Japanese Accent
February 7, 2009 1:42 AM   Subscribe

Help me do a convincing Japanese accent.

So I have an audition next week for a mini-series--and the character is Japanese, but speaks english, with an accent. Does anyone have some insight into the Japanese accent? What tends to get stressed, what they do with their vowels.. I'm looking at youtube videos, but any help would be appreciated!
posted by stray to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What a cool question. The answer can be simple or difficult depending on your desire for authenticity.

First of all, you'll have to know that the Japanese language is composed of a very limited number of phonemes. Because of this, when they encounter words in a foreign language (such as English) they are forced to break it down into sounds that exist in their language, even if it totally butchers the original pronunciation in the process. So we see this happen to words:

Desk -> デスク (De-Su-Ku)
Air Con(ditioner) -> エアコン (E-A-Ko-N)
English - イギリス (I-Gi-Ri-Su)

The next thing you'll need to do is familiarize what these phonemes are and how to pronounce them. The article on the phonetic writing systems (Katakana/Hiragana) on Wikipedia should be able to break that down for you. Katakana being the writing system for onomatopoeia, bad words, loan words from other languages, etc. and Hiragana being the system for native Japanese words, loanwords from Chinese, and grammatical aspects. The most important part of all of this is that there are only five vowel sounds. While English has only 5.5 vowels, we have far more vowel sounds. Japanese has

'A' as in 'spA'
'I' as in 'sIege' or the way we say the letter 'E' in English
'U' as in 'flUte'
'E' as in 'grEy' or the way we say the letter 'A' in English
'O' as in 'flOw'

Sometimes shorter instances of these vowels can be heard, such as the last 'in' in "amerikajin" that sounds like the Engling word "in" rather than the 'I' in "siege." Using the longer instance of these vowels might not sound natural, but mistakenly using a shorter instance can make it very difficult to understand you, so just err on the side of only using those five vowel sounds.

A couple of other last notes before I give you some sample sentences to try: the last consonant of a word will typically be elided (speaker -> supiikaa, dont -> don). The 'su' syllable generally sounds more like an 's' by itself. The 'ra/ri/ru/re/ro' sounds more like a soft 'd' than it does an 'r' or 'l'.

Here are some samples:

I don't speak English
アイ ドン スピーク イギリス
ai don supiiku igirisu

Thank you very much
センキュー ベリ マチ
senkyuu beri machi

Is this a blue pen?
イズ ジス エ ブルー ペン?
izu zisu e buruu pen?

How are you?
ハウ アー ユー?
hau aa yuu?

As convoluted and awful as this approximation sounds, you might like to know that foreign words (外来語) from English compose a fairly high percentage of Japanese daily vocabulary. And it is much to the first-time overseas Japanese traveler's chagrin to learn that these approximations are so far off the mark that they are rarely decipherable by native English speakers. Even funnier when they use a word they know is not Japanese assuming it is English, but the origin is actually borrowed from a different language: (bin - bottle, arubaito - part time job, pan - bread).
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 2:32 AM on February 7, 2009 [6 favorites]

There is another thing to add to the excellent explanation already posted, and that is the question of stress (or general lack of it in Japanese, compared to English).

There is sort of a 'rule' in English that every word of more than one syllable has to have one of those syllables stressed, and in every sentence, at least one word has to have more stress.

This pretty much doesn't happen in Japanese. So when we (meaning English speakers) are speaking Japanese in the early stages, we always end up stressing things that shouldn't be stressed, and as a result, the listeners sometimes get the 'signal' that we are speaking English, even though we may be mouthing Japanese words.

So ... the other way around, Japanese natives who are speaking English, very often miss these stresses, both those in words, and those in sentences. If you put yourself in 'robot' mode - speaking in a monotone, with equal distance between syllables and words - you'll sound more 'authentic' (if that is the right word!)
posted by woodblock100 at 3:11 AM on February 7, 2009

Best answer: Yeah, so, I realized that that post was so long that I didn't even want to read it (and I wrote it). So here's a better answer in tl;dr slyt format.

I really wasn't perfect with my butchering, you'll notice a few English readings slip out here and there. Also something worth noting since I forgot it in the previous post and it strikes me as pretty egregious when I watch my own video: they don't have a 'tu' sound. It goes ta/chi/tsu/te/to. So that's why you see a mysterious 's' sneak into a simple word like "to."
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 3:41 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Watch Heroes. Hiro is an american-japanese actor who has had to fake a japanese accent for most of the series. His companian is a korean-american actor in a similar position. If you are older then I notice a lot of older guys with pondus do a sort of growling thing that to me is typically english-speaking-japanese. If you are watching Heroes anyhow, check out Hiro's daddy, he does it.
posted by Iteki at 4:17 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

In addition to Hiro in "Heroes", a good movie to watch is "Lost in Translation", in which actual Japanese people speak hardly understandable English, which will give you excellent pointers because it is much more over the top than what you'll be doing in your audition (I'm assuming they want you to be understood).
posted by neblina_matinal at 5:01 AM on February 7, 2009

The answer to this really depends. Is the character:
1) A Japanese person who speaks English very poorly, picking out their sentences word by word?
2) A Japanese person who speaks English basically fluently, but with a recognizable accent?

If (1), then Goose on the Loose's guide is pretty good -- I'd disagree with a few minor points, but obviously it's impossible to cover the entire mapping of English to Japanese phonology in a single comment.

