Reading Japanese Katakana: Lesson 1

Japanese pronunciation and the five Japanese vowels

Welcome to Lesson One of WordBrewery’s Reading Japanese: Katakana series. We have created a frequency list of Japanese words, then mined that list for the most common katakana words. If you already read katakana, you can still learn from the vocabulary in this post series. But if you’re new to katakana, these posts will help you learn to read it quickly and accurately while picking up some useful vocabulary along the way.

The katakana vowels

Japanese has five vowel sounds, and each consonant is typically paired with a vowel. Here are the five vowel sounds written in katakana:

a (“ah” as in “father”)
e (“eh” as in “elephant”)
i (“ee” as in “sushi”)
o (“oh” as in “oar”)
u (“ooh” as in “tofu”

These can be extended with the ー symbol. This does not change the vowel sound—rather, it just drags it out.

アー aa (“aah”)
エー ee (“ehhh”)
イー ii (“meee”)
オー oo (“ohhhh”)
ウー uu (“oooooh”)

The most interesting aspect of katakana is how much it can teach you about Japanese phonetics and pronunciation. Japanese has many fewer possible syllables than English, for example, so when an English “loanword” is imported into Japanese, its syllables must be converted so they can be written in kana and easily pronounced by Japanese speakers:

エア air

Japanese does not allow consonants except “n” at the end of words—because every Japanese syllable except “n” consists of a consonant-vowel pair—and Japanese does not have the English “r” sound.

ウィー Wii (Nintendo video game console)
エー A (the letter “A”)
イオ Io

a moon of Jupiter—OK, we admit, that’s not a high-frequency word. But you need the practice!

IO pronounced アイオー input-output
ウエア wear (-wear; clothing, e.g. “swimwear”)
ウェイ or ウェー way

As you are getting started, take the time to write each of these words out on paper. Read them again and again, and repeat after the audio until the correct pronunciation is ingrained in you and you can read these words as quickly as you can read English. Each of these words use only the five katakana vowels introduced above:

アウエー or アウェー away (as in アウェーゲーム, awe-ge-mu (“away game”))
エアウェイ airway

The best way to master any writing system is to practice reading real, high-frequency words and sentences that are tailored to your ability level. Keep reading and writing these words again and again until you can recognize these first five syllables immediately and read them as quickly as you can read English. Keep practicing—and be sure to try WordBrewery if you haven’t already done so.

Practice by reading these aloud over and over again

エー イオ エー
アー アイオー ウエア
イー ウィー エアウェイ
ウー ウェイ アウエイ
オー エア ウェー

Learn more about Japanese vowel pronunciation: