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The Fascinating World of Japanese Onomatopoeia

Ehab Ahmed Ebeid [Profile]


A well-cleaned floor shines pika pika, while a light, fluffy futon is fuwa fuwa. Japanese onomatopoeia is one of the language’s most intriguing features, with many linguistic discoveries to be made.

Sounds and States

“Stop lazing about [goro goro] and look after the kids!” “Don’t chat idly [dara dara] on the phone!” “Don’t just hang around [uro uro] doing nothing!” Each time I hear my wife talk like this, I get nervous (biku biku). Japanese onomatopoeia is richly expressive for describing the nuances of many different situations.

It includes giongo, which are words used to represent sounds, such as animal noises. Gitaigo, on the other hand, are used to represent particular states, and the Japanese language is notable for its abundance of such words. For fluent Japanese speakers, it is perfectly natural to use them regularly. While all of the world’s languages feature onomatopoeia, they vary greatly in the sounds they use.

Examples of Japanese Onomatopoeia

Ira ira

Derives from the word ira, meaning “thorn.” Used to indicate a displeased or irritable feeling.

Shiken benkyō ga omou yō ni susumazu ira ira suru.
I’m annoyed because my exam study isn’t going as well as I thought it would.

Pika pika

Shiny, glittering.

Kutsu o pika pika ni migaite kaisha ni iku.
I polish my shoes until they’re gleaming before going to work.

Waku waku

Derives from the verb waku to describe water “gushing” out of the ground. Indicates excitement due to anticipation or happiness.

Kanojo ga ryūgaku o oe, kaette kuru. Waku waku shinagara kūkō ni mukae ni itta.
My girlfriend was on her way back from studying abroad. I was excited as I went to meet her at the airport.

Fuwa fuwa

Light and fluffy. Also used to describe this kind of object floating through the air.

Aozora ni shiroi kumo ga fuwa fuwa uiteiru.
White, fluffy clouds are floating in the blue sky.

Mochi mochi

The soft, sticky texture of some foods; soft and supple (of skin).

Akachan no mochi mochi shita hada ga urayamashii.
I’m jealous of babies’ soft and supple skin.

Niko niko

Smiling cheerfully.

Nani ka ii koto ga atta no ka, kyō no jōshi wa shūshi niko niko gao da.
Something nice must have happened to my boss; she’s been beaming all day.

Peko peko

To be hungry; to be servile. Said to be an adapted form of the verb hekomu, “to become hollow.”

Onaka ga peko peko de shūchū dekinai.
I’m starving, so I can’t concentrate.

Shachō ni peko peko suru.
To suck up to the company president.

Doki doki

The rapid heartbeat caused by happiness, unease, fear, or surprise.

Shiken kekka happyō no hi, fuan de shinzō ga doki doki shita.
The day the exam results were published, my heart was beating so hard from nerves.

Pera pera

To speak fluently, particularly a foreign language.

Kare wa eigo ga pera pera da.
He is fluent in English.

  • [2017.12.15]

Born in Giza, Egypt, in 1970. Instructor at the Arabic Islamic Institute in Tokyo, the Japanese branch of Saudi Arabia’s Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University. Graduated in 1991 from Cairo University, where he studied Japanese language and literature. Following graduation he worked as an instructor at Cairo University. Was a foreign language instructor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies World Language and Society Education Center from 2011 to 2015. Published works include Pasupōto Nihongo Arabiago (Passport to Japanese and Arabic) and Daigaku no Arabiago hyōgen jissen (Practicing University-level Arabic).

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