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Kaho’s Japanese Corner: Onomatopoeia

I changed the format of this Japanese lesson.  I hope that it will be easier for you to find this later.

Onomatopoeia (occasionally spelled onomateopoeia or onomatopœia) is a word or a grouping of words that imitates the sound it is describing, suggesting its source object, such as “click,” “clang,” “buzz,” or animal noises such as “oink”, “quack”, “flap”, “slurp”, or “meow”. The word is a synthesis of the Greek words όνομα (onoma, = “name”) and ποιέω (poieō, = “I make” or “I do”) thus it essentially means “name creation”, although it makes more sense combining “name” and “I do”, meaning it is named(spelled) as it does(sounds)(quack, bang, etc.).

For some reason there are a lot of words made of onomatopoeia in Japanese.

I was talking to my friend whose daughter goes to a local daycare and she said that she discovered that there were a lot of Japanese words you use for kids whose sounds repeat.  The examples are following; “shi shi”, “boo boo”, “beto beto” and so forth.

Shi shi = You can use “shi shi” for toilet which is equivalent to “pee pee” in English.  If a parent says to his/her child “shi shi suru?”, the translation is “do you want to go pee pee?”
If your child goes to a local pre-school, he/she probably uses this expression for potty.

Boo boo = Sound of vehicles.  It’s not the same boo-boo you use in English.  This means cars to Japanese children.

Beto beto = Sticky.  If you eat a cotton candy and your hands get sticky, you can say your hands are “beto beto”.

Tsuru Tsuru = Shiny and smooth.  If someone has a flawless, smooth skin, you can say “your skin is ‘tsuru tsuru'”.  Don’t say it to someone who is balding because he might think that you’re talking about his head!

Doki doki = This comes from the sound of heart beat.  If someone is nervous, he/she might say “doki doki suru”.  “My heart is pounding.”

Waku waku = This is a metaphor for floating feeling with excitement.  If someone says “waku waku suru”, that means “I am excited”.  It’s the feeling that your heart is bouncing with excitement.

Doing this made me think of this one expression that you probably hear all the time, but it has nothing to do with onomatopoiea.  That is “moshi moshi”.
Moshi moshi = “Hello” on the phone.  You only use this “moshi moshi” on the phone, so you can’t say this to someone if you see him/her in person.

Any other Japanese onomatopoeia that you would like to teach others?

If you want to learn more about Japanese onomatopoeic words, here are some links.
Japanese onomatopoeia

Want to read more of these helpful Japanese language posts?  Check them all out HERE.


  1. I heard/read somewhere that onomatopoeia came about during the period when Japan closed itself from the world and they were somewhat depressed; that’s when manga came about, and hence onomatopoeia to describe the sound effects in manga. (though that might be interesting)

    I personally like “toko toko” which I think is the sound a dog makes when walking and “guru guru”, to go round in circles. 🙂

  2. If I understand correctly, kira-kira is the sound that a star makes when it shines/sparkles as well as being the actual sparkle… I sure hope so, cuz that’s what we named my daughter and I’ve been telling people that for a year!

  3. Sorry, Mere, for the late response to your question!
    Good job on picking up two onomatopoeic phrases!
    Both are correct.

    Isn’t it interesting that Japanese has sound for smile? I also fancy the idea that smile and sound of growing up might make a noise!!

    I like the word ‘niko niko’. I picture a face with happy glow when I hear the word. Kids with niko niko faces make me happy.

    Examples for “goon goon” usage
    goon goon ohkiku naru.
    =grows bigger and bigger

    I think that “goon goon” has connotation for fast growing.

  4. I think I learned two more today at the Koza’s closing ceremony. Boo-hoo.

    1. niko niko = smile. Is that right?

    2. goon goon = growing up. Yes? No?

    Now these are sounds? Like the sound of a smile and the sound of growing up? I hope so. Never thought of the sound of a smile before but I fancy the idea that it might make a noise!

  5. Gasa gasa is rustling sound. It also describes someone constantly moving around. If a parent says “gasa gasa shinaide!”, that means “stop being so restless (or don’t moves around so much)!” There is another meaning, but I’ll write about that a little later below!

    That’s funny. Mera mera. That does mean a flame flickered. It is the sound to describe how fire blaze. The word meramera sometimes is used with passion. You’re a girl with passion!

    Pichi pichi is a word to describe a tight smooth skin of a young person. I sometimes see advertisement for products with collagen and you expect the result of using the product to have pichi pichi skin. The opposite would be gasa gasa. My hands are always gasa gasa and I need good hand lotion at all times!

  6. My students in Tokyo called me Mera and sometimes Mera Mera. I think they told me that mera mera was the way a flame flickered. Is that even close? The old brain is tired.

    Also, I remember something about young skin or a youthful look being called pichi pichi. I think I’m off on the meaning and the sound. Do you know what I’m talking about, Kaho?!