Love them or hate them, onomatopoeia is an essential part of Japanese. Most, if not all, languages have words that imitate real sounds like plop, whizz, and woof, but Japanese takes it to the next level. Open any manga to a random page, and the background will almost certainly be dripping with katakana words. Take a closer look, and you’ll notice that while many sounds are physical (kishi – a creaking floor, patan – a door slamming) some seem to describe the mood. For example, a gambling manga called Kaiji famously used the phrase zawazawa to convey the atmosphere of unease, fear, and suspense that accompanies a life-altering dice roll.
However, it doesn’t stop there. English often attempts to verbalize emotions based on their physical sensations (chest tightening, rock in one’s stomach, butterflies) but in Japanese, they are reimagined as sounds. There are hundreds of these words, collectively transforming the messy sounds of the world and chaos of the heart into neatly repeating phoneme patterns. Below are ten examples you can use to convey a variety of emotions, in no particular order.
Excited. Really excited. Your heart is beating quickly from anticipation. Often used when you’re looking forward to something. A kid on Christmas eve or someone about to embark on a trip to somewhere they’ve always wanted to go is feeling uki uki.
There’s no great word for this feeling in English. Physically, it describes something that’s misty, or smoky. Psychologically, it refers to the unpleasant feeling when something goes unresolved. Maybe an impending decision is weighing on your mind, and you don’t know what to do about it. Or maybe there’s something you want to know and can’t quite figure it out. It’s the emotional equivalent of a hazy day, and you can’t quite make out the view you climbed the mountain to see. People who want to know how a magic trick was done feel moya moya.
To be flustered, confused, lose your cool, not know what to do. A new parent who just wants their baby to stop crying for one hour so they can get some sleep might feel mago mago.
Overflowing with anger, nauseated. When you’re so frustrated with something you just want to scream. Like “disgusted”, it can have both physical and emotional connotations. Actually, it was the translation of the character Disgust’s name in Pixar’s 2015 movie Inside Out. Many people following the 2016 American election might feel muka muka when they hear the candidates talk, regardless of who they support.
When you have a bit too much energy and keep looking around anxiously or excitedly. When Harry Potter got his first taste of the wizarding world in Diagon Alley, he kept looking around kyoro kyoro-ly (often used as an adverb).
Afraid of, or nervous about something to the point that you’re on edge. Be careful, it doesn’t have anything to do with “surprised” as one might expect. When you did something bad as a kid and knew it was only a matter of time until your parents found out, you felt biku biku while waiting for the inevitable punishment.
Can’t stop worrying. Suffering from excess worry. People who are unemployed and can’t find a job might feel mon mon.
When you’ve got a spring in your step because something good happened, or you just feel good in general. When you’re “buzzing”. When there’s a beautiful day after a week of nothing but rain, you might leave the house iso iso-ly (often used as an adverb).
Frustrated. High strung nerves when things don’t work out like you expected. When you have to wait for your internet provider to show up sometime between “9am and 2pm” but they don’t come until after dinner, you feel ira ira.
Jonesing to do something. Dying to do something. Itching to do something. When you want to do something so badly you can’t sit still. At 6pm on Friday evening when you have one thing left on your to-do list, you are uzu uzu-ing to go home.
Words that imitate the sounds of emotions, or gijougo (擬情語) as they’re known in Japanese, can be frustrating because of their number, and because of how similar some are both in meaning and pronunciation. Nevertheless, they’re important because they can add some real character to your Japanese. It’s like the difference between saying “The rain made me sad last week. I wanted to go snowboarding, so I’m happy that today’s sunny.” and “The rain last week really got me down. I’ve been dying to go snowboarding, so I’m stoked that today’s sunny.” Plus, they’re fun to say too. Try them out for yourself!