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30+ Japanese Tongue Twisters: a month’s worth of hayakuchi kotoba!

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Japanese language has a lot of tongue twisters.

Called “早口言葉 hayakuchi kotoba” in Japanese, we are blessed with a wealth of words for us to do vocal gymnastics with. 

Beyond being just fun to say, some of them are close to also being proverbs or aphorisms, and simultaneously provide little life lessons, insights or thoughts to focus the mind. 

Some of them even come off as being quite close to being new-age affirmations, such as:

 “四百四病で死なぬ信心の力 shihyakushibyō de shinanu shinjin no chikara” 

which translates as,

“The power of a devotion that does not die through the 404 illnesses”.

They really do lend themselves to being recited on a daily basis as part of your Japanese language learning resources. They are one tool in the kit that can be used to help with reducing the amount of time it takes to learn Japanese.

So, we’ve put together a list of one you can try every month!

Why are there so many Hayakuchi Kotoba in the Japanese language?

The Japanese language tends to have less sounds than the English language. This means there are more homonyms, words with the same sound but different meanings.

This makes fertile ground for punning and word play. It also presents plenty of opportunities for tongue-twisting.

In fact, there are so many that we could have made another couple of months worth of Japanese tongue twisters without cutting a sweat. But how much of your life do you want to devote to tying your tongue into knots now?

Ways in which tongue twisters can be helpful for learning a new language

1. They provide practice with difficult Japanese sounds

2. They help improve pronunciation

3. They are entertaining

4. They can sometimes include insightful cultural information

 

Is learning tongue twisters really helpful for learning a new language?

Tongue twisters are a good way to learn a language in the sense that they force you to speak and articulate words in a clear and precise manner. They are a way to practice pronunciation and speaking skills.

They also help with the rhythm of the language, which is important for fluency.

However, they’re obviously not a good way to learn vocabulary and grammar, so they should really be considered just one tool in your language tool kit.

Learning by doing: How do you go about learning Japanese tongue twisters?

Japanese tongue twisters can be a challenge, but they’re worth it. There are many different ways to go about learning them, and we recommend you try a few and find the one that suits you best.

Ideas include:

  • Do tongue twisters as a daily routine thing – add it to your language learning stack!
  • Use tongue twisters to loosen up your mouth before entering into a Japanese conversation or speech
  • Use tongue twisters as a way of killing time when you have those micro times to wait, say, at the traffic lights, or while you wait for something to load on your computer.

Types of Japanese tongue twisters

  • I would categorize Japanese tongue twisters into:
  • Cute tongue twisters

Example:

生麦生米生卵 namamugi nama gome tamago

“Raw wheat Raw rice Raw egg”

  • Proverb-like tongue twisters

Example:
不幸な夫婦は古い服 fukōna fūfu wa furui fuku

“Unhappy couples wear old clothes”

  • Onomatopoeia tongue twisters

Examples:
赤パジャマ黄パジャマ茶パジャマ aka pajama ki pajama cha pajama

  • Loan-word tongue twisters

Example: 

赤パジャマ黄パジャマ茶パジャマ aka pajama ki pajama cha pajama

“Red pajamas, yellow pajamas, brown pajamas”

  • Bureaucratic language tongue twisters

Example:
東京特許許可局許可局長 tōkyō tokkyo kyokakyoku kyoka kyokuchō

“Director of the Tokyo Patent and Licensing Bureau”

Japanese Tongue Twister Examples

1. 不幸な夫婦は古い服 fukōna fūfu wa furui fuku

“Unhappy couples wear old clothes”

This one tops the list because it is not just a tongue twister, but also like a proverb holding a deep life lesson for us all – couples that don’t get along end up in second hand clothes. Ie. Neglect your relationships and it will eventually affect you financially. 

How’s that, lip exercise and life advice in one neat package!

