This one is a little harder than it looks.
If you grew up in the English speaking world, you know that Japan’s most famous mountain is Mount Fuji. But like “samurai” and “shogun”, these words can sometimes throw off learners when they hear them natively for the first time. The English “samurai” (Sam-uh-rye) is a little different than the Japanese さむらい just as the English “shogun” (show-guhn) isn’t quite the same as しょうぐん. So when Japanese people first start saying words like ふじさん and ふたり, some Japanese learners get thrown off.
Everyone is aware of Japanese’s biggest beginner pronunciation hurdle, the らりるれろset of sounds. R and L pronunciation is a classic example in American culture of a stereotypical Asian (especially Japanese) accent. Without a doubt, this one is the hardest to overcome, though it isn’t as hard as you might believe.
Much easier to correct is the oft-mispronounced ふ sound.
The Small Mouth Technique
At some point, I’ll probably dedicate more time to this topic, but the basic idea behind the “small mouth technique” is to use less of your mouth to speak Japanese. In fact, ideally, don’t move the outside of your mouth at all.
Unlike English, with words that require our teeth and tongues to stick outside of our mouths, Japanese has none of these sounds. An exaggerated “fuck”, for instance, makes us bite over our lower lip. A word like “thing” has us touch the bottom (or back) of our top teeth. Japanese would never make us do movements like this with our mouths.
One of the problems Japanese learners of English have is getting used to the muscle movements required to make English sounds, not least of which are the ones that require the lips and outside of the face. So let’s take this in the other direction to learn Japanese.
As much as possible, don’t move your face. Keep your mouth slightly open. You should be able to speak Japanese this way (although, ladies, this tends to sound more male-like in practice).
So what is the right sound for ふ? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not an F sound.
Some people think that of the はひふへほ set, ふ is the outlier. Ha Hi Fu He Ho. Actually, Ha Hi Hu He Ho is also fine.
The ふ sound requires the air-blowing you do during the English “fu” sound, but without the lip-biting that traditional “f” words require in English. So make your mouth small, like you’re about to whistle, and blow air out. Alternatively, say the word “who” and make sure to blow out excess air while you do it.
This is a good approximation of the ふ sound.
Try it with words you know. Practice makes perfect.
Just because it’s Fuji and futon in English, doesn’t mean you pronounce ふじ and ふとん the same way in Japanese. Be careful!
But even more important, have fun! 😀