What is Japanese Onomatopoeia? [Definition, Meaning]

Nikoniko. Korokoro. Fuwafuwa. Kyaa!

Don't worry, we haven't totally gone insane. Anime and manga fans alike are sure to have read and heard words like these before - but have you understood them? Or do you just ignore or skip over these strange words that usually remain in Japanese? Or maybe you understand the basics but want to learn more. Whatever it is, you've come to the right article. These kinds of words are called onomatopoeia!

Well, that word is a mouthful in and of itself. Onomatopoeia is a special kind of language where the word is meant to imitate a sound rather than have a normal meaning like most words. Many languages have onomatopoeia words in them, English included! These are words for sounds animals make, like "meow," and sounds that objects and nature make, like "clip clop" or "splash." Onomatopoeia also has 'sound' words that represent feelings and give more meaning to an action or internal feeling, such as "throbbing" or "smirk." When we hear these words, not only do we understand the meaning, we also can hear the sound they are meant to represent. Japanese is a language that is absolutely full of these sorts of words, and onomatopoeia is used regularly in anime and manga - you just may never have been aware of it.

Just like English and Japanese are very different languages, our onomatopoeia words are also quite different. When we are trying to express the same sound in our separate languages, it comes across in a different way even though we both have heard the same thing. An easy example is with the aforementioned sound a cat makes. In English, a cat says "meow." In Japanese, however, a cat says "nyan". Of course, all cats say the same thing, but English and Japanese speakers express that sound in two very different ways! This means if you haven't studied much Japanese, you may not notice just how much interesting onomatopoeia is in your anime and manga. And understandably so! But if you are interested in learning a little more, keep reading. Understanding and recognising onomatopoeia can add a whole new level of fun to your anime and manga enjoyment!

In Manga

Manga uses even more onomatopoeia than anime does because there aren't any actual sounds! That means if the author wants the reader to hear a sound effect or to project a certain feeling into a page, he or she makes use of Japan's large selection of sound words. Think of it like a Western comic book having "POW" and "BANG" during the fight sequences to add more excitement for the reader. What makes manga a different experience for English speakers is that a lot of Japanese onomatopoeia words, into English. Why? Because there isn’t an equivalent word. Keep in mind that Japanese has about 1200 onomatopoeia words, which is three times more than English. That means you're very likely to come across words that are left in Japanese.

Don't fear, though! It just means that manga readers develop a unique ability to read that other people do not. You're used to seeing another language, and you're learning a part of Japanese culture at the same time! It's a challenge but also a benefit so don't let the onomatopoeia scare you away from enjoying a manga fully. So instead of ignoring it, look it up and learn it! It will add a whole new dimension to your manga experience, and you'll see the story closer to how the original writer wanted it portrayed.

Not only is onomatopoeia rarely translates into English, it often remains written in katakana which makes it very easy to spot in manga. Katakana is the alphabet used to write foreign or other "non-Japanese" words, onomatopoeia included since they aren't 'real' words. One of the most common onomatopoeia that appears in a lot of manga is "じーっ" (jii) which is used to represent an intense stare. Since that can't actually be animated, manga writers use the onomatopoeia to show how they want the action portrayed. Other common manga onomatopoeia are "キラ" (kira), showing sparkles or shining, "ダダ" (dada), which is the sound of footsteps, and "ピピピピ" (pipipipi), to represent beeping. Of course those are only a few, but try to find these in your favourite manga to start practising!


Naruto (Manga)

  • Mangaka: Kishimoto, Masashi
  • Genre: Action, Adventure, Martial Arts, Shounen, Super Power
  • Volumes: 72
  • Published Date: Sep. 1999 – Nov. 2014

Nothing like using an incredibly popular and long-running manga as our example here! Naruto is read and loved by thousands, but how many people ignore the katakana onomatopoeia alongside the English words? Hopefully, after this, you won’t be anymore! Sure, we can tell just from the choice of font that the katakana on pages like this one is meant to represent something intense, violent, and exciting – but when you know exactly what sound or feeling is being represented, that adds whole new meaning to the page!

After all, this is the middle of an exciting fight, and without the luxury of being able to add real sound effects to it, Kishimoto has done what he can to show the reader his intended image. Learning to recognise and understand onomatopoeia like this not only adds something special to your manga, but you’re also learning one of the Japanese alphabets, too!


In Anime

If you watch anime in the original Japanese instead of dubbed into English, you're likely to hear loads of onomatopoeia even if you don't realise it. For some words and sounds, it might be translated in the subtitles. But for others, it might go right over your head if you don't know what to look for! Onomatopoeia is perhaps less important to catch and understand in anime than in manga, since you have a moving visual, music, and regular sound effects to help get the point across and create a specific mood or atmosphere. But understanding and noticing these sound words adds even more to your anime watching experience, and brings you closer to enjoying it the way it was originally meant to be enjoyed!

Some of the most common onomatopoeia in anime are the words that express feelings, which occur more often than background sounds since anime can just use an actual sound effect. It means fight scenes may be full of "kyaa" and "gyaa" screams, which are the same as yelling "ahh" in English. "Gaoo" is a sound of growling. If you're watching a more romantic anime, you might encounter "chuu" or “buchuu” being used to express a kissing sound, especially when characters are just talking about kissing and not actually doing it. Conveniently, "ahaha" means the same in English and in Japanese, so you already know at least one anime onomatopoeia word! Next time you're watching an anime, listen for some of these special words.


JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken: Stardust Crusaders (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders)

  • Episodes: 24
  • Aired: Apr. 2014 – Sep. 2014

What better way to show an example of onomatopoeia in anime than using one of the ones most famous for its ridiculous fights? JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken uses plenty of these Japanese sound effects to add extra drama to its fight scenes and to fuel the excitement that the anime is creating. Of course, you can find plenty of regular sound effects as well, but the onomatopoeia adds something extra and special if you’re watching the series in Japanese instead of English. After all, nothing spices things up like some extra yelling and specialised sound effects, and they definitely add another layer of entertainment and enthusiasm to JoJo! And with how over-the-top this anime already is, why not just have fun with it?


Final Thoughts

Do you understand more about onomatopoeia now? It's fun to pick out and recognise these words even in English! And being able to do so in Japanese makes watching anime and manga even more fun - and you can learn some really interesting Japanese while you're at it. So whether it's hearing your favourite character's heart go "dokidoki" (thump thump), seeing an idol "kirakira" (sparkle), or better understanding the "iyaa" (screaming NOOOO) at the end of an epic fight, onomatopoeia adds a whole new layer of understanding and fun to anime and manga! Really, we could have used just about any example for our article since onomatopoeia is such an important part of the Japanese language – and that means you can find it in everything.

What are your favourite onomatopoeia words? Have you heard or learned any new ones lately? With over 1200 to pick from, we are sure you've come across at least a few! Do you think they should be translated into English whenever possible, or left in original Japanese? Why? We would love to hear and discuss all your thoughts in the comment section below!

Jet Nebula

Writer

Author: Jet Nebula

Living the dream in Tokyo, where you can find me working at a theme café catered towards women. When I’m not writing for Honey’s, I’m working on original dystopian science fiction or blogging about Tokyo’s trendy coffee scene. I spend my free time in Harajuku and Shibuya wearing alternative Japanese street fashion. I love video games, J-rock, tattoos, and Star Wars.

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