2. 庭には鶏が二羽いました niwa ni wa niwatori ga ni wa imashita 

“There are chickens in the garden. There were two birds”

This haguchi kotoba plays with the fact that a chicken in Japanese is called a “鶏 niwatori”, which literally means “garden-bird”. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for mixing up the words for garden, bird, and particles. What’s not to love?

If you want an extra challenge you can even do the extended version:

裏庭には二羽, 庭には二羽鶏がいる

uraniwa ni wa niwa, niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru.

“There Are two chickens in the back garden, and two in the front garden”

3. 生麦生米生卵 namamugi nama gome tamago

“Raw wheat Raw rice Raw egg”

Now, we all know Japanese people like raw stuff, like fish and eggs. But raw wheat and raw rice? That’s pushing it now.

4. 老若男女 rōnyaku nannyo

“(all people) Men and women, old and young”

This is one of those examples where a word from everyday language can by itself become a tongue twister. Japanese has relatively few sounds, so this happens a bit in that language!

5. 赤パジャマ黄パジャマ茶パジャマ aka pajama ki pajama cha pajama

“Red pajamas, yellow pajamas, brown pajamas”

This one is what I would categorize as one of the “cute tongue twisters” on the list. Colorful pajamas? Awww, so sweet. 

This one is good for practicing your pronunciation of English loan words in Japanese.

6. 青巻紙赤巻紙黄巻紙 ao makigami aka makigami ki makigami

“Blue wrapping paper Red wrapping paper Yellow roll wrapping paper”

This is quite a well known one, and you will probably come across it if you spend a certain amount of time in japan. Once again, kinda cute, and very fun to say.

7. 除雪車除雪作業中 josetsusha josetsu sagyō chū

“The snow removal mobile is removing snow”

This is an example of how fairly everyday sentences can become pretty close to being a tongue twister in Japanese pretty quickly.

A good hayakuchi kotoba for the winter months.

8. 隣の客はよく柿食う客だ tonari no kyaku wa yoku kaki kū kyakuda

“The customer next to me is a customer who often eats persimmons”

Persimmons are one of the most popular fruits in Japan and, along with mikan, are suggestive of family and leisure. This one is pretty good for practicing the kya type sounds that are common in Japanese but rare in English.

9. この釘はひきぬきにくい釘だ kono kugi wa hikinuki nikui kugida

“This nail is a nail that is hard to pull out”

This one makes you think of the famous Japanese saying “The protruding nail must be hammered down”. 

This one is good for getting the back of your pallet primed to easily launch out seamless transitions between “ki” and “gi” sounds.

10. 高架橋橋脚 kōkakyō kyōkyaku

“Elevated bridge, pontoon bridge”

This hayakuchi kotoba gives you a good sense of how it feels when you have to say a lot of “kyo”s and “ko”s in a Japanese sentence – which happens surprisingly often.

11. 貨客船の旅客 kakyakusen no ryokaku

“A Passenger on a passenger ship”

More “kya” and “ka” training. After a few day practicing this one, you’ll be able to do a femine “kya” type scream with the best of them.

12. 魔術師魔術修業中 majutsushi majutsu shūgyō chū

“The Magician is working on his magic”

Well, surely any magician worth their salt should always be working on their magic, right? Just like every good linguist. This one is good for working on separating your “shi”s from you “shu”s.

13. 地味な爺やの自慢の地酒 jimina jī ya no jiman no jizake

“The plain old manservant’s boutique brew”

This one includes a slightly blanketed piece of social commentary. “That boring old codger is always banging on about his boutique brew”. 

It’s true, people that talk like booze boffins are inevitably boring. There now, we’ve invented our own tongue twister. “booze boffins are inevitably boring, booze boffins are inevitably boring, booze boffins are inevitably boring”…

14. 駒込のわがまま者 中野の怠け者 komagome no wagamamasha   nakano no namakemono

“The selfish person from Komagome, a lazy person from Nakano”

One wonders if there is some barely veiled commentary here as well, or barely concealed regional racism. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into these tongue twisters now?

This one really works out all those open-mouthed “o” and “ah” type sounds.

