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The Kanshudo definitive guide to Japanese pitch accents

Supercharge your Japanese pronunciation with Kanshudo

Correctly accenting Japanese words when you speak is essential for sounding like a native speaker, and in some situations essential for communication.
In this guide, we'll introduce you to the way accents work in Japanese, help you understand how to determine the correct accents of words and sentences, show you some commonly confused word groups, and show you how to look up accents in Kanshudo and Japanese dictionaries.
Native speaker audio samples are available wherever you see the blue speaker icon. Click each icon to play or pause each sample. The samples typically include the word or phrase repeated several times, first slowly and then at normal speed.
Note: for a basic guide to pronunciation, see our article on Japanese pronunciation.
Contents
1. What are pitch accents?
Japanese is a pitch-accented language: slight differences in the pitch of sounds are used to differentiate words and convey sentence structure. This is a little distinct from a stress-accented language such as English, where certain sounds are emphasized by changing both the pitch and the duration. In Japanese, the duration of each sound that makes up a word (known as a 'mora') is the same, and only the pitch varies.
As a result of this rhythmic consistency, it is sometimes inaccurately claimed that Japanese does not have accents, but this is not true - the pitch does vary within words and sentences, and if you do not reproduce this accurately when you speak, your Japanese will not sound natural. In some cases, multiple words use the same sounds but with different pitch, so you may actually be hard to understand if your pitch is incorrect.
'Mora' vs 'syllable'
When you read about Japanese pitch accents, you will often encounter the term 'mora', which is a linguistics term used to refer to a single 'unit' of sound in a language.
In English we use the term 'syllable' for the sounds that make up a word, and although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are slightly different. Both syllables and moras refer to the sounds that make up words in a language. In a language such as English, which is not rhythmic or timed, the sounds that make up a word may have different durations, so the standard 'unit' of sound is a syllable. Japanese, however, is a rhythmic language, with each consecutive sound having the same duration, so the standard unit of sound is a mora.
Note: 'mora' is singular, and the plural is usually 'moras' in modern English, but since it is derived from a Latin word, 'morae' is also acceptable.
2. The key accent patterns for Japanese words
First, the good news: all Japanese words use one of just four pitch accent patterns! If you ensure that your speech always uses one of the four patterns, you will sound natural 90% of the time even if you occasionally get the wrong pattern. The most 'unnatural'-sounding Japanese comes from using a pitch pattern that does not actually exist in Japanese, because it is a mistake that no native speaker would ever make. Let's take a look at these patterns one by one.
1.
へいばん
平板
- heiban
The word 平板 literally means 'flat board', so this accent pattern is generally held to mean 'accentless' - i.e., flat intonation. In fact, in any 平板 word with more than one mora, the first mora is pronounced with a slightly lower pitch, and then all remaining moras are pronounced with a high pitch. Any particle following the word is also pronounced high.
  (spirit)
0
0
くに
  (country)
0
0
じかん
時間
  (time)
0
0
Note: the pitch notation is explained in Pitch accents in Kanshudo and dictionaries.
2.
あたまだか
頭高
- atamadaka
頭高 means 'head high', so in this pattern, the first mora is high, and then all subsequent moras are pronounced with a low pitch. The drop in pitch is larger than the small rise in pitch we saw at the beginning of 平板 words. Any particle following the word is also pronounced with a low pitch. Essentially, 頭高 is the opposite of the 平板 pattern.
いつ   (when) 
1
1
てんき
天気
  (weather) 
1
1
まいにち
毎日
  (every day)
1
1
3.
なかだか
中高
- nakadaka
中高 means 'middle high', and the key characteristic of this pattern is that the pitch drops from high to low somewhere within of the word. The first mora is low, and any particle following the word is also pronounced with a low pitch. As with 平板 words, the rise in pitch at the beginning of the word is smaller than the drop in pitch that occurs later. All 中高 words have at least three moras.
ひとつ
一つ
  (one)
2
2
スポーツ   (sports)
