Using Japanese onomatopoeia, or words that imitate sounds, is a great way to add some flair and vivid descriptions to your Japanese speaking or writing.
It is one of the most poetic and playful aspects of the Japanese language.
Everything from animal sounds, emotional feelings, and mimetic words for movement can be described using onomatopoeia.
Many of these words are so specific and nuanced that it can not translate to an exact word in English. The guide below will give you a solid head start, but you’ll find onomatopoeia is usually covered by most online Japanese courses and apps.
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Why are there so many onomatopoeia in Japanese?
The key difference between the use of onomatopoeia in Japanese compared to English lies in the lack of variety in Japanese verbs. In English, there are more verbs that express different nuances.
For example, it’s possible to use “to see”, “to watch”, “to stare”, “to observe”, “to glance”, or “to gaze”. All of these verbs relate to the act of looking at something.
However, in Japanese there are less verbs which can directly translate into the various nuances. This is where onomatopoeia can be added to enhance and clarify the meaning.
Types of Onomatopoeia
There are five main types of Japanese onomatopoeia, which are categorized based on what it describes.
Giseigo (擬声語) and giongo (擬音語) are the most straight forward categories. They mimic actual sounds from wildlife, humans, objects, and the environment.
Gijougo (擬情語) , gitaigo (擬態語), and giyougo (擬用語) are unique categories that include words with metaphorical sounds relating to feelings, actions, movements, appearances, and textures.
Giseigo 擬声語 - Describes sounds made by living things
This type of onomatopoeia is common in every language, and in Japanese, primarily functions as an adverb.
Any word that is mimicking the sound made from living things falls into this category.
ワンワン (wan wan) - Woof woof, dog.
ニャーニャー (nyaa nyaa) - Meow meow, cat.
モーモー (moo moo) - Moo moo, cow.
メーメー (mee mee) - Baa baa, sheep.
ブーブー (buu buu) - Oink oink, pig.
ヒヒーン(hihiin) - Neigh neigh, horse.
チュウチュウ(chuu chuu) - Squeak squeak, mouse.
ガオー( gaou)- Roar, lion.
ピヨピヨ (piyo piyo) - Chirp chirp, small bird.
コケコッコー (kokekokkoo) - Cock-a-doodle-doo, rooster.
カーカー (kaa kaa) - Caw caw, crow.
ガーガー (gaa gaa) - Quack quack, duck.
🐸 Reptiles and Amphibians
ケロケロ (kero kero) - Ribbit ribbit, frog.
シューシュー (shuu shuu) - Slither slither, snake.
ブーーン(buuuun) - Bzzzz, or the sound of a flying insect.
リーンリーン (riin riin) - Sound of a Japanese bell cricket (suzumushi).
チンチロリン (chin chirorin) - Sound of a Japanese pine cricket (matsumushi).
ミーンミーン (miin miin) - Sound of the cicada.
ケラケラ (kera kera) - Loud laughing.
ゲラゲラ (gera gera) - Louder laughing compared to ケラケラ.
クスクス (kusu kusu) - Soft giggling.
アハハ (ahahaha) - Similar to the English “haha” sound.
メソメソ (meso meso) - Soft crying.
シクシク (shiku shiku) - Soft crying, interchangeable with メソメソ.
ギャーギャー (gyaa gyaa) - Loud crying, usually from babies.
スースー (suu suu) - Peaceful breathing during sleep.
すやすや (suya suya) - Similar to スースー, but even more relaxed sleeping.
グーグー (guu guu) - Sleeping sound that might include snoring.
キャー (kyaa) - Similar to “ahhh!”
ウワァー (Uwaa) - Similar to “wow!”
Examples in context:
Asa, tori ga pio pio naite ita.
The bird was chirping in the morning.
Akachan ga suya suya nete ita.
The baby was sleeping peacefully.
Giongo 擬音語 - Describes sounds made by objects and the environment
This category includes all words that mimic real-world sounds from inanimate objects and the environment.
パラパラ (para para) - Light rain with small droplets.
ポツポツ (potsu potsu) - Light rain with large droplets.
ザーザー (zaa zaa) - Extremely heavy rain.
ジャージャー (jaa jaa) - Extremely heavy rain, can be used like ザーザー.
ジトジト (jito jito) - Rain that feels damp and long lasting.
ピューピュー (pyuu pyuu) - The sound of strong wind.
ゴロゴロ (goro goro) - Rumbling sounds of lightning.
シンシン (shin shin) - The soft sound of snowing.
