Onomatopoeia - Japanese Words that are sounds & What You Need To Know!

Published June 13th, 2021

If you’ve ever watched anime or Japanese drama, you might’ve heard some Japanese words that sounded like sounds. You’re right. There are some words in the Japanese language that are just sounds. In fact, there are a lot of them! If I start to list all of them here, this article would be pages long!

That’s not what’s going to happen. In this article, we’ll look at the various types of Japanese onomatopoeia and a few common ones in each category.

What is Japanese onomatopoeia?

Some of you might not know what onomatopoeia is. Onomatopoeia are words that recreate a sound or feeling. Even in English, we use them to express stuff like animal noises and noises in general. The simplest examples are “woof” for a dog’s barking and “vroom” for the noise a car makes.

In the Japanese language, it takes onomatopoeia to a whole new level. You really can’t go a day without using at least a handful of them in conversation. There are five types of Japanese onomatopoeia:

The first one is giseigo (擬声語). If you notice, this uses the kanji for voice (声). This refers to noises made by living things like humans and animals. This is the one we’re familiar with the most. Most Japanese onomatopoeia aren’t the same as English onomatopoeia.

The second is giongo (擬音語). It uses the kanji for sound (音). This type of onomatopoeia refers to noises made by non living things like inanimate objects and nature.

The third is gitaigo (擬態語). The kanji used for this is condition or appearance (態). This refers to noises that describe states and conditions.

The fourth one is giyougo (擬容語), using the kanji for form (容). For this type, it refers to sounds that describe movements and motion.

The last one is gijougo (擬情語). The kanji used is feelings (情), so the type of sounds are of those that describe emotions.

Grammar Usage of Japanese Onomatopoeia

There are three grammatical forms of Japanese onomatopoeia. There’s the double form (わくわく), which usually describes a continuing state of the sound. The second type is the とform (はっと), and this one expresses a quick and short sound. The last one is a りform (のそり), expressing the action or sound is slow. Exceptions include those ending with ん (ゴンゴン), and this one expresses the sounds being echo-ey or lengthy.

You can pair an onomatopoeia with と and followed by a verb. This makes it an adverb. Sometimes, you can use に instead when it’s a state.

Change an onomatopoeia into a verb with やる or する.

And lastly, you use の after the onomatopoeia to change it into adjectives or noun modifiers.

Now, let’s take a look at the five categories of Japanese onomatopoeia and a few common ones in each!

Giseigo: Sounds Made by Living Things

A Dog looking at the camera

Giseigo (擬声語) are sounds that are made by living things. This can be humans and animals. They’re pretty similar to what we learn when we’re younger. They’re like sound effects. Here are a few common examples of animal noises:

Wan wan (ワンワン) – Woof

Nya nya (ニャーニャー) – Meow

Gao (がおー) – Roar

Gero gero (ゲロゲロ) – Ribbit/Croak

Bun (ブーン) – Buzz

Hi hin (ヒヒーン) – Neigh

Mo mo (モーモー) – Moo

Bu bu (ブーブー) – Oink

Uki uki (ウキウキ) – Oo oo aa aa

Me me (メーメー) – Baa

Human noises are also classified as this. This can include those similar to chuckles, mutters. These can be interesting ways to express your actions. Here are a few examples:

Guu guu (ぐうぐう) – loud snoring

Wai wai (ワイワイ) – children playing or people talking loudly

Kushu (クシュ) – sneezing

Kohon kohon (コホンコホン) – coughing lightly

Gyaa gyaa (ギャアギャア) – crying loudly

Gami gami (ガミガミ) – being nagged or lectured by someone

Niko niko (ニコニコ) – smiling at something funny

Pura pura (プラプラ) – to be able to speak a foreign language fluently

Kusu kusu (クスクス) – laughing quietly

Ohon (おほん) – clearning your throat when you want to get attention

Pecha pecha (ペチャペチャ) – chatting about random things

Zuru zuru (ズルズル) – slurping loudly

Kya (キャー) – Screaming

Gabu gabu (ガブガブ) – guzzling down a drink

Giongo: Sounds Made by Non-Living Things

Field of grain against a blue sky

The next category is giongo (擬音語). This type of onomatopoeia are sounds that’s made by non-living things. This includes noises by vehicles like cars, as well as natural sounds like thunder and wind. These are a few common ones in this category:

