What Is “z” In Japanese? [za, ji, zu, ze, zo]

In English, the letter “z” is the last one in the alphabet. Sometimes this can give it a special feeling of completion since it comes at the end. But we’re not even close to being done with this course! What is “z” in Japanese?

Keeping in line with the discussion we had in the last lesson on voiced and unvoiced consonants, we can say that in Japanese the letter “z” is the voiced counterpart to the consonant “s” which we learned early on.

If it were only that simple, we could leave it at that. But there is one character in this group that is special. Can you guess which one it is?

All [z] Sounds In Japanese

If you remember the group of [s] sounds, then you will probably recall that the character し is [shi] which is slightly different from the rest, since they only have one consonant along with their vowels whereas し has two.

This same character gets a special reading when we add on those two dashes and make it voiced. Check it out along with the others below.

ざ = za

じ = ji

ず = zu

ぜ = ze

ぞ = zo

As you can see, and hear, the し character becomes じ which sounds like [ji] which is special for this group.

This is in fact the only [j] sound in Japanese, although there is another hiragana character that can be used to notate it. You’ll learn more about that in the following lesson.

What’s kind of nice about じ is that is looks like a flipped “J” letter, which I always thought helped remember the correct reading.

Since this lesson on the [z] sounds is pretty much finished, I wanted to share with you some ideas on an interesting topic that can greatly help you improve your speaking accuracy with Japanese.

The Psychology Of Speaking

We’ve been talking a lot about the physiological aspects of speaking. Things such as mouth movement, vocal cord activation, being relaxed when speaking, and so on.

But something that rarely ever gets mentioned is the psychology of speaking a foreign language.

In particular, I’m talking about our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas about ourselves and our abilities to produce a non-native language when we want to.

Does the way we think affect our accent? I would argue that it does, especially at the later stages when you have reached an intermediate level and beyond.

There are two ideas that I want to share with you that I believe can help you improve. Read on to see what I mean.

Identity Predicts Performance

Everyone has an “identity” of themselves in their mind. This is basically “who” you think you are.

But did you know that we all have multiple identities? Does that sound crazy!?

Here’s what I mean:

  • I am an American
  • I am a brother
  • I am a gamer
  • I am a musician

Each one of these “I am” statements about myself is an identity that I hold. This identity actually helps predict how I will behave in different areas of life.

Of course, it makes sense that you will act differently when you are living in one of these identities than another. For example, I act differently when I’m working (I’m a professional) than when I am hanging out with my parents (I’m a son).

But what’s also interesting is that your identity can predict how well you perform at something.

For example, when I play the video game Rainbow Six: Siege online against other people, there are different ranks that we all have.

These ranks go up and down depending on if you win or lose, but what I had noticed when I was still at the silver level was that gold players (the next level up) played the game differently than I did.

So I decided to imitate them and pretend that I was also a gold player. Even though my rank was still a silver at the time, I did the things that I felt a gold player would do and I actually ranked up to the gold level pretty quickly.

Then as time went on and I played more and got better, I started thinking about going up another rank to platinum.

So I started acting like I was a plat-player by practicing my aim every day, learning how to communicate and coordinate at a higher level, and even get that “game sense” of being able to read the opponent’s move before they made it.

Here’s the crazy thing: once I started believing that I was a plat-player, even though I had never reached that level before, I started acting like one of them and I leveled up to platinum in the first 12 games of the new season!

The reason why this is crazy is because I had been stuck at the gold level for about a year, and that was with well over 50 games each season playing the game.

So what does this have to do with speaking Japanese?

The Perfect Accent Is Within You

The reason I tell you this story is because I believe that the way you think about your Japanese abilities has a huge effect on them.

In other words, your beliefs are a self-fulfilling prophecy that will either take you to a native-level in Japanese, or keep you stuck performing at a level below your maximum potential.

If you can begin to think of yourself as an actual Japanese person, then you can begin to do the things that they do and perform at the level that they do.

Now keep in mind that you will still have to put in a lot of work to learn Japanese (just like natives do) but you will be able to think and act like them because it will have become a part of your psychology.

You don’t have to just take my word for it though, the renowned linguist and language learning enthusiast Stephen D. Krashen also believes this to be the case. Here’s what he said on the matter:

“My conjecture is that accent is acquired rapidly but is not performed, because we do not feel like members of the group that uses it; we are not members of the club (Smith, 1988). Either we do not wish to be members or have not been invited to be members.”

I remember listening to an interview of him one time and he shared a story where this exact thing happened to him.

He said that his French usually had an American accent to it, but one time he was totally relaxed and engrossed in a conversation with his French tutor (in French of course) and his daughter overheard him speaking.

She later told him that he sounded exactly like a French native, with absolutely no trace of an American accent!

Intrigued by this, he began to research it to find out why this was so, and he eventually came to the conclusion that when he would normally use French, he was always very conscious of the way he sounded since he knew that he sounded like an American speaking French.

But this time he was so into the discussion, that he completely forgot that French wasn’t his first language!

The only thing his mind was focused on was the content of the conversation.

In other words, he had worked on French so much, that he knew the sounds perfectly at an unconscious level, but his conscious mind would still get in the way normally and stop him from sounding perfect.

When he didn’t think about it, when he forgot he was American, he actually spoke just like a french native.

This led him to conclude that once you practice enough, then “The perfect accent is within you, for any language.”

Food For Thought

Whether you agree with Krashen’s conclusions or not is entirely up to you. The reason why I brought it up is because I know a lot of people who learn Japanese have a strong desire to sound exactly like natives do.

One part of that is learning the sounds, the words and expressions, and spending enough time learning the language to where you can use it naturally.

But this other part, this mental part, is something that almost nobody talks about but might actually be the answer that everyone is looking for.

At any rate, it’s time to move on to the next lesson in this course.

Do you agree that our psychology can affect our accent? Let me know by leaving a comment down below!

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2 thoughts on “What Is “z” In Japanese? [za, ji, zu, ze, zo]”

  1. Normally I do not comment, but the part on psychology was too interesting to not let it be noticed. Likewise, people who practice with intent to sound perfect first, and learn the rest later is correct. They could speak / listen, hold a conversation, much better than a person who focused on achieving N1 first. It is natural though, we speak listen before we could read write.

    • You point on intention is spot on. I have seen a lot of people who study to pass N1 and do eventually achieve it, but still struggle to speak well.

      Whereas people who don’t care for the test and want to speak well with their friends attain that goal rather quickly.

      Thanks for the great comment!


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