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Nihongo Desu Ka | © Miguel Efondo/ Flickr
Nihongo Desu Ka | © Miguel Efondo/ Flickr

A Guide to the Fun World of Japanese Onomatopoeias

Picture of Lucy Dayman
Updated: 9 December 2017

As anyone who has had a go at it can agree, learning Japanese can be hard! From different grammar rules to a whole collection of alphabets that have to be memorised, it’s a pretty big feat. One important part of sounding like a natural Japanese speaker is to master the language’s vast world of onomatopoeias. Used to describe everything from personality types to textures to feelings and emotions, in Japanese onomatopoeias are like a mini-language in themselves, plus they’re a lot of fun to learn. To help you get acquainted, here’s a guide to some of the most commonly used onomatopoeias and the context in which to use them.

Feelings and emotions

Zoku zoku | ぞくぞく | When you are filled with that fear-induced adrenaline from something eerie or spooky, like a ghost house tour. Another alternative is also ‘zowa zowa’ ぞわぞわ.
Doki doki |どきどき | Is the sound your heart makes when it’s beating with a nervous type of excitement. Maybe you’re about to go on a date, or cross paths with someone you have a crush on.

Waku waku | わくわく | Another type of excited, more like very keen. For example, it’s the night before your birthday or Christmas, or maybe you’re super hungry and just ordered the most delicious burger.
Sowa sowa | そわそわ | A more anticipation-driven excitement, you’re overcome with a fidgety restlessness, you have butterflies.
Runn runn | るんるん | Generally feeling positive, and ‘up’ in a good mood, the weather is great and your day is going well. A more expressive and exhilarated alternative is ‘uki uki’ うきうき.
Mera mera | めらめら | Is to have just burst with anger and frustration. It’s the papers in the air, storming out of the office-type angry.
Biku biku | びくびく | The instant physical embodiment of feeling of scared of something or someone, with a level of anticipation. For example, you just kicked a ball through a glass window and are preparing for the consequences.
Shiin | しーん | The vocalisation of an awkward silence. Maybe a person says something to kill the conversation, then a ‘shiin’ might be used to acknowledge the situation.

Actions

Goro goro | ごろごろ | To laze around and do nothing. Bingeing on Netflix is ‘goro goro’.
Bura bura | ぶらぶら | To hang out, kill time aimlessly doing something. Teenagers hanging at the mall, that’s ‘bura bura’.
Giri giri | ぎりぎり | To rush in order to get somewhere just in time. Running into the office at 8:59am is ‘giri giri’.
Bata bata |ばたばた | Is the sound of your feet kicking and rushing, when you’ve quickly and unexpectedly been told to do something. Like running back and forth from somewhere.
Kucha kucha | くちゃくちゃ | Is the sound your mouth makes when it’s chewing food loudly. Munching on a big ball of gum is ‘kucha kucha’.
Syaka shaka | しゃかしゃか | Is the sound of something shaking. The ‘shake shake’ a bag of seasoning makes is ‘shyaka shyaka’.
Kuru kuru | くるくる | Is the verbalisation of something going around and around in a circle. A spinning top or a dog chasing its own tail goes ‘kuru kuru’.
Gata gata | がたがた | Is the sound of rattling. A loose window on a windy day goes ‘gata gata’.

Jiro jiro | じろじろ | Is to look at a person up and down. Like with a ‘what are you wearing’ type expression.
Butsu butsu | ぶつぶつ | Is someone who murmurs under their breath. Grumbling and talking to yourself is ‘butsu butsu’.
Chobi chobi | ちょびちょび | Is to drink by taking tiny sips, little by little. Similar to the way you drink sake or whiskey.
Noro noro | のろのろ | Is to describe a slow movement. Meandering along is ‘noro noro’.

Textures

Fuwa fuwa | ふわふわ | Is used to describe something soft and fluffy, like cotton candy.
Beta beta | べたべた | Is for something that’s really sticky. Gum on the bottom of your shoe is ‘beta beta’.
Puru puru | ぷるぷる | Describes something that’s both jiggly and soft and bouncy, like a fluffy pancake or a pudding.

無限。#無限プリン#ぷるぷる#ミニストップ#とろとろも食べたい#美味

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Tsuru Tsuru | つるつる | Is smooth, like baby’s skin.
Zara zara | ざらざら | Is used to describe something that’s rough. A five o’clock shadow on a man’s face is ‘zara zara’.
Kasa kasa | かさかさ | Describes a dry roughness. Farmer’s hands after a long day out in the fields will be ‘kasa kasa’.
Nyoro nyoro | にょろにょろ | Is the winding and slippery sliding of a snake, or a road up the mountainside.
Siwakucha |しわくちゃ | Is used to describe a crumpled wrinkly texture. A shirt thrown on the floor, or a piece of paper all scrunched up.

Sights

Bosa bosa | ぼさぼさ | Is used to describe someone or something that is dishevelled. Think wild un-brushed hair and thrown-on clothes.
Pika Pika | ピカピカ |
Means shiny, like glowing Christmas lights. For something shinier, you can also use ‘kira kira’ きらきら which also means sparkle.

Zawa zawa | ざわざわ | Is when a crowd has been stirred or a gust of wind blows away a pile of leaves – many things moving together in unison.
Boro boro |ぼろぼろ | Means ragged and worn-out. Those jeans with the (non-purposeful) holes in the knees are ‘boro boro’.
Buku buku | ぶくぶく | Is when something is bubbling up, think a thick pot of tomato sauce sitting on the stovetop.

Body feelings

Hura hura | ふらふら | Is the feeling of being dizzy. Spin around in a circle too long, and no doubt your head will soon be feeling ‘hura hura’.
Muka Muka | むかむか | Is the unpleasant, dense and heavy feeling you have after you’ve eaten too much greasy food.
Piku piku | ピクピク | Is used to describe a twitch. Think the involuntary twitching of an eyebrow you get when you’re at the end of your tether.
Nuku nuku | ぬくぬく | The warm and snug feeling. For example, a child tucked up snug and warm in bed is ‘nuku nuku’.

Hiri hiri | ひりひり | Is the feeling of being burned. Touch the hotplate when it’s glowing red, and chances are you’ll experience ‘hiri hiri’.
Chiku chiku | ちくちく | Is used to describe a short, sharp sting. A bite of an ant is ‘chiku chiku’.

Describing someone

Petcha kucha | ぺちゃくちゃ | Is best used to describe a motor mouth. Someone who cannot stop talking, or chiming in with their often unwanted opinions.
Kyapi kyapi | きゃぴきゃぴ | Is used to describe a newbie, a fresh person. Maybe it’s a young, shiny new student’s first day at high school, then they’re a little ‘kyapi kyapi’.
Pera pera | ぺらぺら | Is an interesting word with two rather different meanings. Firstly, it can describe someone who is fluent in languages or talks too much and maybe mentions something they shouldn’t. But also it can be used to describe something that is uselessly thin, like a paper plate that cannot hold your food.
Boke boke | ぼけぼけ | Is used to describe someone who is daydreaming, whose head is in the clouds, they’re ‘boke boke’.