The Japanese language is rich in vocabulary and expressions, but there is a unique category that stands out and if you are an avid manga reader. Onomatopoeias are as omnipresent in everyday Japanese as they are in manga. We can count over 4,500 of them!

What is an onomatopoeia?

Before we start exploring today’s theme, let’s take a few moments to review the basics.
An onomatopoeia is the “the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named”. At least, this is what the Oxford Dictionary tells us. Concretely, onomatopoeias are the words that we use in order to reproduce noises, but also sensations, emotions, an atmosphere or a situation. In short, they can depict ‘sound images’.

Thus, the meowing of a cat, the crowing of the rooster, the howling of the owl, the trumpeting of an elephant, the sound of a door closing violently, the sound of a window breaking, the the creaking of a tree, the sound of the wind, a sneeze… can all can be represented by an onomatopoeia. They are as present in English as in Japanese, but the difference is that the Japanese also use them orally!

Going nuts with onomatopoeias!

Although not everyone agrees on the number of categories of onomatopoeias, we can distinguish two major ones: Giongo and Gitaigo.

The Giongo, the so-called “expressive” onomatopoeias, are what comes closest to the onomatopoeias we use. They are the written representation of sounds and noises that surround us. In Japanese, we can find the sounds emitted by living beings, the cries of animals (nakigoe) and the sounds emitted by our body or even our ambient environment (giseigo), for example.

So animal calls will look like:

  • NyaaNyaa = cat
  • KaaKaa = crow
  • Kokekokkoo = rooster
  • UkiUki = monkey
  • Uooon = wolf
  • Gaoo = lion
  • Shurushuru = snake

While the surrounding sounds:

  • Pachi Pachi = applause
  • Botsu Botsu = falling raindrop
  • Buu, Puu = sound of a fart
  • Geppu = burp
  • Hush = sound of a kiss
  • Zaa Zaa = a torrential rain
  • Pen pen = sound of a spanking
  • Goro Goro = thunder
  • Mera Mera = crackle of the fire
  • Shiku Shiku = sound of crying.

Gitaigo is a type of onomatopoeia that groups together sounds in a more physical, emotional state, or that embody actions. They are widely present in manga but much less so in Franco-Belgian comics or even in American comics.

In this second category, we can find:

  • Iso Iso = to act with enthusiasm, joyfully
  • Goro Goro = laziness
  • Waku Waku = excitement and joviality
  • Zara Zara = define something rough
  • Uto Uto when you feel drowsy
  • Uka Uka when you’re distracted
  • Meso Meso when we cry
  • Hahaha when we laugh (this one is quite universal…haha)
  • Giri Giri = having achieved something narrowly
  • Kechi Kechi for someone uptight
  • Niko Niko to show a smile
  • Fuwa Fuwa = something soft
  • Tsuru tsuru = something silky / smooth
  • Pika Pika = something sparkling (hey, isn’t this one familiar?)

Even if these types are certainly separate and disparate, several onomatopoeias still be straddle the two categories. This is the case of Kachi Kachi, which represents the metallic click or the tension of a situation of a narrow-minded person. Kucha kucha, similarly, can represent loud eating or a distorted / crumpled face.

In the Japanese language!

Composed of 3 syllabaries (kanji, hiragana, katakana), the Japanese language seems already quite difficult. Onomatopoeias only add a small layer of difficulty, because most of the Giongo will be written in katakana and the Gitaigo are written with the hiragana.
In one sentence, these are very quickly recognizable. The Japanese have made it simple, since the majority of onomatopoeias consist of repeated syllables such as Doki Doki (which represents the beating of the heart itself speaking or the amorous palpitation felt in front of the loved one). Grammatically, onomatopoeias can serve as adverbs, adjectives or even as verbs. So if I say: “Peko Peko Suru” meaning “I have a growling stomach” it could also be translated as “I’m hungry”.

And in manga?

Let’s do an example:

(Uro Uro), you stroll aimlessly, and you can’t help but glance stealthily (chira chira), at the girl you are madly in love by your side. You have found the courage to invite her and you spend the evening together. As you grow closer, (Iji Iji), you are hesitant, she smiles at you Niko Niko, and you gaze into her sparkling eyes (Pika Pika). As you lean towards each other for a kiss, (Potsu Potsu) raindrops start to fall, but that doesn’t stop you! A small fine rain quietly sets in (shito shito).

The closer you get, the stronger your heartbeat (Chikku Chikku). As the distance between you narrows, it’s a cacophony in your chest (Doki Doki). While in the rain, your lips touch, (zukyûûûn). For once, you feel yourself completely living in the present moment, it feels like nothing else exists. But all good things end and you realize that you are totally soaked (Bisho Bisho)! The rain turns into a deluge (zaa zaa), it’s time to find shelter. ”

Omnipresent in manga, onomatopoeias are used to show a particular action, or to highlight certain elements. They also give an additional visual dimension to the scenario. This adds depth to the action, to the events narrated in the manga. To complicate our lives even further, know that some mangakas have invented new sounds, for example, the onomatopoeia for a spontaneous kiss (nothing to do with the planned kiss): zukyûûûn !

One Piece and its devil fruits.

Eiichiro Oda, author of the famous manga One Piece, likes to do things differently. It is interesting to look at a particularity of the universe: the Devil Fruits. Although the manga, like any other, uses onomatopoeias to punctuate its story, One Piece uses them in a whole new way.

For those who wouldn’t read One Piece, devil fruits are fictitious fruits with magical properties, one of the central pillars of the manga universe. These demonic fruits fall into three categories (Paramecia / Zoan / Logia) and endow their possessors with extraordinary powers but also penalize them, depriving them of the possibility of swimming for example.

Some of these devil fruits are named after an onomatopoeia which will define their properties. Thus, the more we are able to recognize the different onomatopoeias present in the Japanese language, the sooner we will guess what power a fruit will give when it is eaten!
Some examples :

  • The Gomu gomu no mi will give its eater an elastic body
  • The Sube sube no mi, a slippery body
  • The Bara bara no mi, a body that can fragment
  • The Mera mera no mi, a body of flame
  • The pika pika no mi, a scintillating body that can move like a flash
  • Baku baku no mi, a metabolism that allows you to eat everything

It is fascinating to see to what extent certain mangaka are invested in the creation of their manga. It is only a simple detail but Eiichiro Oda knew how to turn onomatopoeias into a scriptwriting tool that makes up the heart of his story.

No big conclusions today, but please know that I had a great time doing the research for today’s column and I hope you enjoy reading it just as much. I invite you, if you are curious, to discover the onomatopoeias that I have omitted. There are so many! This will undoubtedly provide a different perspective on the manga you read.

David’s column – 20th of April, 2021


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