カリカリ (kari kari) - Crunchy.
パリパリ(pari pari) - Crispy.
サクサク(saku saku) - In between crispy and crunchy.
バリバリ(bari bari) - Heavy crunchy sound.
ジュー (jyuu) - Sizzling sound on a hot pan.
ピンポーン (pinpoon) - Doorbell sound, like “ding dong”.
ピーポー (piipoo) - The sound of a Police car.
バタン (batan) - The sound of a door closing loudly.
ピッ (pi) - The sound when pressing an electronic button, like dialing a phone.
カチャ(kacha) - Mechanical sound such as when a car door locks.
カチカチ(kachi kachi) - Can be the sound of a clock, or a car’s turn signal.
パチパチ (pachi pachi) - The sound when a light bulb is flickering.
ポタン (potan) - A large water droplet falling into water.
バシャン (bashan) - Sound of splashing water.
Examples in context:
Ame ga para para futte iru.
It is raining lightly.
Kukkii ga saku saku shite iru.
The cookie is crunchy/crispy.
Tokei ga kachi kachi natte iru.
The clock is making a ticking sound.
Gijougo 擬情語 - Describes someone’s feelings and state of being
A unique aspect of the Japanese language is the onomatopoeia which describes a person’s feelings. This category includes words which are more like imagined sounds, instead of those found in real life.
This category is especially important because this is one of the main ways that Japanese people express their feelings.
If you go to a doctor in Japan with a bad headache, they will ask you what kind of pain you are feeling. With all of the varieties of onomatopoeia, it’s possible to give a response that is very specific.
🤕 Physical feelings
ペコペコ (peko peko) - Feeling of hunger.
ガンガン (gan gan) - A strong throbbing pain.
きりきり (kiri kiri) - A sharp pain.
ずきずき (zuki zuki) - A throbbing, slightly sharp pain.
ヒリヒリ (hiri hiri) - A stinging pain.
うとうと (uto uto) - When you can’t help yourself from falling asleep.
ボー (boo) - Unable to focus, or when the mind is blurry.
ガラガラ (gara gara) - Sore feeling in the throat.
🥰 Emotional feelings
イライラ (ira ira) - Feeling irritated, angry, and/or annoyed.
ムカムカ (muka muka) - Similar to イライラ, and can be used interchangeably.
きゅん (kyun) - When you feel moved or touched.
ドキドキ (doki doki) - Feeling excited, nervous, and the heart beats faster.
ワクワク (waku waku) - Feeling excited and looking forward to something.
ジーン (jiin) - A sense of gratitude or when feeling emotionally touched.
ニヤニヤ (niya niya) - Smiling in a cheeky way.
ニコニコ (niko niko) - Feeling happy and smiling.
Examples in context:
Atama ga gan gan itamu.
My head hurts (strong throbbing pain).
Yuuenchi ni iku mae ni waku waku suru.
I feel excited before going to the amusement park.
Gitaigo 擬態語 - Describes the state of being of objects and the environment.
This category is similar to giongo (擬音語), except that the words do not directly represent the sounds.
Instead, it is more like the imagined sounds of appearances, textures, and environment.
フワフワ (fuwa fuwa) - Fluffy or soft.
ゴツゴツ (gotsu gotsu) - Rocky, such as a cave wall.
ゴワゴワ (gowa gowa) - Rough, ike the texture of jeans or leather.
プニプニ (puni puni) - Squishy, like the texture of gummies.
フニャフニャ(funya funya) - Squishy or soggy, like overcooked pasta.
ドロドロ (doro doro) - Thick liquid like sauces, mud, and stews.
サラサラ (sara sara) - Smooth but still textured, such as hair or paper.
デコボコ (deko boko) - Uneven terrain, like a stone pathway.
プルプル (puru puru) - Describes the texture of gelatin based food, like jello.
ツルツル (tsuru tsuru) - Very smooth texture, such as a freshly cleaned floor.
キラキラ (kira kira) - Shining, usually used to describe stars, jewelry, or glitter.
ピカピカ (pika pika) - Sparkling, it can describe cleanliness or lights.
ダブダブ (dabu dabu) - Loose clothing.
ボロボロ (boro boro) - Something that is worn out.
ムキムキ (muki muki) - Describes a muscular appearance.
ムシムシ (mushi mushi) - Humid and hot.
どんより (donyori) - Cloudy and a bit gloomy.
ひんやり (hinyari) - Slightly cold or cool.
Examples in context:
Koinu no ke wa fuwa fuwa shite iru.
