Japanese Learning Scenario:
Exploring Creative Uses of Japanese Onomatopoeia

Author: Chizuko Bolinger & Helen Nakamoto
Level: Novice/Intermediate Low

In English as in Japanese, onomatopoetic words are those that imitate natural sounds. In Japanese, however, there are literally hundreds of such words, and they are used much more frequently than in English. Words that represent actual sounds (e.g., animal noises) are called giseigo, while words that refer specifically to actions (e.g., to drink with a gulp or to drink sip by sip) are called gitaigo.

In this scenario, students investigate the similarities and differences in Japanese and English onomatopoeia. They learn common examples of Japanese onomatopoeia and how to create and use their own original onomatopoeia effectively in sentences. They study the three main uses of onomatopoeia: to give a strong impression, to express things realistically, and to represent the rhythms of various activities. They also learn new vocabulary related to the Manga stories (comic books) chosen and in composing their creative works for a writing contest.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Creative Writing Contest
As a background for the scenario, learners are given the following context: A major Japanese publishing company is hosting a creative writing contest for Manga stories, song lyrics, Haiku and Tanka (the oldest form of Japanese poetry), and other poetry. One requirement for the contest is that each entry must make effective use of either conventional or original onomatopoeia. Students may submit up to three entries.

Working in groups of four, class members begin by sharing what they know about onomatopoeia in general. They then divide into jigsaw groups. Each of these groups reads and discusses one of four texts listed in the webliography under Resources. They return to their original group and share what they’ve learned. For example, they note that Japanese onomatopoeia are repeated twice and appear to be used more frequently, etc. Based on the information that students gather from the jigsaw activity, the class creates a Venn diagram comparing Japanese and English onomatopoeia that is used throughout the lesson as additional information is gathered.

ACTIVITY SET 2: Comparing Japanese and English Onomatopoeia
To familiarize themselves with the uses of onomatopoeia in English and Japanese, each group receives a list of English onomatopoetic words that they place into three categories: sound imitation (giseigo), condition or movement of things/people/animals (gitaigo), and “both.” Five words for each category are sufficient. The activity is repeated with a list of Japanese onomatopoeia with translations, e.g., bisho bisho (soaking wet), zaa zaa (rushing water such as a heavy downpour), kusu kusu (a feminine giggle or chuckle). Groups add new information to the Venn diagram as it is acquired (see webliography under Resources for lists).

ACTIVITY SET 3: Onomatopoeia Games
In this activity set, students use a variety of games to practice Japanese onomatopoetic words they have learned. To help students at the novice level, provide the list of Japanese words to be used in the following games. First, learners play Password with a partner, providing up to three “hints” (in Japanese or English at this level) each round. (For example, student may say “quiet” to elicit “shhh!”— the answer, of course must be in Japanese.) Partners switch roles every three minutes. Students continue with a pantomime guessing-game or similar games for vocabulary practice. Finally, the whole class is divided into two teams to play a Pictionary-style game. A volunteer from each team comes to the front of the room, and each is shown the same Japanese word or phrase. Then, using only their artistic ability and the chalkboard, they must make their team members say the word or phrase. No verbal clues may be given. Following identification of the sound, a second member of the winning team makes a sentence using the onomatopoetic phrase. If the student is successful within the time limit, the team receives 5 points. If not, a second team member has an opportunity within the same time limit and, if successful, the team receives 3 points. Play continues until a designated time limit or point total is reached.

ACTIVITY SET 4: Creating Your Own Onomatopoeia
The goal of the activities in this set is to provide learners opportunities to create their own onomatopoeia to use in their creative writings. In preparation for the first activity, the instructor prepares an audiotape containing various sounds such as a car, a train, hands clapping, a dog barking, etc. Each sounds lasts 10-15 seconds. In class, students listen to the sound-effects tape and are asked to create their own onomatopoeia for the sound they heard. The teacher plays one sound at a time, and students find an original way to communicate what they heard using the English alphabet first. They then transliterate that new “word” to Katakana, a Japanese alphabet often times used to express onomatopoetic sounds. Students trade lists with a classmate and check the Katakana transliterations for accuracy. They add new information to the Venn diagram as needed.

In the second activity in this set, students listen to a tape of Old McDonald Had A Farm and Hanako-san no makibade iya iya yo. Provide them the words to the Japanese version of the song. In groups, they compare and contrast the animal sounds in the two cultures and either choose the better-suited sound or create a new one for each animal. Finally, they recopy the song, substituting the new onomatopoeia and sing it to the class in Japanese. Students add new information to the Venn diagram as needed.

