Want to Feel Ukiuki, Pichipichi and Pinpin? Japanese Food Onomatopoeia


I have been quite ujiuji (melancholy) in recent weeks, feeling uzu-uzu (a burning desire) to hear and speak Japanese. Living in a small city in Mexico, zenzen (almost never) can(‘t) I hear Japanese, and my heart gets shoboshobo (sad).

Joe’s recent blog post on the French food fixation only fueled more tsukuzuku (heartfelt thinking) on my part. As you may have already figured out from my wazawaza (purposeful) language, I’ve been thinking about Japanese sound symbolism, particularly in the context of food.

Whether you eat gatsugatsu (gobble or devour) or potsupotsu (little by little), if you want to talk about food in Japanese you will be using words that mimetically represent feelings and senses. As the originators of the concept of umami (pleasant savory taste — one of the five basic tastes), Japanese tend to mokumoku (munch) the way they listen: with all their senses. Taste, texture, and temperature, sound, smell and sensation… all are important elements that combine to keep people ukiuki (cheerful), pichipichi (young and vigorous) and pinpin (in good health).

While many people think of Japanese food as the 
tastes and textures of sashimi or sushi, a typical meal may also contain iroriro-na (a variety of) food including boiled, broiled, fried or pickled dishes, a soup and hokahoka (warm) steamed white rice. Is your stomach starting to guuguu (growl hungrily)?

For the fresh or raw component of your meal, would you like something shakishaki — crisp as in veggies or fruits, e.g., lettuce washed in cold water? Or would you prefer something more korikori — crunchy and crisp, as in fresh raw abalone? Be sure to rinse the abalone well, so it doesn’t taste jarijari (gritty) or zarazara (coarse). Maybe you want something sharishari — tangy and juicy, like an Asian nashi pear or sherbet? Or is your tongue like mine, and craves the piripiri (sting) of wasabi or fugu (blowfish)? Any of these dishes will require chokichoki (cutting with a knife) preparation.

A boiled dish in our meal might include pumpkin nimono, stewed hokuhoku (steamy and dense but not soggy), or something more furufuru (soft and jiggly) like boiled eggs. Maybe we should make some chikuwa (fish paste roll) for oden till it’s buyobuyo (swollen and soft) and fuwafuwa (fluffy)? Oh that sounds good! There are just so many possibilities! So many tastes and textures!

There are madamada (still) ippai-ippai (lots) more onomatopoeia to consider. What about a main dish? Shall we eat something sakusaku (freshly cooked crisp and light) like tempura shrimp? I could fry it till the shrimp inside are puripuri (crispy with a nice resistance) and the breading is poripori (quietly crunchy). Perhaps you are really craving the shikoshiko (chewy, elastic firmness) of some udon noodles? Never over-boil the pasta so it becomes betobeto (sticky and gummy); rather, you’ll probably be wakuwaku (trembling with excitement) to eat your tsurutsuru (shiny and slurpy) noodles and gabugabu (drink heartily) a beer!

Instead of your normal bowl of rice you might enjoy something a bit more mochimochi (soft, sticky and chewy) or netoneto (glutinous and gummy) like sticky rice. Maybe rice that’s a bit more pasapasa (dry), like jasmine rice, sounds appetizing? The kunkun (smell) is so nice! Tabitabi (once in a while), though, I like the parapara (moist but loose) of fried rice.

Even though by now you are panpan (full), pukupuku (swollen), and maybe even kokkurikokkuri (nodding off), a karikari (hard and crispy) biscotti, a fukafuka (soft and fluffy) cream puff, or even some purupuru (wiggly, jiggly) kanten (gelatin) for dessert might refresh your soul. Maybe just a handful of something punyupunyu, like some gummis?

After such a big meal your throat may feel karakara (thirsty). I’d definitely recommend a chibichibi (sip) of a kachikachi (ice cold) shuwashuwa (sparkling) beverage over a betabeta (sticky) dessert wine. It can help settle any mukamuka (queasiness) you might have.

What if you’re not really that hungry, and you just want to mushamusha (munch)? You might want the paripari (thin and crispy) of nori (toasted seaweed) or chips. Sometimes, though, we crave a louder pachipachi (crispy snapping sound), like the baribari (loud crunchiness) of sembei (rice crackers) or the kachikachi (crisp firmness) of arare (another kind of rice cracker).

For those of you interested in this subject, I found a really cool study conducted by a cross-disciplinary group of students (information science, engineering, medicine) from the University of Tokyo. They “harvested” online food reviews in Japanese to find the most common food-related onomatopoeia. How cool is that — a terrific application of science to language and culture studies! Below is one of the tables from their report, detailing the most commonly occurring onomatopoeia for food.

I also found several online dictionaries of Japanese onomatopoeia. The first is Nihongo Resources, where you can search in English or Japanese. The second is Giongo Dictionary, where you can sign up for a daily email to keep learning. A third one, if you read Japanese, is Onomatopedia. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

Japanese speakers: Please share some more of your favorite 擬音語 (giongo) and insights with us! There are of course regional (and personal!) variations of many of these!

Speakers of other languages: We’ll be happy to publish it if you send us your post about unique features in your language. Thanks!

14 thoughts on “Want to Feel Ukiuki, Pichipichi and Pinpin? Japanese Food Onomatopoeia

  1. Delicious piece Dianne! Reminds me of our own “burp” and “belch”–meaning and sound coming together and sounds of polite appreciation in many cultures. Your piece also reminded me of my time in East Africa where “nguruma” means thunder in Kikuyu and “ting ting” means rain in Masai. Also interesting to compare animal sounds as expressed in different languages. A cow’s “moo” in English, for example, has delightful variations in other languages. Looking forward to more sounds and sense from your readers. joe

    Like this

  2. Terrific examples, Joe, and thank you for inspiring the post! Yes, Anna, it does make you hungry, doesn’t it? Or full, lol! Aiko-san, so glad you enjoyed it! Onomatopoeia are definitely interesting!

    Like this

  3. This blog is outstanding and Dianne is a unique expert! In Linguistics this process using onomatopoeia is also known as ‘reduplication’ showing many mimetic words that evoke feelings, ideas, etc. Arigatō gozaimasu Dianne for making my stomach guuguu!

    Like this

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s