5 Japanese Onomatopoeia Words That DON’T Express Sounds!

  • As we all know, onomatopoeia, or words to explain sounds, varies depending on the language. For example, a dog says “bark” in English while it says “wan” in Japanese. Given the wide range of variety, onomatopoeia is a reflection of the culture of a country. Interestingly for Japan, while American comics are filled with “Bam!”s and “Kaboom!”s, manga (漫画; Japanese comics) are filled not only with ドーン! (Don!) and バン! (Ban/Bam!), but also with onomatopoeia for soundless things. Let’s explore some of them.

    In the Japanese language, onomatopoeia can be classified into five groups:

    1. Giseigo (擬声語) which refers to animal and human sounds
    2. Giyougo (擬容語) which are sounds that depicts movements and motions
    3. Gijougo (擬情語) which pertains to sounds that describe feelings
    4. Gitaigo (擬態語) which describe conditions and states
    5. Giongo (擬音語) or those that represent sounds made by inanimate objects and nature

    Now, it goes without saying that onomatopoeia for animal and human sounds, and even movements and motions, are nothing new, making giseigo and giyoujo commonplace, but arguably, gijougo, gitaigo and giongo aren’t. Here are some onomatopoeia words that makes Japanese onomatopoeia out of the ordinary.

    1. Guuu (ぐーっ)


    If you want to stress someone’s utter concentration in whatever he or she is doing, this onomatopoeia comes in handy. You may often see this when a character is burning the midnight oil to study for an exam or concentrating hard on their job.

    2. Bō (ぼーっ)

    When someone’s head is in the clouds and is staring off into space, this sound comes into play. This onomatopoeia is widely used, so while watching an anime (アニメ; cartoon) or Japanese drama, you have probably heard the term “bō to suru” (ぼーっとする) to refer to the act of spacing out or daydreaming.

    3. Jiiii (ジー)

    Saw your crush and just can’t help but stare at him or her? If so, this might be the sound that you will “hear” as you do so. The ジー onomatopoeia is used when someone is staring intently at something or someone. Regardless of whether you are staring at someone lovingly or creepily, the sound used will be the same.

    4. Utouto (うとうと)

    うとうと is a sound used when someone is nodding off while half-asleep. This sound can often be encountered during scenes in trains or classrooms. Similar to bō to suru, it is quite common to hear someone use this sound as a verb by using the term utouto suru (うとうとする).

    5. Shiiiin (シーン)

    For the Japanese people, they have onomatopoeia to express silence. Yes, you read that right – a sound word to portray silence, arguably one of the most interesting “sounds” of Japan. You will encounter this in anime and manga, usually during scenes of awkward silence, when the characters seem to not know what to talk about, or at times, when the deafening silence of a room/place is being emphasized.

    Much as we are stimulated by our visual senses when trying to imagine something, it is undeniable that sounds play a crucial role in picturing scenes clearly. Imagining a powerful tornado in your head without playing the sound of the whooshing storm will make the experience seem incomplete. This is because onomatopoeia does not only let us picture things, but also lets us hear them.

    With the pervasiveness of the illustrated media of entertainment, particularly comics and manga, onomatopoeia has provided avenues for greater emphasis of scenes and more vivid expression of emotions of the characters, allowing us to appreciate the scenes a notch higher. Next time you read a Japanese comic or watch an anime, listen – or, rather, look out for – these onomatopoeia words.