Japanese onomatopoeia and their meanings

Aside from manga fans, most people probably don’t realize that the Japanese language can be animated and lively. Japanese has over 1,000 onomatopoeia with syllabic and repetitive words—that’s thrice more than in English! Some words might not have English equivalents, since languages are often arbitrary. In Japan, this long list of onomatopoeia grew with the fame of manga comics that include written sound effects to better illustrate each scene.

There are two main types of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions: gion-go and gitai-go. However, the categories can be flexible and subjective. Below is a list of commonly used, double-form onomatopoeia and their English meanings to help learners speak Japanese more naturally and further understand this fascinating language and its culture.

Gion-go

zaa-zaa

These words mimic real, natural sounds and noises by inanimate objects as well as living things such as humans and animals. In the world of manga, they are simply called sound effects

JapaneseEnglishDescription
がぶがぶ      Gabu gabuGulping down a drink
くしゃくしゃKusha kushaCrumpling sound of paper
ぎしぎしGishi gishi  Squeaking noise of beds or old floors
ごぼごぼGobo goboGurgling sound
ざあざあZaa zaaSound of the rain
ごろごろGoro goroPurring or growling
かりかりKari kari Crispy or crunchy like rice crackers; scratching a hard surface
けろけろKero keroCroaking frog
ブーブーBu buOinking pig
リンリンRin rinChirping cricket
ニャーニャーNya nyaMeowing cat
ホーホーHo hoHooting owl
チューチューChu chuSqueaking mouse

 

Gitai-go

gusya-gusya

These are words that describe physical things, such as textures, as well as manner of action. In manga, these words clue readers in on the internal feelings of characters.

JapaneseEnglishMeaning
パクパクPaku pakuOpening and closing of the mouth when eating; chomping (This is the origin of the name Pac-Man!)
ペコペコPeko pekoHungry; grumbling stomach
どきどきDoki doki The loud, pounding of a heart when nervous or excited
うろうろUro uroTo wander aimlessly
うとうとUto utoTo doze off
ぐずぐずGuzu guzuTo procrastinate; act slowly
くらくらKura kuraDizzy; light-headed
きらきらKira kiraTo sparkle like jewelry or glittery clothes
ざらざらZara zara Rough, coarse surface
ぐしゃぐしゃGusha gushaMessy hair or clothes
ぱさぱさPasa pasaDry; lacks moisture
ねばねばNeba nebaSticky like okra or raw egg
ぬるぬるNuru nuruSlimy like a fish out of the water
ぎゅうぎゅうGyu gyuJam-packed like a train during rush hour
ぞくぞくZoku zokuExcited; to have an adrenaline rush
いらいらIra ira Impatient; irritated
いそいそIso isoCheerfully
きびきびKibi kibiEnergetically
こそこそKoso koso Sneakingly; secretly

If you want to learn more onomatopoeic expressions, start by reading manga. What do you think are the best or strangest ones? Share them with us!

Image credit: Give My Regards to Black Jack, SHUHO SATO, Manga on Web


Jenie Gabriel

The author

Jenie Gabriel

Jenie creates and coordinates content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her wandering around the city or planning her next escapade.


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