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When taught at elementary level, the question of tone is not addressed in Japanese. If you have an ear to pick up the accent, you will naturally make the right intonation in a lot of cases. This is complicated by the fact that the tone system varies through the country: that of Tokyo is not that of Kyoto. Nevertheless, Japanese does have a quite distinctive pitch accent, and that of Tokyo may be taken as the standard.

Unlike Chinese, where a specific rise or fall in pitch is integral to each syllable, the Japanese tone is spread across a phrase. Each main word, such as a noun or a verb, has an accent of its own, but if they are closely linked they may form a phrase with a single accent.

'Accent' in this sense is a general term for one syllable being distinctive in some way. More specifically it may be different in stress, in pitch, or in length. In Japanese all syllables are equally stressed (so neither hi-ROSH-i-ma nor hi-ro-SHI-ma is exactly right). The Japanese accent is one of pitch. There are just two different pitches, high and low. When one syllable has an 'accent', that does not change just that one syllable, it affects the pitch pattern of the whole phrase.

There are three possibilities in a phrase group:

  • No accent
  • Accent on first syllable
  • Accent on another syllable
  • When no syllable is accented, the first syllable is low, and all others are high. (Syllable in all this includes the syllabic nasal, not just oral syllables.)
    So kodomo ga 'the child' is kodomo ga.
  • When the first syllable carries the accent, pitch is high on that one and low on all the ones beyond.
    So nánika 'something' is nanika.
  • When a later syllable is accented, the first syllable is low, all subsequent syllables up to and including the accented one are high, then all below that are low again.
    So otokó-no-ko wa '(as for) the boy' is otokonoko wa.
The classic example is hana 'nose' and haná 'flower', which according to the above rules are pronounced the same, hana. But when followed by particles or other closely linked words, their accents differentially affect the intonation of the phrase.

Technically the accent is on a mora, a part of a syllable, rather than a full syllable. For practical purposes this doesn't affect it much, but you can get the change of tone on a 'syllabic' N (actually a moraic N).

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