It is a linguistic trap few learners of Japanese have avoided: declaring yourself pera pera (fluent in a language) when you’re really peko peko (hungry); or breaking into applause (pachi pachi) when the dentist asks you to kachi kachi (bite repeatedly).
Navigating the rich and varied world of Japanese onomatopoeia can result in laughter and mild embarrassment, but the words can also be a quick and effective way to get through to a friend or colleague.
As Japan’s foreign population reaches record levels, lifted by the arrival of more people to fill a gaping hole in the labour market, volunteers in the western prefecture of Mie have compiled a guide to commonly used onomatopoeic words for language learners.
The book, E Kara Oto ga Wakaru Hon (understanding sounds using pictures) was the idea of Masao Hara, the deputy head of a nonprofit in the prefecture whose interactions with non-Japanese convinced him the guide would come in useful.
It contains a host of words that can be used in everyday situations, such as a visit to the doctor, who might hear of their patient’s throbbing (zuki zuki) ankle or pounding (gan gan) headache, a piri piri (stinging) insect bite or muzu muzu (scratchy) throat.
Hara and other members of the nonprofit sifted through a Japanese dictionary to create a list of 100 words, according to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
They are divided into categories — from actions and emotions to the weather and descriptions of inanimate objects — and accompanied by an illustration and descriptions in Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese and Indonesian.
Wan Fang, a Chinese resident, said the guide had already made her job at a supermarket a little easier.
“When I was told that the floor was tsuru tsuru in Japanese, I didn’t know what it meant, but when I saw the illustration in the book, I instantly understood that tsuru tsuru means the floor is clean or slippery,” Wan told the newspaper.
The print run of 1,000 copies is expected to find a keen readership among students attending local Japanese language schools — as of January, Mie was home to 31,000 foreign residents. Nationwide, the non-Japanese population reached a record 3.2 million last year, according to the immigration services agency.
The guide only scratches the surface, however. There are said to be more than 1,000 onomatopoeia in Japanese — enough to make most language learners come over all fura fura (dizzy).
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