Japanese Onomatopoeia

I teach several baby classes each week at school so we focus on really basic things like animals, trains, cars, shapes, colors, etc. Some of these babies can’t remember the Japanese or English word for an item but they can remember the sound. I learned this from a 1 and a half year old boy named Keiki. Keiki loves trains. I didn’t realize just how much he loved trains until we had the opportunity to make a train out of basic shapes. He got really excited and started saying, “kan kan! kan kan!” It took me a minute to realize what he was doing. He was making the sound of the gate that goes down preventing cars and pedestrians from crossing train tracks! That’s the sound he associates with a train! I was so surprised! As a child, I would always say”chuga chuga choo-choo!” which stemmed from The Little Engine that Could. The longer I have taught children, the more I have picked up on some of these different onomatopoeia’s.


photo credit: japanese.about.com

So for startes: what’s onomatopoeia? Besides being a really hard word to type and spell, (I’ve taken to just copying and pasting it…) onomatopoeia is the sound associated with a word or item. For example: a pig says, “oink-oink.” Wikipedia says onomatopoeia is the, “imitation of a sound.”

I just assumed that animals and objects make the same sound all over the world; I mean, pigs don’t speak Japanese, right? Or do they….? Well it turns out that Japanese people imitate the noise differently. Pigs don’t say “oink-oink,” they say “buu buu” in Japan (long drawn out u sound). So do these pigs just have Japanese accents? Well, I doubt that. Instead I think it has to do with common sounds in the Japanese language, but that’s just a guess. I didn’t find anything to really document why the sounds are different.

Here’s a list of some common differences I’ve found. Have fun trying to sound out the Japanese versions!

Animal or Item

English (American) Sound

Japanese Sound


none that I can think of

ching-ching – like the sound of a bike bell


chuga chuga choo-choo

kan kan (crossing gate)



nyaa nyaa


neigh neigh



oink oink

buu buu


bark or Woof

wan wan

door bell

ding dong

kin kon




flying insects


tsuu  (pronounced similar to shuuu)


vroom vroom


something sparkling




One thought on “Japanese Onomatopoeia

  1. Pingback: Cat Cafe, Kobe, Japan | The Journey of My Feet

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