Tonal Contours in Japanese


1. What is an apostrophe doing in the middle of a word?

In this blog, some example words in romaji contain an apostrophe, such as /i’chi/ and /genki’n/ while other words do not, such as /shigoto/ and /shiyoochuu/. I use an apostrophe here to indicate the location of a word accent. Yes, Japanese language has an accent, an accent that is not pronounced in the same way that an English accent is pronounced: In English a single syllable gets stressed with more volume of air, longer duration, and often a raised pitch. In Japanese, you do not change the amount of air or duration, but you do have a pitch drop.

2. Two Types of Tonal Contours in Japanese

The key to good pronunciation in Japanese is to maintain the same pitch level until there is an accent where you drop a pitch, and then to maintain that new level until the next drop. Japanese has only two kinds of tones, a high tone and a low tone. Unlike other languages such as Chinese, there is no internal shift except at the end of a phrase or sentence. A tonal phrase is a phrase that begins with a low tone. A word pronounced by itself always starts with a low tone unless it has an accent. A tonal phrase that has accented words and a tonal phrase that does not have an accented word create very different tonal contour patterns.

If a tonal phrase has more than one accented word, what follows is a stepdown contour.

Example (1) [目覚まし/meza’mashi/ “alarm clock”; で /de/ an instrumental particle; 目が覚めた /me’ ga sameta/ “woke up’; 朝 /a’sa/ “morning”; and は /wa/ a topic marker]




If a tonal phrase does not have any accented word, you have to maintain high tones without raising or dropping the pitch.

Example (2)  [使用中 /shiyoochuu/ “being in use”; と a quotatative particle; 言ってる/itteru/ ‘is saying”; 学生/gakusee/ “student“]




An important thing to learning good pronunciation is to resist raising or lowering the pitch where it is not required. Pronouncing a long stretch in the same flat level is a skill that an English speaking student has to consciously learn.

3. Contrast between 位置 /i’chi/ and 一 /ichi’/

Let us take as an example the contrast between two different words that would otherwise sound the same; 位置 (“position” /i’chi/) and 一 (“one’ /ichi’/). Please listen:

You see an accent mark in 一 /ichi’/. How does it work? We have to put it in a sentence. Suppose two speakers A and B are making a poster or flyer. Something does not look right, and Speaker A asks Speaker B what she thinks:


Let’s hear this again, this time only the two sentences in contrast.

The difference in pronunciation and what it conveys is clear, isn’t it?

4. JLPT Listening Comprehension

A few days ago I was listening to the sample Listening Comprehension questions for the Japanese Language Proficiency Tests of the Japan Foundation (  It struck me how important it is to learn natural pronunciation, including the tonal and intonational contours, to be able to understand. In a test, you have to understand a constructed story in an environment where there is no information that helps your understanding such as body language, facial expression, previous knowledge, etc. Not knowing the accent would hamper your listening comprehension, not to mention your speaking.

5. Sharpen Your Awareness

So, just to sharpen your awareness even while you study kanji, I would like you to listen to the recording below and think about the words you have seen in this blog, by contrast to words that have a different word accent. You will hear the words in blue.


I will probably not put a sound file in every word I talk about, but I would like to come back to a few pronunciation topics in the future to help you to learn to speak correctly in the first place. [April 27. 2014]

PS 1  Here I am talking about only the standard Japanese. Even if you do not care whether you speak the standard Japanese, which is based on the Tokyo dialect, or another dialect, unless you are conscious of pitch (tonal) contour, you will be prone unconsciously to apply the accent and intonational rules of your native language and to end up acquiring what is called /gaijin-a’kusento./

PS 2  If you wish to see how some textbook dialogues look in the type of the tonal contour images that I used in Examples (1) and (2), you can view the dialogue scripts of all 23 lessons in the elementary-level Japanese textbook entitled Genki I & II (Japan Times.) I first created this new visual transcription of tonal contour, which I named 目で見る音調ガイド (“Guide to visual tonal contours” /me’ de miru onchoo/), for a different textbook back in 2003. The link for the Genki versions is

A Celestial Record Keeper’s Work – 史事吏使


A Hand Holding a Tally Container


This post is a story of the four kanji that came from the a tally container and a hand of a celestial record keeper: 史, 事, 吏 and 使.

