Transcription into Japanese

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In contemporary Japanese writing, foreign-language loanwords and foreign names are normally written in the katakana script, which is one component of the Japanese writing system. As far as possible, sounds in the source language are matched to the nearest sounds in the Japanese language, and the result is transcribed using standard katakana characters, each of which represents one syllable (strictly mora). For example, America is written アメリカ (A-me-ri-ka). To accommodate various foreign-language sounds not present in Japanese, a system of extended katakana has also developed to augment standard katakana.

Katakana, like the other Japanese kana, hiragana, has a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and characters. Therefore, once the sound of a word is established, there is no ambiguity in its katakana "spelling" (unlike spelling in English, for example).

A much less common form of transcription, not covered in this article, uses kanji characters for their phonetic values. For information on this method see Ateji.

Practicalities of transcription

Syllable structure

The most conspicuous result of transcription into Japanese is the insertion of vowels, often making words significantly longer.[clarification needed] This is because Japanese phonology has (C)V(C) syllables (optional starting consonant, vowel, optional ending consonant): it does not allow consonant clusters at the start of a syllable, and the only ending consonant is either the nasal ン, n or a geminate consonant – indeed, these closed syllables are due to ancient Chinese loanwords, and originally Japanese was strictly (C)V.

Since Japanese has few closed syllables, syllable-final consonants in the source language are often represented using the -u (or sometimes -o or -i) kanas with implicitly silent vowels – though this vowel often is pronounced in Japanese – or the syllable coda is not represented at all. For example, the name Jim is written ジム (Ji-mu). A similar principle applies to consonant clusters; for example spring would be transcribed as スプリング (su-pu-ri-n-gu).


Japanese has only five native vowel sounds, each a pure vowel (monophthong) with a long and short form, and some degree of approximation is necessary when representing vowels from, for example, English. Diphthongs are represented by sequences of vowels, and pronounced with hiatus, as a sequence of discrete monophthongs, not a diphthong, as in ブラウン Bu-ra-u-n "Brown", ナイス na-i-su "nice", ディア di-a "dear/deer", レア re-a "rare". etc. The English spelling <ore> (phonologically /ɔː/ (RP) or /ɔːr/ (GA)) is usually "diphthongized" as o-a in Japanese (e.g. コア ko-a "core"), possibly because it is also pronounced as a diphthong (/oə/) in some accents of English. The English /eɪ/ is transcribed to either e-e (エース e-e-su "ace") or e-i (スペイン Su-pe-i-n "Spain"); similarly, /əʊ/ is transcribed to either o-o (ショー sho-o "show") or o-u (シャドウ sha-do-u "shadow").


Japanese does not have separate l and r sounds, and l- is normally transcribed using the kana that are perceived as representing r-. For example, London becomes ロンドン (Ro-n-do-n). Other sounds not present in Japanese may be converted to the nearest Japanese equivalent; for example, the name Smith is written スミス (Su-mi-su). Foreign sounds can be difficult to express in Japanese, resulting in spellings such as フルシチョフ Furushichofu (Khrushchev), アリー・ハーメネイー Arī Hāmeneī (Ali Khamenei) and イツハク・パールマン Itsuhaku Pāruman or イツァーク・パールマン Itsāku Pāruman (Itzhak Perlman).

The English voiceless labialized velar approximant /hw/ (orthographically wh), which is a distinct phoneme from /w/ in some varieties of English, can be transcribed as ho(w)-. For example, White is ホワイト Howaito, whale is ホエール hoēru.

The English /ti(ː)/ and /tɪ/ is typically transcribed to チ chi (e.g. チーム chīmu "team"), but ティ ti is also used (ティア tia "tear"). The suffix -tic can be transcribed to either チック -chikku or ティック -tikku. However, -ty is almost always transcribed to ティ(ー) -ti(i), not *チ(ー) *-chi(i) (e.g. パーティー pātī "party", インフィニティ infiniti "infinity").

The English schwa /ə/ is variously transcribed to a, e, o, depending on the English spelling. For example, デュアル dyu-a-ru "dual", デュエル dyu-e-ru "duel", テスタメント Te-su-ta-me-n-to "Testament", ロンドン Ro-n-do-n "London". There are no definite rules when it comes to the schwa, however; e.g. ランダム ra-n-da-mu "random", オープン o-o-pu-n "open", ザ za "the". The British /ə/ which is equivalent to the North American /ɚ/ is transcribed to a(-a); e.g. コンピュータ(ー) ko-n-pyu-u-ta(-a) "computer", モーター mo-o-ta-a "motor". On the other hand, the French schwa is transcribed to u or o; e.g. ソムリエ so-mu-ri-e "sommelier", ド do "de".

The English /æ/ is typically transcribed to a; e.g. マン ma-n "man", チャネル cha-ne-ru "channel". The sequences /kæ/ and /ɡæ/ are sometimes transcribed to kya and gya respectively; e.g. キャメラ kya-me-ra "camera", ギャラクシー gya-ra-ku-shi-i "galaxy".