Para para (パラパラ) – light rain, or flipping pages of a book

Za za (ザーザー) – heavy rain

Gobo gobo (ゴボゴボ) – gushing water

Sawa sawa (サワサワ) – rustling

Pyu pyu (ピューピュー) – strong winds

Gashan (ガシャン) – crashing

Gatan gaton (ガタンガトン) – train clacking

Goro goro (ゴロゴロ) – thunder, or large objects rolling

Kon kon (こんこん) – knocking

Rin rin (リンリン) – ringing, like a bell

Kopo kopo (コポコポ) – water bubbling

Saku saku (サクサク) – stepping on sand or dirt

Tata tata (タタタタ) – running fast

Gitaigo: Sounds Describing Conditions

a child with sweat on their forehead

Gitaigo (擬態語) is a category of Japanese onomatopoeia that are sounds which describes a state. It can be a condition of something, like if your body is warm or if you feel sticky. Here are some examples that are common from this category:

Kara kara (カラカラ) – sweating

Fuwa fuwa (フワフワ) – fluffy

Kira Kira (キラキラ) – sparkling

Pika pika (ピカピカ) – shining

Guru guru (グルグル) – dizzy

Peto peto (ペトペト) – feeling sticky because of swear

Hoka hoka (ホカホカ) – steamy or warm food

Bisshori (びっしょり) / bisho bisho (びしょびしょ) – soaking

Mushi mushi (むしむし) – humid

Piri piri (ピリピリ) – spicy

Shinwari (シンワリ) – slowly soaking with tears or sweat

Gira gira (ギラギラ) – glint in eyes

Giyougo: Sounds Describing Movements and Motions

A man walking passed windows with his head down.

The next category is giyougo (擬容語). This type of onomatopoeia are sounds that describe any movement or motion. It’s basically like verbs. It can be walking from place to place or falling asleep. Here are some common examples from this category:

Uro uro (ウロウロ) – wandering aimlessly

Koro koro (コロコロ) – something rolling

Guru guru (グルグル) – spinning around

Noro noro (ノロノロ) – slow and sluggish movement or pace

Suta suta (スタスタ) – brisk walking

Gussuri (ぐっすり) – asleep completely

Gu Tara (グータラ) – no willpower

Yukkuri (ゆっくり) – slowly

Gachi gachi (ガチガチ) – chattering teeth

Shiba shiba (シバシバ) – rapidly blinking

Gaba- (ガバッ) – waking up with a start

Kaba kaba (カバカバ) – chowing down food fast

Kyoro Kyoro (キョロキョロ) – restlessly looking around

Buru buru (ブルブル) – trembling

Gijougo: Sounds Describing Feelings

An older man looking shocked

The last category is gijougo (擬情語), which are sounds that describe feelings and emotions. They’re used quite often in manga and anime. This includes emotions like feeling a shiver down your spine or being excited. Here are some common examples:

Doki doki (ドキドキ) – nervous, heart racing

Uki Uki (ウキウキ) – cheerful

Ira Ira (イライラ) – to be irritated

Bikkuri (びっくり) – surprised

Waku waku (ワクワク) – excited or happy

Boro boro (ぼろぼろ) – to be mentally drained

Noro noro (ノロノロ) – to feel lazy

Zotto (ゾッと) – a chill down the spine

Muku muku (むくむく) – thinking of an idea or when inspiration hits

Yakimoki (ヤキモキ) – extremely worried

Run run (ルンルン) – happily humming

Musu- (むすっ) – pouting

Zuki zuki (ズキズキ) – throbbing pain

Moya moya (モヤモヤ) – wondering what to do

These Japanese words that are just sounds are used on a daily basis. It’s a win-win: it’s easy to remember and you can up your nihongo game! Express your inner colours with some of these Japanese onomatopoeia!