Let’s describe movements!
- グルグル (guru guru): To spin around
- ゆっくり (yukkuri): To do something slowly
- コロコロ (koro koro): Something rolls
- ウロウロ (uro uro): Wandering around
- スタスタ (suta suta): Brisk walk
- こてっ (kote-t): Nodding off to sleep
- カバっ (kaba-t): Waking up with a start
- ガチガチ (gachi gachi): Teeth chattering
- しばしば (shiba shiba): Blinking rapidly
- カバカバ (kaba kaba): Quickly chowing down on your food
Express Yourself at a Whole New Level — and Have More Fun, too!
While learning Japanese onomatopoeia may feel a bit like learning a whole separate language, it can add a lot of color to your speech!
And the words themselves are fun, cute Japanese words to use. No more boring “水を飲みした” (mizu wo nomimasu – “I drank water”). Now you can say “水をガブガブ飲みました” (mizu wo gabu gabu nomimashita – “I guzzled water”)!
Why not practice with your Japanese language exchange partner?
What are your favorite onomatopoeia? Did we miss your favorite on this list? Let us know in the comments! But most of all, have fun with your Japanese sound effects!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.