2
2
こうじょう
工場
(factory)  
3
3
Note: in Japanese, the use of 'う' to lengthen the 'お' sound is primarily a written convention. When pronouncing a word such as こうじょう, the こ is simply extended, and the う is not separately pronounced (and definitely not pronounced as 'う'). For more on this issue, see our Japanese pronunciation guide.
4.
おだか
尾高
- odaka
尾高 means 'tail high', and in this form, the first mora is low (unless the word only has a single mora), then goes high and remains high to the end of the word. Any particle following the word has a low pitch.
  (tree)
1
1
かわ
  (river)
2
2
ふたつ
二つ
  (two)
3
3
きふくしき
起伏式
You may encounter the term 起伏式 describing pitch accent patterns. 起伏式 literally means 'undulating form', and it is a collective term representing the three patterns 2 - 4 above (ie, 頭高, 中高 and 尾高). Another way to think about the accent patterns above is that 平板 starts low and stays high, whereas each of the other patterns starts low, goes high, and then goes low again (in other words, undulates).
へいばん
平板
  (flat)
0
きふくしき
起伏式
  (undulating)
2
3. Simple rules for determining pitch accents
Let's start with the most useful rule: any word that is not a particle has a fixed pitch accent. It will be the same whenever you encounter it. If you learn the pitch accent of a word, that's all you need to accent it correctly. However, you may not always know the pitch of a word; next we'll cover some rules that will help you guess correctly most of the time.
Rule 1: if the first mora is low, the second is high, and vice versa
If you look at the four basic patterns, you'll notice they all have something in common: if the first mora has a high pitch, the second has a low pitch; conversely, if the first mora has a low pitch, the second has a high pitch. This is our first rule: the pitch of the first and second moras in a single standalone word is always different. It is not possible for every mora in a word to be high or low.
low > high
0
high > low
1
Rule 2: once you go low, stay low
We can see something else from our four patterns: once the pitch of a word goes low, it will stay low until the end of the word. No matter how long a word is, there will only ever be at most three pitches (low, then high, then low again). (Note that this rule does not apply to particles or all inflected forms - we'll cover that in Pitch accents for particles, inflected verbs, and adjectives below.)
ひとつ
一つ
  (one)
2
スポーツ   (sports)
2
かあ
さん   (mother)
2
まわり
さん   (policeman)
2
Rule 3: if in doubt, guess 平板
If you are not sure of the correct accent of a word, this rule will be the most useful! Among the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese, the 平板 pattern is used about 55% of the time. So if you are completely unsure of the accent of the word, guess 平板 (start low, then go high and stay high). You will be right more often than you are wrong!
If you have any reason to believe a word is *not* 平板, the next most common pattern is 頭高, which is used in about 25% of the 10,000 most useful words. This should be your second guess: start high, then go low on the second mora and stay low.
After 平板 and 頭高, the next most common is 中高, which is used about 15% of the time. However, it is hard to guess 中高, because the 中高 pattern covers all words which go low *at some point* in the middle of the word - the classification alone doesn't give you enough information to guess *where* in the word you should go low.
Two more things are important to remember when you are trying to determine pitch accent. The first is that the accent of a word may change if the word is incorporated into a larger word - we'll cover this in Some unexpected twists below. Additionally, when you put words together into sentences, you need to know how to address the pitch of particles, and how to handle the overall pitch of the sentence. We'll cover this in Pitch accents in sentences below.
4. Commonly confused word pairs and groups
Most of the time, if you get the pitch accent of a word wrong, your Japanese will sound a little odd, but it will be perfectly understandable. However, in certain situations, it could lead to an unfortunate miscommunication. Some Japanese words which use the same sounds (known as 'homonyms') are distinguished based on pitch accent - so if you use the incorrect accent, you are actually using the incorrect word!
Below are a few of the most common and important examples. In Further study and credits, you can find a more comprehensive collection of all examples found in the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese.
日 (day)
0
火 (fire)
1
 
