The Super Deep World Of The Japanese Letter を (O)

Everyone loves を. It’s simple. It’s easy to pronounce if you can say the letter O in English. It looks cool. It’s not kanji. I’d put it up there as one of those Japanese things you never thought about much… until now.

The Super Deep World Of The Japanese Letter O

Like taking pictures of random bicycles on the street.

Remember when you first used romaji to learn hiragana in your first few days of study? Depending on what book you used, を is written out either as “o” or “wo.”


Yes, since o and wo would normally be two different sounds. Here is where it gets even more diluted.

Depending on who you talked to, different people may have told you that を actually is pronounced wo. Others will tell you it is pronounced o just like お.

So what’s the deal?

Is it pronounced o or wo?

Lets first remove the romaji, because that just adds frustration. It’s better to look at the argument without romaji because wo makes it look like it might be pronounced like the English word woe. The Japanese question, which even confuses some Japanese people is whether it is pronounced お or ぅお or うぉ.

The answer will most likely ease your fears, as I’m sure you may now be wondering if you’ve been pronouncing such a basic piece of grammar wrong all along.

を is pronounced the same way as お, or the English capital letter O. Wo doesn’t exist.

So why is there so much argument? A few reasons:

1. People may have used to pronounce を as うぉ many decades ago, but it slowly changed over.

2. Depending on the word before it, を may sound slightly different. This is due to the way the tongue’s position is in after pronunciation of the previous word, and it would be hard not to have the sound change naturally. This is slightly similar to ん being an n or m sound. Officially it is N, but depending on the word, it naturally sounds like M.

3. Depending on the region in Japan, it may sound slightly different. But this isn’t just を and affects most Japanese.

4. Japanese people remember being taught it one way. And most people don’t forget that way.

But this is just a warmup. を goes even deeper.

If you wanted to talk about を in a conversation, how would you specifically refer to it?

It varies by region:

1. Tokyo – うぉ

Specifically emphasize the syllable here so it clearly stands out from the お.

2. Saitama – つなぎの「を」

Connector O, because that’s what the grammar does.

3 Gunma – 重たい「を」

The heavy O, because it makes a sentence heavier by adding more after it.

4. Aomori – 腰曲がりの「を」

Curved back O. Looks kind of like it.

5. Ishikawa – 下の「を」

Bottom O because it appears at the bottom of words as opposed to appearing in the words (think vertical writing).

6. Toyama – 小さい「を」

Small O because it’s umm, smaller?

7. Fukui – わをんの「を」

The Wa O No O because this is where it falls in the hiragana chart.

8.Osaka – 難しい方の「を」

The difficult O, because clearly its purpose is more complex than the standard お

Everything cleared up?

Have any other interesting info you want to add about を? What is your favorite way of referring to it?


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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


The Super Deep World Of The Japanese Letter を (O) — 10 Comments

  1. How do you pronounce を after ん without turning it into a の? Or, is it supposed to be a の because that’s the natural position of your tongue? 写真を撮る。 I didn’t realize I was doing it until this week. You could probably write another post like this for ん, that mercurial little letter.

    • It’s going to naturally slightly blend the end ん sound with the を sound.

      What to watch out for is to make sure to give proper emphasis to the ん and let it linger slightly when transitioning to the を. Rather than have a full stop after the 写真 before going on to を.

      These types of explanations really need audio though to make any sense!

  2. を is pronounced wo quite frequently in songs. I’ve heard that when teaching people to sing, it’s even common practice to actively focus on that enunciation.

    • That’s interesting. I wonder how that came about.

      Though it makes sense, as a lot of Japanese music puts a lot of emphasis on nonstandard pronunciation and intonation.

    • Yes, I notice this a lot. (please excuse me bumping such an old thread, and changing the topic) A related phenomenon that I have never been able to find discussion on is how singers often sing the small tsu. Instead of projecting it forward and doubling the next consonant, it gets reflected back, and doubles the preceding vowel.

      For example, 分かった is sung as わかあた. I’d love to know what this technique is called!

  3. I’m trying to find the “proper” transliteration for 大, as in Chikanobu’s triptych series 千代田の大奥.
    The best I can come up with is “no o-o oku” because the three would be (?) の ぉお ぉく (the use of the small ぉ in 奥 comes from Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC).
    I’d appreciate any suggestions.

    • Technically it is as you said, no oo-oku.

      I’m not really that familiar with transliteration, but I believe that some use a bar over the vowel to replace double vowels. Maybe Ōoku then?

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