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YumeTwins Kawaii Culture BlogJapanese Onomatopoeia: Cute Words and More!

Japanese Onomatopoeia: Cute Words and More!

By Jamilia Brown
August 05, 2021

Many people want to study Japanese onomatopoeia (sound words) thanks to the influence of anime, Japanese video games, J-pop, and Japanese history, prompting many people to learn the language!

As you start learning Japanese, you might find many interesting onomatopoeic words. You may have read or heard the word doki-doki or other onomatopoeias in manga or anime.

But what does doki-doki mean? For those who may not know, an onomatopoeia is a word that comes from sound effects. In English, ‘boom,’ ‘pop,’ and ‘crunch’ are great examples.

While unusual for non-native speakers, these words are often used in everyday life by native Japanese speakers to describe a sound, related feeling, or emotion. They’re also shorter and easier for beginners than Japanese convenience store phrases. Here’s a list of the cutest Japanese words to know and use daily!

Doki-Doki: Excited (ドキドキ)

When you’re feeling excited or anxious, you usually feel it in your chest. ‘Doki-doki’ is the sound of your beating heart in these situations and describes a sense of excitement or anticipation.

You can use it before a big exam, and you’re nervous about passing, or before a first date with a cutie from your class. Most anime and manga fans are pretty familiar with this Japanese onomatopoeia!

Example: 胸がドキドキするわ (mune-ga-dokidoki-suruwa)

“My heart is racing!”

A woman who is in love and very nervous about it.

Has anyone ever made you go “doki-doki”? Image via Shutterstock

Kira-kira: Shiny (キラキラ)

Japanese onomatopoeia can be challenging to describe, and ‘kira-kira’ falls into that category. When an object’s surface is so shiny that the light dances off it, or when a star shines in the night sky, that’s kira-kira. In other words, think glitter, Christmas lights, or boy band outfits. This phrase even appears in the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu music video for “Kira-Kira Killer.”

Example: “このワンピースはキラキラですね!” (kono-wanpiisu-wa-kirakira-desu-ne)

“This dress is very sparkly!”

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Niko-niko: Smile(ニコニコ)

No one knows this word’s origin, but it’s often used in daily conversation, manga, and anime. ‘Niko-niko’ is a Japanese word for ‘smile,’ but it’s only used for a genuinely happy smile. It’s a noun, but when paired with the verb ‘suru’ (to do), it turns the word into a verb meaning ‘to me.”. 

Example: “赤ちゃんはニコニコしました.” (akachan-wa-nikoniko-shimashita)

“The baby smiled.”

Two women smiling happily, one with open eyes and one with closed eyes. They use the Japanese onomatopoeia "niko-niko" to describe their feelings!

Beautiful things make us go “niko-niko”! Image via Shutterstock

Nyaa or Nyan: Cat’s Meow (ニャー or ニャン)

‘Nyaa’ is the cute Japanese onomatopoeia that cats make. In other words, it’s the Japanese word for ‘me.”. Cat motifs are popular in Japan, and many mascots and costumes are based around cats. So, it’s widespread to hear this word in anime, dramas, and even songs! 

You can say ‘Nyaa’ in an even cuter way by adding an ‘n’ at the end, becoming the even more adorable word ‘nyan.’

Example: “猫はニャーしました.” (neko-wa-nyaa-shimashita)

“The cat meowed.”

Kawaii: Cute (かわいい)

Of course, one of the cutest words in Japanese is the word for ‘cute.’ Roughly translated, kawaii means just plain cute in Japanese. However, the meaning is closer to adorable or loveable, and it describes actions and appearance. For example, puppies, Japanese good luck charms, and J-pop idol dances are also kawaii!

Example: “その女の子がかわいいです.” (sono-onnanoko-ga-kawaii-desu)

“That girl is cute.”

Suki: Like (好き)

Words in Japanese sometimes don’t translate directly into English. ‘Like’ in English is a verb, but the word is actually an adjective in Japanese. In addition, ‘suki’ is often used to express your interests or affection for a person or thing. 

Generally, you’ll often see it at the end of sentences with the word desu (is/am/are). If you want to strengthen your feelings of affection, add the prefix dai (big/very) to the word to get a closer meaning to love. 

Example: “猫が好きです.” (neko-ga-suki-desu)

“I like cats!”

A businessman thinking about his wife who he loves very much. He uses the Japanese onomatopoeia "suki" to describe this feeling!

Who or what do you “suki” the most? Image via Shutterstock

Kirei: Pretty (綺麗 きれい)

A pleasant complement to ‘kawaii,’ ‘kirei’ can also be used to positively describe a person or thing’s appearance! While it’s mostly translated to mean ‘pretty,’ the nuance of the word is for something with a clean or well-refined appearance. On top of that, ‘kawaii’ has a more youthful feeling, while ‘kirei’ sounds a little more mature.

Example: “この部屋は綺麗ですね.” (kono-heya-wa-kirei-desune)

“This room is pretty.”

Chiisai: Small (小さい ちいさい)

The final word on our list is ‘chiisai,’ which means ‘small’ in Japanese. It’s often written using the kanji’ 小’, read as ‘ch,” and is used to symbolize something small. In addition, if you want to make this word sound even cuter, you can replace the ‘sai’ with ‘chai’ (chiichai). 

Example: 家は小さいです (ie-wa-chiisai-desu)

“This house is small.”

Overall, Japanese is full of cute words and phrases; learning them is likely the best way to start your language-learning journey. How do you feel about our list? Are there any other words or phrases in Japanese that you love? Let us know in the comments below.

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