木 (tree)
1
気 (spirit)
0
 
いち
一 (one)
2
位置 (position)
1
 
かみ
紙 (paper)
2
髪 (hair)
2
神 (god)
1
はな
花 (flower)
2
鼻 (nose)
0
 
ようい
用意 (use)
1
容易 (ease)
0
 
おもい
重い (heavy)
0
思い (thought)
2
 
かう
買う (buy)
0
飼う (rear)
1
 
はし
橋 (bridge)
2
端 (edge)
0
箸 (chopsticks)
1
かた
肩 (shoulder)
1
型 (type)
2
方 (person)
2
5. Pitch accents for particles, inflected verbs, and adjectives
Particles
The pitch of a particle is determined by the accent type of the word it follows. For 平板 words, the particle pitch is high.
かいしゃ
会社
が   (company)
For 頭高, 中高 and 尾高 words, the particle pitch is low.
せかい
世界
が (world)  
にほん
日本
が (Japan)  
ことば
言葉
が (word)  
Verbs and their inflections
The pitch accents of the polite forms of verbs, and a few other forms, are the same for all types of verb:
masu form
います (say)
polite past form
いました (said)
masu negative
いません (does not say)
polite past negative
いませんでした (did not say)
たい form
いたい (want to say)
For other forms, the pitch depends on the category of verb. As we saw in section 3, most Japanese words are 平板, and this is especially true for verbs - nearly 65% of the most useful 1000 verbs in Japanese are 平板. Pitch accents for inflected forms of 平板 verbs are straightforward: most are also 平板:
plain
う (say)
plain negative
わない (does not say)
past
った (said)
te form
って (saying)
potential
える (can say)
passive
われる (is said)
causative
わせる (make say)
The following forms of 平板 verbs do not follow the 平板 pattern, and these forms do not have the same pattern in non-平板 verbs:
past negative
わなかった (did not say)
conditional
えば (if I say)
volitional
おう (want to say)
Verbs that are not 平板 are either 頭高 or 中高; there are no 尾高 verbs. Almost all of the 頭高 verbs have only two moras. Most non-negative forms of 頭高 verbs are also 頭高:
plain
る (see)
past
た (saw)
te
て (seeing)
conditional
れば (if I see)
中高 verbs are a little more difficult to predict, but some generalizations do exist. The downstep in the plain form always occurs before the final mora:
plain
べる (eat)
For 中高 verbs, for the past / te / conditional forms, the downstep is on the third-to-last mora:
past
べた (ate)
te
べて (eating)
conditional
べれば (if I eat)
For negative forms of both 頭高 and 中高 verbs, the downstep comes on the mora before the な. So for two-mora verbs such as 見る, negative forms are also 頭高, and for longer verbs, they are 中高:
plain negative
ない (doesn't see)
past negative
なかった (didn't see)
The remaining common forms of both 頭高 and 中高 verbs are 中高:
potential / passive
られる (is seen / be able to see)
causative
させる (make see)
ながら
ながら (while seeing)
Adjectives and their inflections
The vast majority of い adjectives are 中高 with the downstep occurring before the い. In most cases, any conjugated form shifts the downstep one mora back.
plain
あつ
い (hot)
past
あつ
かった (was hot)
te
あつ
くて (hot...)
Negative forms of い adjectives are one of the rare exceptions to the 'once you go low stay low' rule. Negative forms function as if they are a combination of the pitch pattern of the く form of the adjective, plus a suitably conjugated form of the 頭高 word ない (in other words, the な is high).
plain
あつ
くない (not hot)
past
あつ
くなかった (was not hot)
な adjectives can be 頭高 or 中高 (most two- and three-mora words) or 平板 (most four-mora words consisting of kanji only).
しず
か (quiet)
1
あんぜん
安全
(safe)
0
にぎ
やか (lively)
2
Negative forms of な adjectives are also exceptions to the 'once you go low stay low' rule. Negative forms function as if they are a combination of the dictionary form of the adjective, plus では with low pitch, plus a suitably conjugated form of the 頭高 word ない.
plain
しず
かではない (not quiet)
past
しず
かではなかった (was not quiet)
Other parts of speech
Many common sentence-ending words such as だ, です, でしょう, だろう, みたい, etc., follow a simple pattern: if the last mora of the previous word is low, they start low and stay low; if the last mora of the previous word is high, they start high and go low after the first mora.
あき
です (is autumn)
がくせい
学生
です (is a student)
6. Pitch accents in sentences
So now we are well equipped to pronounce individual words correctly - but what happens when we put words together in sentences? How do things change? What does the overall pitch pattern of a sentence look like? We can determine sentence-level pitch by thinking of it as a combination of three rules.
#1 Pitch stays high across word boundaries until it reaches a downstep
When a word that ordinarily has a low pitch on the first mora (such as two-plus-mora 中高 or 平板 words) follows a mora with high pitch, the pitch remains high on the first mora of the word.
Let's use this sentence as an example:
わたし
にほんご
日本語
べんきょう
勉強
しています。 (I am studying Japanese.)
Looking at the words individually, we would expect the following pattern:
