Japanese Onomatopoeias: Words That Sound As Good As They Taste

  • 4 min read
Onomatopoeias and Food


From expressing one’s mood to describing the way something sounds, there exists a seemingly never-ending list of onomatopoeias (words that phonetically resemble the word that it describes) in the Japanese language. They act as adjectives, verbs, and adverbs, filling a void we have in English in an almost intuitive and natural way.

No matter how many there might be, these onomatopoeic words can be broken down into five categories:gieseigo are words for sounds that animals and humans make;giongo are words for actual sounds made by inanimate objects or that occur in nature;gitaigo are words that describe conditions or states;giyougo are words that describe movement and motion; andgijougo are words that describe feelings.

Of these,giseigoandgiongoare similar to the onomatopoeias we have in English, describing the way a dog barks or a car sounds. However, the latter three are unique to Japanese. These three are known as mimetic words, or ideophones. Rather than representing an actual sound, they are used to describe abstract things like feelings, or the way something moves.


Onomatopoeias and Food

When considering the application of these words, one of the best and more recognizable settings would be how they describe food. They can be used to describe the texture, the way one eats or drinks, and even something’s temperature. Japanese food onomatopoeias are so prevalent they’re even in the name of the famous dishshabu-shabu,which is thought to be the sound of the thin strips of meat as you swish them back and forth in the broth.

Here are a handful of some useful Japanese onomatopoeias to better express your love for food:


Onomatopoeias and Food


Also used to describe a feeling of being pleased with oneself,hoku-hoku is the hot and flaky texture of a freshly baked potato or pie as it crumbles in your mouth. It’s that warm burst of steam as it escapes the tender crust and fills you with joy.


Onomatopoeias and Food


Probably one of the most commonly heard food onomatopoeias,fuwa-fuwa describes the soft, fluffy texture of a stack of pancakes, or a loaf of fresh white bread. It’s the springy buoyancy and bounce of a marshmallow between your fingers, squishing down only to puff back up.


Onomatopoeias and Food


As the word itself might suggest,mochi-mochi is used to describe that dense chewy feeling of amochi rice cake, but the use doesn’t stop there. Foods likeudonand even denser, doughier breads are alsomochi-mochi as long as they have that same bite to them.


Onomatopoeias and Food


A word that might turn some people off,neba-nebais an onomatopoeia used to describe the slimy texture of foods likenattō, okra, and raw eggs. It is meant to evoke the feeling of something sticky, stringy, and goopy. In other words, if it’s gooey and viscous, it’s probablyneba-neba.


Onomatopoeias and Food


Think of that sound you hear when you bite into the crispy crust of a freshly fried piece of chicken. That’skari-kari. Being multi-purpose, it describes both the sound and the texture of any crisp, crunchy food, from fried treats to the snap of a fresh cucumber.


Onomatopoeias and Food


Have you ever felt the satisfying snap of biting into a fresh shrimp or plump hotdog? If so, then you’ve experienced the springy resistance and snap ofpuri-puri.


Onomatopoeias and Food


Not all food onomatopoeias describe desirable textures. Takepasa-pasa, for example. It’s a word you might use to talk about a dry, shriveled up orange or stale piece of bread. When all the moisture, life, and flavor has drained out of something, what you’re left with ispasa-pasa.


Onomatopoeias and Food

Tsuru-tsuru, zuru-zuru, churu-churu

If you enjoy ramen, sōmen,soba, orudon, these are a few words for you. As previously mentioned, one of the categories of onomatopoeias describe actions or movement. In this case,zuru-zuruandchuru-churuare used to express the action of slurping up some noodles. To do that, you’ll want your noodlestsuru-tsuru, nice and slippery.

As a Japanese learner, I find Japanese onomatopoeias to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the language. The more I learn, the more I feel how intuitive and natural these words feel in the way the sounds themselves so effectively evoke the feelings they’re meant to describe.

If your interest was piqued by this small list, I encourage you to search out more Japanese onomatopoeias that speak to you in some way. For further reading on the subject you might head over to this incredible article by Tofugu:Japanese Onomatopoeias: The Definitive Guide.



Onomatopoeias and Food

About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!

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