What Is “y” In Japanese? [ya, yu, yo]

Normally we go over five new sounds in each section since we add each of the Japanese vowels to the new consonant that we are covering. But things are different today, as we only have three new sounds to go over. What is “y” in Japanese?

From just the title alone you can probably figure it out, so to make this lesson worth your time I’m also going to be discussing something that will help you improve your accent while speaking.

The 3 [y] Sounds In Japanese

The [y] sound in Japanese is pretty much the same one that we use in English. The only difference is that this Japanese version will only ever appear at the beginning of a syllable and never at the end.

For example, the English word “yoyo” is a pretty great example since it is also one of the sounds we will cover below. On the other hand, the word “sorry” is a poor example since this word ends with a “y” which doesn’t happen with Japanese.

や = ya

ゆ = yu

よ = yo

I read an article once that said the reason why we don’t have a [ye] or a [yi] sound in Japanese is because those two sounds fell out of use by the time that they invented hiragana.

Of course, once the written system was created and taught throughout Japan, those two sounds were barred from re-entry.

I don’t really know how accurate that story is, but at the end of the day we can simply say that the [y] sounds only have three little guys.

The 4 Stroke Rule

I’ve mentioned before that Japanese has several writing systems and that we are learning the first one (hiragana) along with the sounds of the language so that you can have a visual representative of what you’re listening to.

There are some special characteristics of hiragana (and katakana, the 2nd system) but one of them is that all kana characters have a maximum of 4 strokes.

This is way different from kanji (the 3rd system) which can range anywhere from a single stroke, up into the 20s and beyond!

や = ya

ゆ = yu

よ = yo

Although it’s not something that’s essential to learn, I just thought it would be cool to share this 4 stroke rule on the characters we’ve been covering.

Improving Your Accent

I mentioned that I would talk about improving your accent when speaking Japanese, and now we are going to get into that.

Let me share my own thoughts on the matter, just so you know where I’m coming from on this topic.

Basically, I think that it is a good idea for students to improve their speaking accent to the point where it is easy for natives to understand them.

I don’t think you need to be perfect or have a native-like accent, although those are both very cool!

In my own experience, if someone’s accent is so thick that the listeners have a hard time understanding them, it leads to miscommunications, frustrations, and embarrassment on both parties.

By learning little tricks and tips to help make the correct sounds in Japanese, you remove these potential barriers to effective communication and people can focus all of their attention on the message being conveyed.

That being said, I’ll gladly admit that I have always found a bit of an accent to be really charming when people are speaking my own native language, so you might find that you’re even more popular in Japan if your Japanese isn’t 100% perfect!

Mouth Movements When Speaking

One of the things that is really important, yet very few people teach, is using the correct mouth movements when speaking Japanese.

It makes sense that different languages use different positions and shapes in the mouth in order to make their respective sounds.

It also makes sense that most people use their native mouth movements when speaking a foreign language. It’s only natural!

This leads to one language’s sounds leaking into the other and creates what we call an “accent.”

In English, we move our mouth around a lot more than typical Japanese people do. In particular, there is a lot of movement in the jaw for English as well as rounding of the lips. Our mouths are often in an “open” position in order to make the correct English sounds.

Japanese is almost the opposite of this.

  • The jaw is more often in a “closed” position.
  • There is less use of “wide” movements of the mouth.
  • There is only a slight rounding of the lips with the [u] sound.

Another good rule of thumb is to keep your overall mouth relaxed.

While I can’t give you all of the exact mouth positions for each sound, what I want to do instead is make you aware of the impact that mouth movements have an accent and give you a general rule to use.

Basically, you move your mouth around a lot less when speaking Japanese when compared to English.

If possible, try watching a native Japanese person speaking and pay attention to how their mouth moves. While this won’t help you understand what’s going on with the inside, you can at least get half of the picture.

Japanese Phonetics Course

There are a few books out there that specifically teach Japanese phonetics, but I found them to be really dry and a little too academic to keep my interest.

If this is a topic that you would like to explore further, then I would recommend checking out Dogen’s video series where he covers this exact thing in great detail.

Click Here To Watch On YouTube

When I went through it myself, I was really impressed with how well done it was. He starts off talking about “pitch accent” in the beginning of the course, but then later starts covering all phonetics found in Japanese.

I’ll talk a little bit about pitch accent myself later on in this series, but I’m really just going to give you an introduction to the topic whereas Dogan gives you more of a masterclass type of education.

He also has a lot of really funny videos on his channel that you might enjoy checking out!

Drill Time!

You know what to do. 😉

  • Practice all of the [y] sounds 3+ times.
  • Practice each of today’s hiragana 5+ times.
  • Watch some videos of Japanese speakers: pay attention to their mouth movements.

Do you have any tips or tricks for improving accent? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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