15. 第一著者 第二著者 第三著者 dai ichi chosha   dai ni chosha   dai san chosha

“First author, second author, third author”

This is perhaps the literary version of the famous comedic “who’s on first?” routine.

16. うちのつりびんは つぶれぬつりびん 隣のつりびんはつぶれるつりびん uchi no tsuri bin wa   tsuburenu tsuri bin   tonari no tsuri bin wa tsubureru tsuri bin

“Our fishing bottle is an uncrushable fishing bottle. The bottle next to it is a crushable fishing bottle.”

Does anyone know what a fishing-bottle is? I’m no fisherman, so I imagine it is a little bottle that hunters give to their prey to urinate into prior to giving them the final chop. No? Hmmm.

If you have trouble with your “tsu” sounds, as a lot of people do, this is the one to set on repeat.

17. むさしのむさしが原の武蔵坊弁慶 musashi nomu sashi ga hara no musashibō benkei

“Musashi’s Musashi is the original Musashibo Benkei”

If you want to really separate your “sa”s from your “shi”s, this is the one to hit.

18. バス ガス 爆発 Basu gasu bakuhatsu

“Bus, gas, explosion”

These are three words you never want to hear said together, in that order. Except as a tongue twister.

This one helps tone-up your “s” sounds.

19. 東京特許許可局許可局長 tōkyō tokkyo kyokakyoku kyoka kyokuchō

“Director of the Tokyo Patent and Licensing Bureau”

If you reach a certain level of Japanese, and you are forced to interact with the Japanese bureaucratic system, you’ll realise that the language used in government documents often approaches tongue-twisting gobbledegook. This hayakuchi kotoba acknowledges that. Practice this one before entering your local municipal office.

20. 四百四病で死なぬ信心の力 shihyakushibyō de shinanu shinjin no chikara

“The power of a devotion that does not die through the 404 illnesses”

This one is another one of those tongue-twisters that also serves as an aphorism. If you want something that you can say everyday and get more bang for your buck, this is the one.

21. お綾や、八百屋におあやまり o aya ya , yaoya ni o ayamari

“The aya pattern-maker apologized to the grocer”

What the pattern-maker did to the green-grocer, we will never know. What we do know is that this is good for boning up on your “ya” sounds.

22. かえるぴょこぴょこ3(み)ぴょこぴょこ あわせてぴょこぴょこ6(む)ぴょこぴょこ kaeru pyokopyoko  mi  pyokopyoko awasete pyokopyoko  mu  pyokopyoko

“Frogs jumping three, jumping together, jump six times”

This one is interesting in that it includes word play and number play together to create a kind of tongue-twister riddle. It’s also pretty cute, with the amphibian onomatopoeia of the jumping “pyoko pyoko”. Oh no, I can feel another tongue twister coming on here, “amphibian onomatopoeia, amphibian onomatopoeia, amphibian onomatopoeia”…

23. マグマ大使のママ マママグマ大使 maguma taishi no mama   mama maguma taishi

“Ambassador Magma’s Mama is Mama Magma Ambassador”

Who on earth is ambassador magma? Sounds like a kind of bureaucratic superhero created by the government to raise awareness about volcano disaster risk. 

Fun to say though.

24. この寿司は少し酢がききすぎた kono sushi wa sukoshi su ga kikisugita

“This sushi has a little too much vinegar”

This is what my partner tells me pretty much every time I make sushi. I don’t think they are trying to use a tongue-twister though. I’m just bad at making sushi.

25. この杭の釘は引き抜きにくい kono kui no kugi wa hikinuki nikui

“The nails in this post are hard to pull out”

Another nail-oriented tongue twister. You’ll have to practice this one a lot to really nail it.

See what I did there?

26. あぶりカルビ aburi karubi

“Grilled Korean-style marinated barbecued ribs”

We don’t really have a word for “karubi” in English, so we have to go with “Korean-style marinated barbecued ribs” for this translation. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

This one has a pleasing rhythmic rhyme to it. Try saying it in times of anxiety as a kind of linguistic stress-ball!