When we combine the words, we stay high until the first downstep, which occurs when we reach the ま of います. So the lower pitch at the start of にほんご, べんきょう, して and います is omitted, and the pitch stays high:
#2 After a downstep, the next rise in pitch is not as high as the downstep
This pattern is known as 'terracing', because it creates a pitch pattern rather like a series of steps going down from left to right. In fact, the whole pitch of a sentence starts high and gradually shifts downwards.
Let's use this sentence as an example:
ぼく
せんせい
先生
をしています。 (I am a teacher.)
Unlike our first example, we now have three separate downsteps - in 僕, 先生 and しています. So looking at the words individually, we expect to see this:
Applying our first rule, we would expect to see something like this:
In fact, this is basically correct! But simply alternating between two levels of pitch sounds unnaturally robotic, and rule 2 tells us that the high pitch of ぼ is a little higher than the high pitch of んせ, which in turn is a little higher than the high pitch of ています. Here's a diagram generated by the excellent OJAD tool from Tokyo University (see Further study and credits) which shows this in action:
#3 Words you want to emphasize should have a somewhat higher pitch
The pitch pattern of the word to be emphasized does not change, but its overall pitch relative to its neighbors is somewhat higher. Using the same example as rule #2, let's say we want to emphasize the fact that we are a *teacher* (as opposed to an astronaut). In English, we would do this by stressing the word 'teacher'. In Japanese, we do it by giving the word せんせい relatively higher pitch:
Notice how the overall rise / fall pattern is the same, but now the word せんせい has the highest pitch.
You will often encounter the term 'prosody' in connection with pitch accents. Prosody refers to the elements of real speech that convey meaning over and above the words themselves. A great example of prosody would be the use of rising pitch to indicate a question for a sentence which would otherwise be a statement. Looking at the sentence written down, you may have no idea it is a question, but if you heard it spoken aloud, the prosody would make it obvious. In Japanese, prosody is usually used to refer to the changes in pitch at the sentence level that we describe in this section.
7. Some unexpected twists
Japanese pitch accents are relatively straightforward, but as we have seen, they are not completely regular, and until repeated exposure trains your ear naturally, trying to remember the rules that govern accents can seem overwhelming. Try not to be discouraged - correct accents can make you sound much more natural, but they are generally not vital for communication.
As we have seen, most words in Japanese are 平板, and this is especially true for verbs. The 平板 pattern does not exist in English, so the most common mistake beginners make is imposing an English accent pattern on Japanese 平板 words. In American English words are most commonly accented on their second syllable, which corresponds most closely to a 中高 2 pattern, where the downstep occurs after the second mora of a word. (Consider the word America: Americans pronounce the ME with a slightly higher pitch and a slightly longer duration: a-ME-ri-ca.) While this pattern does exist in Japanese, it is not the most common pattern, so you will often sound unnatural if you use it constantly.
One thing to be aware of is that numbers and counters are quite irregular. For example:
ひと
つ   (one)
2
ふた
つ   (two)
3
みっ
つ   (three)
3
つ   (four)
3
This guide describes the pitch accents of words in
ひょうじゅんご
標準語
, 'Standard Japanese', which is the form of Japanese taught in schools and used by NHK announcers. As a result, NHK guides are the canonical sources of information on this style of language! In the real world, accents vary widely around Japan, and even in Tokyo not all of these rules are followed (despite the fact that 標準語 is often referred to as 'Tokyo dialect'). In some cases, differences of opinion occur even in 標準語, and where that happens, we display each of the possible options, with the most common first:
ちょっと   (a little)
1 0
The pitch accent of compound words is usually the combination of the pitch accents of the individual words. However, it is not uncommon for words to change their pattern when they are absorbed into larger words. For example:
にほん
日本
  (Japan)
2
にほんご
日本語
  (Japanese language)
0
にほんじん
日本人
  (Japanese person)
4
にほんかい
日本海
  (Japan Sea)
2
8. Pitch accents in Kanshudo and dictionaries
Most Japanese dictionaries use the same notation for defining pitch: a number indicates the mora after which a downstep occurs, or 0 if there is no downstep. In other words, all 平板 words are represented by a 0, 頭高 by a 1, and 尾高 by a number equal to the number of moras in the word. 中高 would be any number greater than 1 and less than the number of moras in the word.
