The science behind why English speakers can’t pronounce the Japanese “fu”


Learning a foreign language is hard. Even if you master all the vocabulary and grammar, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll ever achieve a native-like accent. For Japanese learners of English, differentiating between the “l” and “r” sounds and pronouncing the “th” sound correctly can be tricky them no matter how many years they’ve been practicing.

But have you ever wondered what it’s like the other way around? What sounds do we English speakers make that sound strange when we speak Japanese? Well it turns out the sound that we mess up the most is one you might not have expected: “fu”.

Now you might be thinking: The “fu” sound? What’s so hard about that? I pronounce it fine all the time. Like when I slept on a futon at Mt. Fuji in fuyu (winter) and woke up feeling futsukayoi (hungover).

Well if you’re pronouncing those words with an “f” sound like we have in English, thenyou’re actually saying them all wrong. To find out the reason why, we have to have a quick linguistics lesson.

▼ Yes there will be a test. No you haven’t studied. You haven’t even shown up to class all semester. Also you’re in your underwear and falling from a skyscraper.


The English “f” sound is, in phonetic terms, a “voiceless labiodental fricative.” Don’t worry, by the end of this article you’ll be a master of that phrase and more and will totally impress all of your friends, I swear.

Basically what that long phrase means is, the “f” sound, like most sounds humans can make, has three components that come together to make it up. First, it’s “voiceless.”That means it doesn’t vibrate your vocal cords when you say it. To feel what a “voicedlabiodental fricative” feels like, hold your fingers to your throat and make the “v” sound. You should feel a lot of vibration, but nothing when you make the “f” sound.

Second, it’s a “labiodental.” That means it’s pronounced using your lips (labio) andteeth (dental). There’s a bunch of different places sounds can be made: your lips (“p”), your teeth (“t”), at different points on your tongue (“l”), in your throat (“h”), or a combination of them.

Lastly, it’s a “fricative.” This means the sound is made by the “friction” of air coming through a gap, in this case the small opening between your lips and teeth. Some other fricatives are the “s” sound, a fricative between your teeth, and the “th” sound, a fricative between your teeth and tongue.

Putting it all together, we now know that the English “f” sound is a “voiceless labiodental fricative,” meaning your vocal cords don’t vibrate, it’s pronounced using your lips and teeth, and by pushing air through the gap they make.

the more you know

So what does this have to do with Japanese pronunciation? Well now we have thetools to clearly see where the pronunciation has gone wrong. The English “f” may be a “voiceless labiodental fricative” but the Japanese “f” is a “voiceless bilabial fricative” – one component different.

Since the Japanese “f” is a “bilabial” instead of a “labiodental,” that means it’s pronounced using both your lips, no teeth necessary. Instead of touching your teeth to your lip and spitting out air like you just slammed your finger with a hammer, instead bring your lips together like you’re blowing out a candle (no need to stick them out like you’re kissing), then try to say “fu” without moving your lips or teeth or anything at all.

▼ I’m learning Japanese!

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If you did it correctly, then you should have made a beautiful “fu” sound. If you’re still having trouble though, then let the knowledgeable Sayuri-san guide you to enlightenment.

If you’ve seen a Japanese syllabary chart like one below, you may well have noticed that ha, hi, he, and ho are all written with an “h”. Weirdly, though, only “fu” – despite being in the same column as the characters beginning with “h” – is written with an “f” when Roman characters are used.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 11.25.53 PM

Weird, right? So if the Japanese “f” sound is different from the English “f” sound, why do we even use the letter “f” to write it in the first place? Well the answer is: because it’s close enough. It could be written with the letter “h” too (a “voiceless glottal fricative” – only one component different just like “f”), and sometimes it is. Just be thankful it’s not written with the technically correct International Phonetic Alphabet symbol: ɸ. You’d have to copy/paste that badboy into your textbox every time you want to write about how you ate fugu (blowfish) and feel perfectly futsuu (normal).

▼ You also might inadvertently open a gate to Phyrexia if you use that symbol, so stick with the “f.”


Since the Japanese “voiceless bilabial fricative” (see, I told you that you’d get these by the end!) is actually quite rare among languages, the “f” pronunciation problem unfortunately goes both ways – it hinders Japanese speakers trying to learn English too, and so “f” can come out sounding more like “h”, leading to mix-ups between words like “food” and “hood,” “furry” and “hurry,” or the ever-dangerous “heart and “fart.”

Of course, in the end, perfect pronunciation isn’t what’s important about speaking a language. It’s about having a solid vocabulary, a good grasp of the grammar, cultural knowledge, and most importantly the confidence to actually speak, even if you have a horribly broken accent.

