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

7 thoughts on “Tonal Contours in Japanese

  1. Thanks for this splendid post! Japanese accent is so important that there are dictionaries devoted exclusively to this topic: NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典 and 新明解日本語アクセント辞典.

    By the same way, some monolingual dictionaries indicates accent for each entry, namely, Sanseido’s 大辞林 and 新明解国語辞典.

  2. Good recourses to know. Thank you very much. I sometimes look up a word in Akinaga’s dictionary 新明解日本語アクセント辞典 when I feel that two different pronunciations sound “natural.” It often turns out that both are being used, such as /mika’ta/ and /mikata’/ for 見方 or that they are an older and new pronunciations, such as /jite’nsha /and /jitensha/ for 自転車. -Noriko

  3. Thanks for your fantastic articles.
    Is it common in Japanese dictionaries to add the stress-mark *after* the stressed syllable? All IPA-based transcriptions put it *before* the syllable, such as:
    /’kitchen/ or /Ja’pan/.

    • Thank you very much for your comment. On this blog I use an apostrophe to show the location of a word accent. In English, as you point out, the marker signals that the next syllable is to be stressed. In Japanese, the marker signals that the next mora has a lower tone. In other words, if you see the accent marker in English you know to stress the next syllable whereas if you see the accent marker in Japanese you know to lower the tone of the next mora. Both show the place where something changes. (Sorry, I only know about English.)
      I know that using an apostrophe is not ideal in Japanese. I usually use a downward arrow to indicate the location of a word accent (as you will be able to see in any of the lesson vocabulary lists in the upcoming kanji tutorial course). I fear that some browsers do not show a downward arrow correctly, so I use an apostrophe. -Noriko

  4. Hello… I suppose that Williams先生 must be occupied, therefore, I would like to reply to the previous comment made by Vincent Parbelle.

    As far as I know, there are only two accent dictionaries, i.e, NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典 and 新明解日本語アクセント辞典. Both of them display the accent in a “special way” that we are not accustomed. The following link shows a picture from NHK’s dictionary

    With respect to the “General Japanese Dictionaries” that display accent location, they use a set of numbers AFTER the word. For example, the word “God” is displayed as – かみ [1] 【神】. That means that the stress goes with the first “syllable”. In the same vein, the word paper is showed as – かみ [2] 【紙】-. Here is the detailed information from 大辞林 accent system

    PS. The IPA symbols are of limited use while studying Japanese.

  5. Hello. I would like to recommend an Accent Dictionary developed at The University of Tokyo. It is called OJAD (Online Japanese Accent Dictionary).

    That resource is especially useful for those who cannot acquire a copy of NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典 or 新明解日本語アクセント辞典. The paid accent dictionaries have more entries (~65.000) but they do not provide the accent for inflected verbs. That is one of the outstanding features of the Online Japanese Accent Dictionary.

    For a more efficient use of the dictionary, It is recommended to use a software called GoldenDict (GD).
    Version for Windows>
    Version for MAC created by PurlingNayuki@GitHub

    With GoldenDict it is possible to use “website dictionaries” like OJAD with great efficiency. In that way, one can use JMDict (or any other japanese dictionary) paired with OJAD to enhance one’s awareness of the pitch accent.

    I would gladly answer any question related with GoldenDict>

    • Thank you for the useful information. In OJEAD (Online Japanese Accent Dictionary), I was particularly interested in the computer-generated sentence-level tonal contours in the Prosody Tutor Suzuki-kun program. The key to pronunciation that sounds natural is matching correctly the placement of a tonal phrase boundary with the intended meaning, including focus (Williams 1989.) Because Japanese is a pitch-accent language (rather than stress-accent language), a pitch contour can technologically be created for us to see. Having visual and auditory information at the same time, this program can help a student to become keenly aware of the characteristics of Japanese pronunciation. -Noriko

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