27. ジャズシャンソン歌手 jazu shanson kashu

“Jazz chanson singer”

If you’ve spent some time in Japan, you may have noticed that Japanese people use the French word for song, “chanson”, quite regularly. Japan has quite a history of importing music not just from the English speaking world, but from France, Italy and other countries too.

Say this one quickly, and you’ll soon lose track of whether you are trying to practice Japanese, French or English…

28. スモモも桃も桃のうち Sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi

Plums and peaches are both peach-like fruits.

Interestingly, in English we consider a “plum” to be a totally different fruit to a “peach”. But in Japanese they are linguistically assigned as being two types of the same category of fruit. It’s kinda like the eskimos having 50 words for snow right? No?

29. 肩たたき機 Katatatakiki

“Shoulder massage machine”

This is one of those Japanese tongue twisters that works as a tongue twister even when translated back into English.

It has a distinctive rhythmic sound to it when you say it out loud, and helps you practice your “ki” sounds.

30. バナナの謎はまだ謎なのだぞ  Banana no nazo wa mada nazo nano dazo

“The mystery of the banana remains a mystery”

If I had a dollar for every time I’d said that. Of course, the mystery of the banana remaining a mystery is a good thing. It’s best that we don’t go into it any further. So it’s the perfect Japanese tongue-twister to finish our list.

Bonus Japanese Tongue Twisters

Japanese also has a bunch of much harder and longer tongue twisters. If you’re really wanting to limber up your palette, or impress your Japanese friends, trying machine-gunning out one of these:

  • 梨の芯と茄子の芯は 茄子の芯と梨の芯だけ違い 茄子の芯と梨の芯は梨の芯と茄子の芯だけ違う

nashi no shin to nasu no shin wa nasu no shin to nashi no shin dake chigai nasubi no shin to nashi no shin w”

“The pear core and the eggplant core differ only in their eggplant cores and the pear cores. The eggplant core and the pear core differ only in the pear core and the eggplant core.”

  • 親に似ぬ子は鬼子 練り絹に平絹 生米生麦生卵 殿様の長袴 京の生鱈 奈良の生の鰯

oya ni ninu ko wa onigo neri kinu ni hiraginu nama Yoneo Mugiu tamago tonosama no nagabakama Kyō no nama tara Nara no nama no iwashi

That child who doesn’t look like their parent is Kiko, kneaded silk, plain silk, raw rice, raw wheat egg, long skirt of the lord, raw cod from Kyoto, and raw eel from Nara.

Comparison with English Tongue Twisters

A tongue twister is a phrase or sentence that is used to challenge one’s ability to articulate clearly. Not surprisingly, this type of phrase has made its way into the English and Japanese languages. For instance, English speakers can recite “She sells seashells by the seashore” or “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”.

But Japanese tends to have less sounds that more words are made up of – think sounds like “shin”, “shu”, “Kou” etc. You will find numerous words with these sounds, making it easier to come up with tongue twisters in Japanese.

Not surprisingly, there is a bewildering amount of Japanese hakuchi kotoba out there!

Japanese tongue twisters also tend to make use of the similarity in sound between particles like “ni”, “to” or “was” to create tongue twisters with words with similar sounds. By contrast, English tends not to play with the sounds of words like “a”, “it”, “the” or “of” in the same way.

Keep Twisting!

In conclusion, Japanese tongue twisters are a fun way for Japanese learners to get better at using their language. Twisters provide a challenge for both the mind and the mouth, and really help to improve pronunciation of difficult words. By trying to say these tongue twisters, you can’t help but become a little more confident in your ability to speak Japanese.

Go ahead, twist again, like we did last summer.

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts doing a Masters Degree, have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1). I’ve written songs in Japanese and have released several albums through Tokyo label Majikick Records. You can hear my music at my bandcamp page:

ピータージョセフヘッドです。4年間京都市立芸大の大学院として日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

僕の音楽はBandcampで聞けます。

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