(1) 史 “history; to chronicle”

History史It all started with the images of a container that had bamboo sticks inside used as tallies, and a hand. A calendar maker kept the records of celestial changes using these tallies. The kanji 史 meant “to chronicle; history.” Throughout the three ancient writing styles, oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, and even in ten style, in red, a container and a hand were recognizable as such. In kanji, something changed. I will come back to this shortly. The kanji 史 is used in words such as 歴史 (“history” /rekishi/) and 世界史 (“world history” /sekaishi/) in on-reading. There is no kun-reading.

(2) 事 “work/job; thing; matter”

History事For the kanji 事, in oracle bone style, other than a twig shape at the top, it was the same as that of (1) 史. The twig shape was a sign where government work was done. It meant “work; job; thing; matter.” In bronze ware style, the first two writings had an additional wiggly sideway line right below the twig shape. This was a streamer to point out that it was the government office too. The third bronze ware style writing was less elaborate. In ten style, a hand that was more dominant and it intersected the vertical line that went through the bottom. In kanji, the vertical line goes up at the bottom. The kanji 事 is used in 仕事 (“work; job” /shigoto/) in kun-reading, 用事 (“errand” /yooji/) and 事件 (“incidence” /ji’ken/) in on-reading.

(3) 吏 “government worker”

History吏The kanji 吏 means “government worker.” We see that the oracle bone style writing and the bronze ware style writing were essentially identical with those of 事 in (2) — “Government work” and “a person who works” used the same writing. In ten style, however, 吏 and 事 became different in that the vertical line did not go through in 吏. Further, in kanji the vertical line became a long bent stroke, which left only a single slanted stroke. The kanji 吏 is in 官吏 (“public servant” /ka’nri/). There is no kun-reading.

吏&事DifferenceDuring the last few weeks, while I was preparing for the new kanji tutorial site videos, I was wondering how 史, 吏 and 使, our next kanji, had ended up with a bent stroke, whereas 事 had stayed with as a straight line. Here is my conjecture (the images on the left). When the vertical line in the container got connected to one of the strokes in hand, it produced the shape in 史, 吏 and 使. On the other hand, in 事 “work; job; matter” because a hand was an important aspect of doing actual work, it was made more recognizable. The vertical line in the container got extended through the hand and thus we got 事. Does it make sense to you?

(4)  使 “to use; to make someone do; send a person as a proxy”

History使In the kanji 使, a bushu ninben was added to 吏 “government worker.” A bushu ninben always added the sense of “an act that a person does.” From “to make someone do the work,” 使 meant “to use” or “to send someone as a proxy.” It is used in words such as 使う (“use” /tsukau/) in kun-reading, 使用中 (“in use; occupied” /shiyoochuu/) and 大使 (“ambassador” /ta’ishi/) in on-reading.

So, even though it started with a celestial record keeper, we do not seem to have received a visit from a space alien like we did in the posting last week. The writings were for mundane every day work and nothing fanciful. In the next post, if I can, I would like to take a break from a kanji story and touch on the topic of Japanese tonal patterns, which is very important for us to be able to speak correctly. [April 20, 2014]

Eyes Wide Open (5) 見, 現, 親, 視, 規 and 覚


Big-eyed Space Aliens Looking at Something Closely


It is almost true, isn’t it? As you have undoubtedly guessed, these are the ancient writings for 見. The left one in brown was in oracle bone style and the right one in green was in bronze ware style.

(1) 見 “to see”

History見Another sample of oracle bone style writing, in brown, is facing left.  In ten style, in red, the eye became a vertical shape and the body below the eye became the shape that we see in many kanji such as 元, 院, 光, 先, 売 and 説. This common shape at the bottom of these kanji is a bushu ninnyoo or hitoashi, and it is often interpreted as a person in motion because it looks like two legs in kanji. But judging from the ancient writings, the shapes were originally a hand and a leg. The kanji 見 means to “see.” The on-reading /ke’n/ is in words such as 発見 (“discovery” /hakken/) and 意見 (“opinion” /i’ken/) and the kun-reading is in 見方 (“how one looks at” /mika’ta; mikata’/).

