Japanese Onomatopoeia

2014 August 4
by Dani A

Ah, onomatopoeia, the spice of life! One of the pleasures of speaking Japanese is being able to use onomatopoeia. It’s everywhere – in manga, anime, television adverts, books, music, newspapers, conversations – you name it and it’s there! This article will open your eyes to this beautiful world of オノマトペ!

オノマトペ and Rules






オノマトペ and Rules

Believe it or not, English is a hard language. You can have several words that can mean the same thing. For example, you can laugh, giggle, grin, smile, chuckle, guffaw, etc. all of them different words but the actions mean the same thing. In contrast, Japanese only had the verb to laugh, 笑う, to indicate the same, until オノマトペ came along. Now, there is variety to Japanese verbs. Thanks to オノマトペ, you can describe someone’s laughter, how a bird is singing, or how hard it’s raining outside – it is the spice of 日本語.

Since we are talking about Japanese, this simple spice had to get a little complex. Giseigo, giongo, and gitaigo spice up only certain actions and there are no overlaps between them (at least none of which I am aware). Luckily, these spices are pretty straightforward and really fun to use! And they’re heavily integrated in Japanese culture and products, which are sent around the world, so I can almost guarantee that you’ll need to be familiar with even a few of them to understand Japan a little better. Actually, if you’ve ever seen or even heard of one of the most world-famous Japanese characters ever, you already know at least one オノマトペ. Keep reading to find out more!

Wait, I forgot about the rules of onomatopoeia:

1. The オノマトペ is always in katakana or hiragana (YAY!). This is only relevant when writing/typing/texting.

2. Depending on the verb, the オノマトペ will go either before or after the verb. Most オノマトペ will be in front of する, but when they’re in front of other verbs, particle と may sit between the オノマトペ and the verb.

3. オノマトペ can be used alone, like in Nihonglish.




 擬声語 (Giseigo)

Let’s start with the easiest オノマトペ, giseigo. As the middle kanji indicates, this kind of オノマトペ is used for voiced sounds (声 = voice) of humans and animals. I used 笑う in the above, so let’s learn a few different kinds of laughs:

笑うアキラ君はいつも大声でゲラゲラと笑いますね = Doesn’t Akira-kun always guffaw in a big voice?

私はチカンににやにやされた。気もい! = I was grinned at by a pervert. Gross!



We’ve had some laughs, but what about some tears?

泣く赤ちゃんがおもちゃが欲しくてオギャーオギャーと泣いた = The baby cried when it wanted a toy.

子供の時、犬が死んでしまったから、一週間にしくしく泣きました = When I was a kid, I sobbed for a week because my dog died.


Stop horsing around and let’s talk about animal オノマトペ!

ほえる 夜中に犬がワンワンとほえた = The dog barked in the middle of the night.

馬がひひーんといななきます = Horses whinny (neigh).

今朝、私の鳥がピヨピヨと鳴かなかった。死んでいるだろうか = My bird didn’t sing this morning. I wonder if it’s dead. . .




擬音語 (Giongo)

This second group imitates based on sounds (音 = sound). Some English equivalents would be to gulp down a drink, bang the drums, ring the doorbell, etc. Here are a few examples:

食べるラーメンを食べる時に、つるつるとすすらなくちゃならない = You have to slurp when you eat ramen.

パラパラと降ってる雨が好きです = I like rain that pitter patters.




擬態語 (Gitaigo)

The third and final group mimics neither animate nor inanimate objects. These sounds describe feelings, actions, etc. This is where I think all of the fun オノマトペ are!

「ポッキー」というお菓子がポキポキするね = The snack called ‘Pocky’ goes poki-poki, right? ピカピカ

暇なとき、公園に行って、人々をじろじろ見ます = In my free time I go to the park and stare at people.




Have you figured out which world-famous Japanese character is the product of オノマトペ. Here’s the answer (you only need to watch up to 0:30):


Now that you’re familiar with オノマトペ, let’s see how many you can pick up in this Japanese yogurt commercial (starring Miyazaki Aoi):

There are between 1 and 30 オノマトペ! (I’m not going to tell you the answer).



よくできました!You now know more than a few オノマトペ. Good job! However, there are literal dozens (possibly even hundreds) left to learn, so here are some links to more giseigo, giongo, and gitaigo. Some pages are in Japanese, but have multitudes of オノマトペ and are relatively easy to maneuver (^u^):

Animal Onomatopoeia

Tofugu’s Onomatopoeia Guide

List of オノマトペ

オノマトペ Dictionary (in Japanese alphabetical order)

オノマトペ by Category


この記事を読んで下さってありがとうございました! Thanks for reading this article!


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