The older English suffix -age /-ɪdʒ/ is always transcribed to -e-e-ji as if it were pronounced as /eɪdʒ/ as in "age" or "rage"; e.g. メッセージ me-s-se-e-ji "message", パッケージ pa-k-ke-e-ji "package". The more recent -age /-ɑːʒ/ is more "properly" transcribed to -a-a-ju; e.g. ミラージュ mi-ra-a-ju "mirage". However, "garage" /gəˈrɑːʒ/ is more commonly transribed to ガレージ ga-re-e-ji as it also has /ˈgærɪdʒ/ as an alternative pronunciation in British English.

The phoneme /v/ in various languages is transcribed either to b or v, although it is unknown whether there is such an equivalent phoneme /v/ in Japanese. For example ベネチア Benechia / ヴェネツィア Ve-ne-tsi-a "Venezia" (Italian for "Venice"), オーバー o-o-ba-a "over", ラブ ra-bu / ラヴ ravu "love".

Long vowels

Long vowels are generally written with ー to indicate lengthening, as in コーラ kōra (cola), rather than writing a distinct vowel ×コウラ *koura. There are two irregularities of note here. Firstly, lengthening of the final vowel may be ambiguous, and vary over time or between users. For example, in present Japan, "computer" is generally represented as コンピューター konpyūtā (long final), but in some cases, such as the computer industry, following Japanese Industrial Standards, it is represented as コンピュータ konpyūta (short final).[1] Secondly, in modern Chinese loanwords, notably food names, in careful transcription diphthongs are represented by separate vowels, even if in Japanese they would appear to be a long vowel; this is particularly common with òu, especially in 豆 dòu "(soy) bean", usually rendered as トウ. Further, long vowels in the Japanese transcription need not reflect Chinese pronunciation. For example, the dish 東坡肉 "Dongpo pork", in pinyin dōngpōròu (dōng·pō·ròu), is represented in Japanese as ドンポーロウ donpōrou, or more commonly トンポーロウ tonpōrou. Note that in Chinese pinyin ō represents a high tone, while in Japanese ō represents a long vowel, and /d/ is pronounced differently (Chinese /d/ is similar to Japanese or English /t/). This distinction is not always followed, and varies by term: the spelling トンポーロー tonpōrō is also common; and in terms such as 回鍋肉 twice cooked pork, the spelling ホイコーロー is more common, despite representing diphthongs.

Extended katakana

In modern times, an extended katakana system has developed to cater for foreign sounds not present in Japanese. Most of these novel katakana forms are digraphs, composed of standard katakana characters, but in digraph combinations not found in native words. For example, the word photo is transcribed as フォト (fo-to), where the novel digraph フォ (fo) is made up from フ (normally fu) plus a novel small combining form of オ (normally o). In other cases novel diacritics may be applied to create new sounds, such as ヴ for vu, which consists of ウ (u) combined with a dakuten to indicate a voiced pronunciation.


Japanese is written without spaces between words, and, to aid understanding, foreign phrases and names are sometimes transliterated with an interpunct separating the words, called a nakaguro (中黒?, middle dot); for example, ビル・ゲイツ (Bill Gates). When it is assumed that the reader knows the separate gairaigo words in the phrase, the middle dot is omitted. For example, the phrase コンピューターゲーム konpyūtā gēmu ("computer game") contains two well-known gairaigo, and therefore is not written with a middle dot.

Katakana tables

The following tables give the Hepburn romanization and an approximate IPA transcription for katakana as used in contemporary Japanese. Their use in transcription is, of course, in the inverse direction.

Standard katakana


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Theoretical combinations yi, ye and wu are  unused .
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 The characters in positions wi and we are  obsolete  in modern Japanese, and have been replaced by イ (i) and エ (e). The character wo, in practice normally pronounced o, is preserved in only one use: as a particle. This is normally written in hiragana (を), so katakana ヲ sees only limited use. See Gojūon and the articles on each character for details.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 The ヂ (di) and ヅ (du) kana (often romanised as ji and zu) are primarily used for  etymologic spelling , when the unvoiced equivalents チ (ti) and ツ (tu) (often romanised as chi and tsu) undergo a sound change (rendaku) and become voiced when they occur in the middle of a compound word. In other cases, the identically-pronounced ジ (ji) and ズ (zu) are used instead. ヂ (di) and ヅ (du) can never begin a word, and they are not common in katakana, since the concept of rendaku does not apply to transcribed foreign words, one of the major uses of katakana.

Extended katakana

The following katakana (tokushuon[2]) have been developed or proposed specifically for the purposes of transcribing foreign words. Examples such as トゥ(tu) in カートゥーン(cartoon), ティ(ti) in パーティ(party), ツァ in モーツァルト(Mozart) are found mostly in foreign words.

Color key
 Orange  General kana combinations used for loanwords or foreign place names or personal names, set forth by the Japanese government's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT, Monbushō).[3]
 Blue  Combinations used for more accurate transliteration of foreign sounds, again set forth by MEXT.[clarification needed]
 Beige  Suggestions by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI Z39.11)[4] and the British Standards Institution (BS 4812).[5][clarification needed]
 Purple  Combinations that appear in the 1974 version of the Hyōjun-shiki formatting.[6]

See also


  1. See ja:コンピューター
  2. Saiga
  3. "外来語の表記:文部科学省".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "■米国規格(ANSI Z39.11-1972)―要約". Retrieved 2011-01-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "■英国規格(BS 4812:1972)―要約". Retrieved 2011-01-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. ローマ字文の手ほどき: 標準式ローマ字書き日本語の書き方