Trying to remember Japanese Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is probably one of the fun and recreative aspects of the Japanese language, and I have always been assuming that most Japanese learners remember and use these cute words effortlessly.

The problem

Now, I don’t think that I have a childhood trauma relative to onomatopoeia (but who knows?), but the truth is that I can’t remember them. I know some of them, of course, but only the most commonly used.

Not being able to learn something that almost every text on the subject qualifies as “easy to remember” has been annoying me for a long time now, but I have done nothing to tackle this problem. The only way I dealt with onomatopoeia until now, was to add these words to my Anki deck as standard vocabulary. But I have come up against a few problems:

  • It is a real struggle to guess an onomatopoeia through its English translations. Some share a similar meaning, and translations hardly convey the differences between related onomatopoeias. As a result, when I see the “English” card, it is a hassle to guess the Japanese onomatopoeia, and anyway, being able to deduce an onomatopoeia from an English translation is not very useful. What would be helpful and practical would be to be able to associate an onomatopoeia to a situation, a feeling, or even an association of words.
  • Some words are used with “と” or “する”, “している” when others are used with “だ”, “の”, etc. If I were to learn Japanese onomatopoeia as standard vocabulary, I should also learn how to use each of them correctly. I have tried, mainly because I had to for JLPT N2, and it was more boring than I can say.
  • Even if I can remember them through Anki, it does not tell me in which context I can use them.

Generally speaking, onomatopoeias make sense in a context, a situation. Learning them through flashcards has not proven efficient to me.

The solution

But how am I supposed to learn Japanese onomatopoeia in context? I see a lot of them in novels, but I will not remember them if I don’t use a spaced repetition system. For a long time, I didn’t know how to go about it until I decided to try something out.

I have started a new Anki deck for onomatopoeia. I am using Anki’s function called “cloze deletion” to create my notes.

On the front, I have a complete sentence, sometimes several sentences, that contain an onomatopoeia. The idea is to give as much context as possible so that I can see how or why this onomatopoeia is used here. I also give a “hint”, which is the English “translation”  found in the dictionary. If I give an example with イライラ:

anki onomatopoeia

This is how the front card appears. The back will just display the onomatopoeia in blue. I also use the Awesome TTS plugin to read out loud the onomatopoeia when the answer is shown.  The idea is not to know what an onomatopoeia means but to know in what situation it can be used.

That’s it! Thanks to Anki’s cloze deletion system, this kind of card is easy to create.

the Challenge

Now that I came up with a solution, the challenge is to go on with this system and create new notes regularly. I will try to add notes to this deck every time I come across an onomatopoeia in a novel or any other source. I find it easy to remember words if I can tell in which book I saw them, which character used them, in which context and so on.

The problem is that I may be lazy and stop adding notes to this deck after a while. I will see an onomatopoeia in a book, find it great, think: “I must add it to my deck!”, then go on reading telling myself that I will come back to it later, and then forget. If this happens too often, my new deck will never grow. In the end, I will conclude that it didn’t work, but I would not know if it failed because the idea was bad or because I didn’t even give it a proper try.

What it takes is self-discipline. It will be annoying to do it at first, but if I can keep on with this system for some time, taking notes while reading will become an evident thing to do.


I am glad that I am finally doing something to remember onomatopoeia and not just complain about my lack of skill in this domain. I don’t know if it will work, but I want to give it a try. I will post again about my progress in some months.

My English notebook

What really puzzles me among this whole onomatopoeia thing, is whether the word “onomatopoeia” is uncountable or not. I have seen text saying “Onomatopoeia is…” and others saying “Onomatopoeia are…”, some people say it’s uncountable, others say that it’s okay to write “onomatopoeias” if we need a plural. My Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary says that the word is uncountable, but Grammarly does not underline it if I write with a final “s”. 🤨

10 thoughts on “Trying to remember Japanese Onomatopoeia

  1. oh i had the same thought recently so i downloaded the premade decks for onomatopoeia. there are 2 or 3 of them on anki shared decks. one is from tofugu and the 2 are from someone else. the ones from someone else is a really good deck (it has pictures, sentence with the onomatopoeia blanked out). it’ll save you a lot of time.

    i took those and also generated more definitions using the word query anki plugin. unfortunately there aren’t any for korean so i had to make them myself using excel, websites with lists tables, and word query

    1. I just checked the decks because I forgot how they come but they come with english trnaslations/explanations so the word query plugin (I got daijirin and meikyo if you want stardict dics that work with qor dquery . let me know if you want ’em if you decide to use word query) is my savior lol.

      1. japanese is an awesome language to learn because usually people have already done all this work for you while for korean i can’t even get a rikai-chan equivalent

        1. Thanks for the advice! Still, I think that I will stick to making my own deck because I remember better when I do things myself. Also, I can associate onomatopoeia with a context that I know well (I can mentally recall the scene in the novel in which I found the onomatopoeia). It’s true that it takes a lot of time but adding a note to Anki is the first step of learning it, so I consider it to be part of the learning process.

          1. Thanks, I’ll have a look at them, I might also get some ideas from other people’s work. I think that I secretly enjoy making my own deck, though.

  2. Who the heck said onomatopoeia are easy?! They’re impossible to keep straight, and no matter how many you study there are always more. I find that attaching them to a mental image is key. For example, I first heard ぼさぼさ to describe a newborn baby’s fuzzy, wild hair. I asked if it means ふわふわ (similar meaning, light and fluffy) and they were just like, “Nah, not quite. It’s just… ぼさぼさ.” (…thanks. -_-) While not perfect google image search can help, too. If you search for ぼさぼさ the whole page is people with crazy hair, so I guess I should only use it for hair. ふわふわ fails the image search, though, as there’s a pop group with that name. ^^;;

    For what it’s worth I treat onomatopoeia as an uncountable noun, but it seems like either way you’re right, so no worries! -_^

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! I thought it was just me having a problem with onomatopoeia… I had to learn 40-50 of them when I prepared for JLPT N2 and it was a real nightmare…
      I always use google image when I learn a new onomatopoeia. It really helps! Sometimes, I try to associate onomatopoeia with other words that I think might collocate with it. ふわふわ associated with ねこ or うさぎ gives undeniable results! 😊

      1. I find it most memorable when I hear the onomatopoeia said by a native japanese person ie in a tv show when they’re telling a funny story rather than me reading it out loud or no audio etc.

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