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 irorirona (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 (plump 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.

There are several categories of onomatopoeia in Japanese. They are:

  1. Giongo (擬音語): These are the words that mimic the sounds of life around us, such as the sound of sprinkling vs. heavy rain, a door creaking or glasses clinking. Most of the food onomatapoeia above are giongo.
  2. Giseigo (擬声語): Sounds made by people or animals, such as a cat’s meow or a dog’s woof.
  3. Gitaigo (擬態語): Words that describe actions, such as smiling or grumbling, or psychological states, such as cheerful or irritated. Sometimes these latter are also called gijogo. Technically these are not onomatopoeia, since they don’t mimic sounds; they are mimetic words that mimic actions or emotions. However, since we don’t use these types of words often in English, and they are very important to speaking and understanding Japanese, I include them here.

I also found several online dictionaries of Japanese onomatopoeia. The first is Giongo Dictionary, where you can sign up for a daily email to keep learning. A second, if you read Japanese, is Onomatopedia. The third is a cool little resource with sounds you can listen to. Finally, though it only works sporadically, is Nihongo Resources, where you can search in English or Japanese. 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!