The puppy’s fur is soft/fluffy.
Hoshi ga kira kira hikaru.
The star is shining.
Kyou wa soto ga donyori kumotte iru.
Today it is gloomy and cloudy outside.
Giyougo 擬用語 - Describes motion and actions
The last category are words which describe movement. These movements can apply to both living and inanimate objects.
ゆらゆら (yura yura) - Waving or flowing gently.
クルクル (kuru kuru) - Going in circles.
ゴロゴロ (goro goro) - Rolling around on the bed or floor.
さっと (satto) - Quick movement.
フラフラ (fura fura) - Unsteady movement, usually caused by dizziness.
ヨタヨタ (yota yota) - Similar to フラフラ, but more unsteady.
ドタバタ (dota bata) - Being in a hurry and going all over the place.
モタモタ (mota mota) - Being slow or being behind schedule.
のそのそ (noso noso) - Slow and heavy steps.
トボトボ (tobo tobo) - Slow and unconfident steps.
ドタドタ (dota dota) - Noisy, fast, and heavy steps.
Examples in context:
Kaaten ga yura yura kaze de ugoku.
The curtain is waving gently with the wind.
Kuma ga noso noso aruku.
The bear walks slowly/heavily.
Manga Sound Effects
Aside from the Japanese onomatopoeia used in daily speech and writing, the onomatopoeia used in manga is particularly rich and unique. These words act as a sound effect and it’s an essential part of manga’s popularity and ability to draw the reader in.
In many cases, the words are embedded and drawn into the artwork, instead of using regular fonts. The drawing style of the letters usually reflects the mood of the word.
Here are some common onomatopoeia that you may encounter in manga:
シーン (shiin) - The sound which represents silence.
ガーン (gaan) - Feeling disappointed.
びくっ (biku) - Feeling surprised or startled.
グサっ (gusa) - The sound of stabbing with a sharp object.
テヘッ (tehe) - A small laugh with a bit of embarrassment.
ドドド (dododo) - A loud thudding sound.
キィィィ(Kiii) - A high-pitched screeching sound.
ザザっ (zaza) - Short rustle sound.
Now that the types of onomatopoeia are covered, let’s examine how they appear in the grammatical structure. In Japanese, onomatopoeia acts as either an adverb, adjective, or attached to a particle.
Keep in mind that some onomatopoeia can work in multiple grammatical ways, while others only work in specific ways. Unfortunately, this can only be learned through experience and intuition.
Here are the primary ways that onomatopoeia appear in the grammar.
With verb, “to do”
Some onomatopoeia will mainly work together with the verb,“To do” or する(suru). In this situation, the onomatopoeia comes before the verb, as an adverb.
Kodomo no nakigoe de iraira suru.
The child’s crying makes me feel irritated/angry.
Jigyou chuu uto uto suru.
I feel sleepy during class.
In addition, it’s also common to use onomatopoeia with other verbs in Japanese aside from する. These verbs usually relate to what the onomatopoeia is describing.
For example, it can be used with “to laugh”, 笑う(warau), to express different laughing sounds.
Kusu kusu warau.
To laugh (giggle).
Gera gera warau.
To laugh loudly.
Another example could be “to walk” or 歩く(aruku). Onomatopoeia that describes movement could be attached to describe the different ways of walking.
Kuru kuru mawaru.
To spin around.
Yota yota aruku.
To walk unsteadily.
As an adjective
It is also possible that an onomatopoeia acts as an adjective to describe an object.
Youfuku ga boro boro.
The clothes are worn out.
Yuka ga pika pika.
The floor is sparkling (clean).
Connection to a particle
Some onomatopoeia work more like a quotation for a sound effect. In these cases, they usually appear with a particle, object, followed by the verb.
Pinpoon to genkan no beru ga naru.
“Ding dong”, the doorbell rang.
Batan to doa ga shimaru.
“Bam!”, the door closes.
Tips for using and learning Japanese onomatopoeia
It is impossible to master the use of onomatopoeia by simply studying textbooks or grammar rules.
It’s crucial to learn from real life examples to understand the exact nuances. The best way to develop these skills is through interacting with native speakers, as well as listening and reading Japanese as much as possible. It’s also a good idea to observe how they are used in modern society (I recommend the same for Japanese honorifics).
New onomatopoeia or variations on existing ones can develop over time.
There are many more onomatopoeia than the ones that were introduced in this article (also see this long list of Japanese onomatopoeia).
Don’t be afraid to search for new onomatopoeia, and start using them to spice up your Japanese phrases and sentences.