Plosive consonants, what are they? Plosives, also known as stops, are consonants that when articulated, block your vocal tract and constrict airflow.
In Japanese, these are the sounds <k>, <g>, <t>, <d>, <b> and <p>. Although these phonemes sound similar to their English counterparts, there are a few key differences to keep in mind in order to improve your pronunciation.
The first thing to keep in mind is aspiration. Aspiration refers to the puff of air that comes out of your mouth when articulating these sounds. In English, these sounds are aspirated by default. If you hold out the palm of your hand in front of your mouth and say the words pit, bit, kit, tick, door or go, you will feel a relatively strong puff of air hit your hand.
However, these sounds are not always aspirated. When pronouncing the words spit, skit and stick, you no longer feel that strong puff of air when articulating the <p>, <k> or <t> sounds. In these special scenarios, English plosives become unaspirated.
Japanese, on the other hand, is a bit different. These sounds are always unaspirated. So an English speaker learning Japanese needs to learn how to make their plosives unaspirated even when they appear at the very beginning of words.
The end result is that these plosive phonemes sound much more soft and muted in Japanese than they do in English.
The sounds がぎぐげご are also a bit special in Japanese. When they appear at the beginning of a word or phrase, they are pronounced like the English phoneme <g> only less aspirated, as described above.
However, when these sounds appear in the middle or end of a word, they become heavily nasalized by many speakers. When this happens, <g> winds up sounding much closer to the <ng> sound in the word sang then a regular <g> sound.
Some example words where you would see this nasalization occur include
かぐ - Furniture
かがみ - Mirror
まんが - Manga
However you would not hear a nasalized <g> in the following words because the <g> sound is at the very beginning
ごま – Sesame
がれき – Rubble
ぎゅうにく – Beef
It’s worth pointing out that not all native speakers nasalize the <g> sound in this way. The nasal g is generally considered to be the more traditional and “posh” pronunciation and is much more common amongst older speakers. Younger speakers tend to not use it as much. Still though, it can be a nice affect to have in your Japanese speech, and it will be sure to impress those you are speaking to.