If (2), I would recommend just watching a bunch of interviews with Japanese folks who can speak conversational English, but with an accent, and copying them. For example, Watanabe Ken, Ichiro, Sanada Hiroyuki, Mishima Yukio...
posted by No-sword at 5:16 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh! And here is a good example of Matsumoto Jun basically enacting GotL's rules for you. I think contrasting this to my links above will make the difference between "accented but comfortable" and "carefully, word-by-word" pretty clear too.
posted by No-sword at 5:25 AM on February 7, 2009

I'd mostly echo a lot of the first reply above: learn the basic phonemes which is easy (there are free podcasts for basic intro level Japanese like that), then guess how to re-interpret English using only those phonemes. Watch Japanese actors after you learn the phonemes, so you can understand the sounds you're hearing better. Also learn some Japanese words that are English loan words to see how they changed (business = bijinesu)

A few pointers of main sounds in English that don't exist in Japanese:
1. Obviously the R/L thing: pronounce both the same, somewhere in between the two, but more toward "L".
2. "TH" sounds don't exist, so hard th's become s (think becomes sink), and soft th's become z's (the becomes ze).
3. They don't have F sounds, and to mimick them, they use the "hu" phoneme (pronounced like "who") because it's the closest they come to an F sound (and a similar voiced variant of "bu" to make V sounds), so a lot of Japanese have a hard time putting their upper teeth to their lower lip to make F or V sounds.
4. The Japanese phonemes are either a vowel, or a consonant followed by a vowel; the only consonant sound not followed by a vowel sound is "n". So words ending in any other consonant, they usually throw an extra vowel sound out of habit, usually a "u", except for "t" or "d" which are followed by "o" (help becomes helupu, eat becomes eato).
posted by p3t3 at 6:34 AM on February 7, 2009

Going by your profile, I see you are female. Japanese men and women have markedly different ways of speaking. While the men speak with gutteral, clipped voices with a great deal of grunting, (most) Japanese women speak in a very soft, almost slushy voice-- almost sing song. So for example if saying "Hai" (yes) in response to a question, a man would bark yes from the belly but a woman's yes would come from her head and be more breathy. When I speak Japanese, my speaking voice is slightly higher, more delicate, more girlish than when using my normal English-speaking voice. Make sure you listen to female speakers rather than males.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:34 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Listen to No-sword! My mother falls into category 2), completely fluent with only a slight accent, and would find it laughable if someone tried to emulate her accent as 1).

Also - it might help you to learn some of the basic differences between Japanese and English language. Japanese language doesn't involve as many references to "I" or "my" as English does. Articles such as "the" or "a/an" aren't used as they are in English. And, most nouns don't have a plural form, no equivalent to the adding of an "s" at the end.

Sometimes you can hear these differences in language carry over in direct translation, even in Japanese speakers who have a pretty good grasp of conversational English. Usually not consistently, just scattered throughout. For example, from the Watanabe Ken interview No-sword linked to, the brackets indicate the word left out: "As an actor and filmmaker, [I] wanted to convey the same feeling..."
posted by illenion at 8:36 AM on February 7, 2009

Tons of good advice here. illenion brings up a good point about the dropped words, often dropping the subject if it can be inferred, but that stuff will probably be in the script. Japanese don't say "um..." or "er...", they say "ano..." (I'm sure that's in some of the interviews above.)

If you want some long sustained "Japanese people speaking English" then there is no substitute for watching Sukiyaki Western Django. It has a full Japanese cast (minus the Quentin Tarantino cameo) speaking English for the whole movie. Different actors have different grasp on the language, a couple are fluent and only have a light accent, a couple will make you cringe as they try a swaggering cowboy accent, but most are somewhere in between. Pick the one that has the amount of accent you want and go back and forth repeating their lines.

There is a lot of body language that Japanese have that's different than the West. It wasn't part of your question but here's some stuff that occurs to me (though some or all of this may not be appropriate to the character, whatever it is): Have good posture, sit up straight enough not to need the back of a chair. Take smaller steps. Be an attentive listener, and give a short nod when someone says something of note. Women tend to give more bouncy nods than men, young women can get a bit bobble headed. Women often keep their hands in the laps, or clasped in front of them when standing. If pointing at yourself, point to the middle of your face, not your chest. If beckoning someone over, do it with a closed hand, palm down. Point at someone else with an open hand, not a finger. Don't touch your nose. Gestures are generally smaller and closer to the body.

Good luck!
posted by Ookseer at 10:27 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Gracious, you guys are amazing!! Thanks!
posted by stray at 10:49 AM on February 7, 2009

Also, when listening to other people talking, Japanese people tend to give a lot more "I'm listening" audio cues. Men tend to make a gutteral 'Nnn' sound, and women a quiet 'Hai' or 'So' every couple of seconds - basically a little "Message recieved!" sound for every clause. Usually more obvious when listening to a superior. Often accompanied by Ookseer's 'bobble-heading.'
posted by Cantdosleepy at 1:45 AM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: Well, just back from the audition! I ended up focusing on using the Japanese vowel sounds as much as possible in all my words, and turning most of my Ls into gentle R sounds--the results might not have been entirely authentic, but was clear and understandable while sounding somewhat Japanese.

I doubt I'll get the part--they're casting for a medieval samurai woman (based on the historic Tomoe Gozan) so actually being Japanese is probably key--and I'm eurasian, so I was surprised to even be called in for it. However it was a fun experience!
Thanks again for all your help, everyone.
posted by stray at 10:57 AM on February 10, 2009

Response by poster: More updating-- went for a callback today, woo! Director said the dialect was right on, thanks y'all! (Still not holding my breath, as I'm still not, uh, actually japanese, but, woo!)
posted by stray at 6:33 PM on March 6, 2009

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