(2) 現 “to appear” (no ancient writing available)

The left side came from jewels strung together, as in the kanji 玉. Grinding a precious stone reveals a shine that was not visible before. What we see is what is present. The kanji 現 means “to appear” or “present.” The kun-reading is 現れる (“to become visible; appear” /araware’ru/). Its on-reading is used in words such as 現金 (“cash” /genki’n/), 現在 (“presently; now” /ge’nzai/) and 実現する (“to become realized” /jitsugen-suru/).

(3) 親 “parent; intimate”

History親In bronze ware style, in green, the left side was a tattooing needle with an ink reservoir. In ten style, in red, a tree was added. It was used phonetically for /shin/ and also to mean the closeness of a knife (or needle). Together with 見, they meant someone who looked at you closely, and thus “parent” and “intimate; close.” A kun-reading 親しい (/shitashi’i/) means close and another kun-reading is 親 (“parent” /oya’/). The on-reading is in 両親 (“parents” /ryo’oshin) and 親切な (“kind” /shi’nsetsu-na/).

(4) 視 “to see”

History視In oracle bone style, in brown, an altar table and an eye meant looking at an altar table. In ten style, in red, the two elements were placed side by side. The left side 示 by itself is the kanji 示 (“to indicate; show”) from “a place where a god demonstrates his will.” In the current kanji 視, 示 was replaced by the shape ネ, which is a bushu shimesuhen “religious matter.” In the kanji 視, however, the religious meaning was lost and the kanji just means “to see.” The kun-reading is /mi’ru/ “to see” but is rarely used. The on-reading is found in 視力 “eyesight” /shiryoku/) and 無視する (“to ignore” /mu’shi-suru/).

(5) 規 “standard”

History規The left side was a ruler or a compass to draw a line or circle, and was used to mean “standard.” The kanji 規 does not have a kun-reading. The on-reading is in 規定 (“regulation” /kitee/) and 規則 (“rule” /ki’soku/).

(6) 覚 “to be aware; memorize” and 学 “to learn”

History学In discussing the kanji 覚, it will be helpful to look at the kanji 学 first because it has a longer history. In oracle bone style, (1), with two hands and an “x” shape, it meant a place where people mingled and helped each other. In bronze ware style, (2), a child was added. A place where children mingled while protected by the caring hands of adults is a place where the children learn — the writing meant “to learn.” The kyujitai 學, (4), was replaced by a much abbreviated form 学, (5).

History覚When the shape for child is replaced with the shape 見 for the act of seeing closely, one looks closely and becomes aware of a matter. The combined shape meant “to be aware.” The kyujitai 覺 was replaced by an abbreviated form 覚. One kun-reading is in 目が覚める (“to become awake” /me’ ga sameru/) and 目覚まし時計 (“alarm clock” /mezamashido’kee/). Another kun-reading is 覚える (“to memorize” /oboe’ru/). The on-reading is in 自覚する (“to be conscious of” /jikaku-suru/).

Well, in the last five posts (including this one) we have seen quite a few shapes that originated from a human eye. We shall revisit other eye shapes later, but for now we leave this topic. Thank you very much for reading these articles. I hope that you have had some surprises that you enjoyed and some affirmations of what you already knew. In the next post, I would like to look into four kanji that essentially came from one origin but now have different meanings: 史, 吏, 使 and 事.  [April 12, 2041]

Eyes Wide Open (4) 限, 眼, 根, 恨, 痕, 銀 and 退


In continuing our search of kanji that contain “eye,” this post is about the component 艮, which is described in dictionaries to mean “to halt,” “to go against” or “immobile.” The top of 艮 has only one line inside, instead of the two that you would expect as an “eye.” So, it is a little puzzling. Fortunately the ancient writing gives us a good clue about what it meant.

(1) 限 “to limit; restrict”

History of The Kanji  限For the kanji 限, let us look at the right side, 艮, first. In the bronze ware style writing, (1), we can unmistakably see an eye. The shape underneath the eye was a mirror image of the ancient writing for ninben or hito, 人. The ancient writing for a ninben or hito usually faced left, instead of right, signifying “backward.” So, one interpretation for the right side 艮 is that an eye and a person facing backward. An alternative interpretation that has been suggested is that a fearsome evil eye petrified a person with such fear that he became immobile or stepped back. In ten style, (2), an eye became a part of a person. In kanji, (3), two shapes became a continuous shape, with an emphasis on feet that retreat.