How to correctly pronounce the names of Japanese car brands

Although the names of European car brands seem to be purposely designed to trip people up, it is understandable that people may have difficulty too with Japanese car brands, despite their ubiquity around the world. Here to clarify things for us is this video from Mighty Car Mods, featuring a native Japanese speaker who clarifies their correct Japanese pronunciation for us.

After watching the short video above, you can rest assured that you are now properly equipped to expertly maneuver car talk without fear of embarrassment in front of your motorhead friends.


Nippon or Nihon? No consensus on the Japanese pronunciation of “Japan”

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As any student of Japanese will tell you, its use of Chinese characters known as kanji can be a nightmare at times. And although they can be really useful at deducing the meaning of complex words, they give little in the way of clues as to how one should pronounce them.

Take the kanji for Japan (日本) for example. Even a first grader can tell you what it means, but ask a group of adults how to pronounce it and you might get a mixture of “Nihon” or “Nippon” and maybe even an occasional “Yamato” if one of those people happens to be a smart-ass.

  Why Japan?
Before getting into the Nihon/Nippon issue, let’s figure out why English speakers completely ignore the original name and call the country “Japan,” a name that would mean “Well, bread!” in its native language.

It would seem the culprit behind this variation of the name is Marco Polo during his reported visits to Northern China during the Yuan Dynasty. Although he never actually made it to Japan he heard of the place from those he met in China. At that time the name for Japan was established as the kanji (日本), which in Chinese reads as Rìběn.

However, due to the dialect of that area and time it came out sounding like “Jipen” which was transcribed as “Zipangu” in The Travels of Marco Polo. From there it spread through the linguistic stew of Europe and became the modern “Japan” in English today.

  “Nippon” came first
A long time ago Japan used to be known as “Wa” or “Yamato” and used the kanji 倭. Time passed and the official kanji was changed to 日本 in 640. However, the name Yamato was still used for some time. Around the latter half of the 7th century the official reading of 日本 changed to either “Nippon” or “Jippon.”

It’s believed that the pronunciation of “Nihon” came as a nickname in the Kanto region during the Edo period. People associate that story with the differences between 日本橋 (Nipponbashi) in Osaka and 日本橋 (Nihonbashi) in Tokyo.

  “Nihon” came out on top
Knowing that, it would seem the obvious answer is that “Nippon” is the correct way to pronounce 日本 simply because it was here first. However, a recent survey showed that 61 percent of Japanese people read it as “Nihon” while only 37 percent said “Nippon. The results also showed that “Nihon” was much more prevalent among younger people too. So while it would seem “Nippon” has seniority, “Nihon” has the popular vote.

Naming the country would certainly seem like an appropriate job for the government, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately there is no official document defining the pronunciation of 日本 or 日本国. However, an attempt was made by the Ministry of Education in 1934. They were conducting a major investigation into the national language, a part of which recommended that the country officially be pronounced “Nippon” once and for all. However, the government simply ignored their request.

In 2009, a Member of the Lower House made a slightly more liberal move and submitted a request asking that the national government decide on a unified pronunciation, whether it be “Nippon” or “Nihon.” The government replied that both terms were in wide usage and it saw no reason to take an official side on the matter.

  日本 = ?
You could either applaud the government’s indecision as a way of saying that they had bigger issues to deal with, or you could criticize their “Don’t worry man, it’s cool” attitude. Either way, one thing is certain. The name of this country is simply two or three pictograms that legally could be verbally interpreted any way you want, be it Nihon, Nippon, Jippon, Japan, Hinomoto, Yamato, Wa, or Zipangu. So join us next time when RocketNews24 brings you more news out of Candyland and the rest of Asia.

Source: NHKKotoba ZatsukiGigazine via Naver Matome (Japanese)
Images: Wikipedia, Wikipedia – Theresamerkel,  Nayo148

Here are a few groups that officially use Nippon in their name:

Nippon Housou Kyoukai (NHK)Nippon Television Network Corporation
Nippon Broadcasting Service (NBS)
Nippon Budokan
All Nippon Airways (ANA)
Kinki Nippon Tetsudou (Kintestu Corp.)
Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co. (Nishitetsu)
Nippon Sports Science Unviersity
Nippon Yuubin (Japan Post

And some groups who prefer to use Nihon:

Nihon University
Nihon Koukuu (JAL)
Nihon Keizai Shimbun (The Nikkei)
Nihon Ryokaku Tetsudou (JR)
Nihon Unisys
Nihon Sumou Kyoukai (Japan Sumo Association)
Nihon Orinpikku Iinkai (Japan Olympic Committee)

*Many of these groups will also use the alternate pronunciation from time to time

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Nippon or Nihon? No consensus on the Japanese pronunciation of “Japan”