In order to use this notation, just count the number of moras in the word - remembering that small kana symbols except っ are included with the previous character (so きよ is two moras, but きょ is only one). When the pitch of a compound word is based on the pitch of the words it comes from, the pitch of each word is shown joined by '-'.
Kanshudo includes the standard dictionary notation. In addition, we also provide a simple binary pitch diagram - the word written in furigana, with lines below the characters to indicate low pitch, and above to indicate high pitch. The end of the line indicates the pitch of the word that comes next - so for a 平板 word, the line ends at the top right of the last character (high); for all other categories, it ends at the bottom right (low). Here are a few examples:
平板
じかん
時間
  (time)
0
頭高
てんき
天気
  (weather)
1
中高
ひとり
一人
  (alone)
2
尾高
あいて
相手
  (partner)
3
In Kanshudo, (when available) the pitch diagram appears directly below the word itself when you see the word in the standard form we use in search results. You can click the pitch accent diagram to bring up more information. For example:
3
noun, noun (prefix)
1. man; male  (see also: )
noun
2. fellow; guy; chap; bloke
(click the word to view an additional 1 reading and 2 meanings, examples and links)
TEST
9. How to learn pitch accents
Congratulations - if you have read this far, you have already taken the most important step in mastering pitch accents by familiarizing yourself with the categories and the basic conventions.
The next step is to train your ear to recognize these categories when you hear them. If you do that, your brain will start to classify words into the correct categories automatically as you hear words in context. You will find that this 'automatic learning' will greatly reduce the amount of rote learning you need to do.
However, some rote memorization will be necessary, in particular for the easily confused words we list above. Study those carefully and test yourself on them.
Finally, it is important to confirm that you can reproduce the correct accent even when you know it, and there is no better technique for that than mimicking correct pronunciation. If possible, have a native speaker listen and confirm your accent is correct, but if not, just record yourself and then listen to yourself alongside the original to identify where you need to improve.
10. Further study and credits
All our audio samples were created for us by
みやもと
宮本
じゅんこ
淳子
. Junko is currently an associate professor in the Japanese language and literature department at
とこは
常葉
だいがく
大学
in Shizuoka, and before that, she was a professional radio announcer for several years, so as well as crystal clear pronunciation, she brings a deep understanding of the official pitch accents in use in Japanese media.
The best resource in English we have found for studying pitch accents and Japanese pronunciation in depth is the comprehensive lecture series by Dōgen, which you can find on Patreon here. Dōgen is an American with near native-level Japanese (and a cool anonym!) who has studied phonetics extensively at university in Japan, and combines that knowledge with a clear and easy-to-understand presentational style. We highly recommend his lessons.
For a definitive written guide, you can't do better than one or both of these books:
  • The NHK accent dictionary 「NHK日本語発音アクセント新辞典」, which you can find on Amazon here
  • The Shin Meikai accent dictionary 「新明解日本語アクセント辞典 第2版」, which you can find on Amazon here
A great tool for understanding the accent patterns in conjugated Japanese words and full sentences is OJAD (Online Japanese Accent Dictionary) from the University of Tokyo. They have a cool 'waveform generator' for visualizing pitch change in sentences and inflected words that you can find here. The interface is in Japanese, but all you need to do is paste your text into the large text area and then press the button labeled
じっこう
実行
.
Amongst the most useful 10,000 words in Japanese, there are actually nearly 600 homonyms with different pitch accents (for a total of nearly 1600 words). When you are ready to take a deep dive, visit the full collection and perfect your pronunciation!
On Kanshudo, about 150,000 of the definitions in the word dictionary include pitch accent information. Additionally, we are working on some games and other tools to help you memorize pitch accents as you study on Kanshudo.

Any feedback on this guide? Errors? Additional topics you'd like us to cover?
Please CONTACT US.

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