The left side of 限 is a bush kozato-hen, which meant a ladder on which a god descended, or a tall mound of soil that formed an earthen wall or boundary. Together the kanji 限 meant “a limit; restrict.” The kun-reading is /kagi’ru/ and it means “to limit”; and the on-reading /ge’n/ is in 制限 (“restrictions” /seege’n/) and 限定 (“limitation” /gentee/).

(2) 眼 “eye”

History of 眼While the left side 目 gave the meaning of “eye”, the right side was used for the sound /gan/ “round.” A round part of an eye is an eyeball. The kanji 眼 meant “eye; eyeball.” As we have seen in (1) 限 above, the right side 艮 contained an element of an eye or seeing but in this kanji its role was primarily phonetic. This is a semantic-phonetic composite writing, “keisei-moji (形声文字),” where one part of the kanji represented meaning and another its pronunciation. We see a good example of the fact that even if a particular component of a kanji was primarily intended to represent how it sounded, the shape was also often chosen for its original meaning as well. The kun-reading of the kanji 眼, /ma’nako/, is used as a more poetic expression than just saying /me‘/. 眼 is also used in 眼鏡 (”eye glasses” /me’gane/.) The on-reading /gan/ is in 近眼 (“near-sightedness; myopia” /kingan/).

(3) 根 “root”

Historyof根The kanji 根 had a bush kihen ‘tree.” The right side 艮 was used for the sound /kon/ but it also came with the original meaning of “immobile” or “to stay in one place.” What does not change or move with respect to a tree, regardless of the season?  The answer is Its root. So, the kanji 根 meant “root; fundamental.” By itself is the kun-reading /ne’/ and means “root.” The On-reading /ko’n/ is used in words such as 根本的な(“fundameantal” /konponteki-na.)

(4) 恨 “to resent”

History of 恨What would the combination of the shape of “a heart” (a bushu risshinben, a vertical shape of a heart, on the left side) and the shape 艮 “to stay in one place” mean? One reason why one cannot move on is because something lingers in his heart and that is “resentment” or a “grudge.” The kun-reading word 恨む (/ura’mu/) means “to resent; to have a grudge.” The on-reading /kon/ is in 悔恨 “regrettable; sorrowful.“

(5) 痕 “mark; scar”

History-of-痕In bronze ware style, (1) and (2), the left side was a bed placed vertically which became a bushu yamaidare “fatigue; ill.” A bushu yamaidade “ill” and 艮 “something that remains” together meant “a scar” or “mark.” The kun-reading 痕 /a’to/  means “scar.” The on-reading /ko’n/ is used in 血痕 (“bloodstain” /kekkon/) and 痕跡 (“trace; sign (from the past)” /konseki/).

 (6) 銀 “silver”

History of 銀In 銀, the left side a bush kanehen came from gold nuggets hidden underground. The right side was used phonetically. Together they meant “silver.” A bank, /ginkoo/, is written as 銀行, literally meaning a place to conduct business (行) in silver (銀). The name /ginza/ 銀座 was the silver foundry where the bakufu controlled the production of silver currency during the Edo period. The name Ginza was used for a lively commercial district, the most famous of which is the Ginza district in Tokyo in modern-day Tokyo.

(7) 退 “to retreat”

History of 退The last one in this post 退 had a different story. In ten style, the top of 艮 was not an eye but the sun. Below that was a foot that was facing downward or backward. With the left half of a crossroad彳, altogether they meant to go backward or to retreat. In kanji, on the right side a bushu shinnyoo, “to move on (in a forward direction),” was adopted.* It is hard for us to grasp the meaning of “to retreat” visually from the kanji shape 退. Another example where kanji shape is hiding its true meaning, and that looking into its ancient precursors is helpful to understand what the kanji really means.

Our readers may be tired of “eye” by now.  To be honest, so am I.  But there is one more important shape that we have not looked at, that is 見. I hope to discuss the kanji 見, 現, 親, 視, 規, 観 and 覚.

*Notes: The shapes for a forward footstep (止) and a backward footstep (as in the bottom of 夏) play an important role in kanji and we will certainly visit them later. In the meantime, for a discussion of a bushu shinnyoo, please refer to an earlier post entitled, The History of Kanji Radical Shinnyoo posted on December 28, 2013.   Thank you.  [April 7, 2014]