ACTIVITY SET 5: Recognizing the Importance of Onomatopoeia
The following activities help learners recognize the importance of onomatopoeia and the effect it has on creative writing. Students work in groups on the first activity. Provide three pages of a Manga story (Japanese comic book) with all of the onomatopoeia removed (blacked out). Groups work to figure out the basic story line. Next, students are given a copy of the original story including the onomatopoeia. They discuss the function/effect of those onomatopoeia on the text and decide on why they believe the author used the particular sounds for the particular scenes. They write their reasons on a large piece of butcher paper, scene by scene, and present their explanation to the class. Students add new information to the Venn diagram as needed.

Students work in groups of four and in pairs within groups on the final activity that prepares them for their creative writing assignment. Each group of four students is given a poem in Japanese containing onomatopoeia. (See Materials for examples; any level-appropriate poems containing onomatopoeia may be used.) Pairs in each group practice reading the poem, alternating line by line, so that it flows smoothly and ultimately sounds as though one person were reading it. When they are ready, each pair records the poem on to an audiotape and submits it for grading. Finally, the group of four rewrites the onomatopoetic parts of the poem substituting an adjective, explanatory phrase, etc., to convey the same meaning. The convenience and effectiveness of onomatopoeia becomes salient as students do this task. Students add new information to the Venn diagram as needed.

ACTIVITY SET 6: Entering a Contest
Each student develops at least two creative works from the categories mentioned in the learning scenario to enter in the contest. Higher-level students are encouraged to write original ones. Novice-level students may use existing Manga pictures and write their own sentences and onomatopoeia. They may also use an existing poem but replace a stanza or two with one of their own. In every case, they are required to use onomatopoeia effectively. The student products may be presented in a variety of ways, e.g., orally through dramatic readings or acting and pantomime or through a published collection of student works. Contest award winners may be determined by student vote, by teacher selection, or by a panel of native speaker judges if available.

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Targeted Standards

  • Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretative, & Presentational Modes
  • Cultures: Practices & Perspectives, Products & Perspectives
  • Connections: Other Subject Areas
  • Comparisons: Nature of Language, Concept of Culture

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  • Internet texts to introduce learners to the topic of onomatopoeia (see Resources for URLs)
  • A list of common Japanese onomatopoeia with translations
  • A list of common English onomatopoeia
  • Samples of Japanese Manga (comic books) available in Japanese book stores, grocery stores, or community libraries
  • Tape recorder and teacher-created sound effects tape
  • Recordings of Old MacDonald Had A Farm and Hanako san no makibade (see Resources)
  • Japanese poems in which onomatopoeia is used (Examples include Kogai nite by Saisei Murou and Dokokade by Kazue Shinkawa.)
  • Butcher paper and art supplies

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met


Communication: The interpersonal mode is used as students play vocabulary practice games. The interpretive mode is used in those games, in reading the Manga stories, poems, haiku, etc. The presentational mode is used in poetry readings, song presentations (Hanako san no makibade), and the presentation of creative works.

Cultures: Students learn about Japanese products (stories, poetry, etc.) and practices (use of onomatopoeia in creative works) in this unit. They come to better understand the importance in Japanese of the dramatic effect created by onomatopoeia.

Connections: Students use technology and other resources to learn about Japanese onomatopoeia, and they use the Japanese language to expand their knowledge of literature.

Comparisons: Students compare and contrast Japanese and English onomatopoeia, creating Venn diagrams. They compare the cultural uses of onomatopoeia in the two cultures.

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Expansion Ideas

  • The class creates games or word art with frequently used Japanese onomatopoeia. Alternatively, students may enjoy a game found at: http://www.askasia.org/students/japanese_game2.htm
  • Students select picture images for a collage and label them with invented onomatopoetic words.

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McBride, H., Burnham, S., Saegusa, Y., & Sedunary, M. (1990). Kimono—Level I. St. Paul, MN: EMC/Paradigm.
Accompanying audiocassette #1 contains song Hanako-san no makibade.

Comic books (Manga)

  • Weekly Shonen Sunday (Tokyo: Shogakugan)
  • Dragon Ball (Tokyo: Shueisha)
  • Ranma 1/2 (Tokyo: Shogakugan)

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