How often do you say “like” when you’re speaking to a friend? What about “um”?
These little space-fillers are called filler words, and they’re extremely useful for maintaining the flow of a sentence.
So, as a Japanese learner, you may be wondering if filler words are as commonly used in Japanese speech?
Let me rephrase that.
You might, like, be wondering if, um, filler words are, like, totally cool to use in Japanese?
The answer is yes!
Pretty much every language out there has filler words. We don’t speak perfect English all the time and for some reason human beings really hate moments of silence between words while thinking. Filler words are common in Japanese just like they are in English.
Just be sure to, like, totally not use, uh, some of these words while giving a deposition or speech or something. You know?
Before we check out these neat filler words below, let’s look at the role of filler words in Japanese.
How Are Filler Words Used in Japanese?
A filler word is essentially a form of slang in which syllables, sounds or fully-formed words are used to fill pockets of silence in spoken sentences. Often, these words are used while trying to figure out exactly what you need to say or while deep in thought.
If you’re anxious or a bit awkward, filler words may seem at times impossible to part with. But that’s perfectly okay! We all use filler words in our native tongue and it’s very much the same concept in Japanese.
However, Japanese filler words are sometimes used in different parts of sentences than you’d expect.
And you might be surprised to discover that Japanese filler words sound very different from English ones! Saying “Eeto” instead of “Umm” is just one tiny but effective way to sound more natural when you’re speaking Japanese.
It’s worth noting that these words are entirely optional, but speaking very strict Japanese without filler words, especially when in an informal setting, can make you come across as harsh or overly posh.
You can pick up on nuances like this by watching videos made by native Japanese speakers and paying close attention to the way they fill pauses in their speech. You can find lots of examples and awesome videos at FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
These 12 filler words are among the most common in the Japanese language, so soak them up!
12 Japanese Filler Words to Fill Up Awkward Pauses
1. えーと — “eeto”
えーと — “Eeto” can also be written as えっと. This filler word is probably the most common one in Japanese. It’s essentially a Japanese version of “uhh” or “umm.”
えーと will commonly be heard or seen at random parts of a sentence. Rather than say えーと once and move on, you can either draw out the “eeeeeeeto” sound for the duration of the pause or say the filler word multiple times in a row.
あなたは、えーと、えーと . . . とても美しいです。(あなた は、 えーと、 えーと. . . とても うつくしい です。) — You are, uh, um… so beautiful.
2. それで — “sore de”
This filler word basically means “so.” It’s commonly heard when someone’s explaining something or to start a new topic in the conversation. Typically, you say it once at the beginning of a sentence.
それで is the formal version while で can be used informally.
それで、明日何かしていますか？(それで、あしたなにかしていますか？) — So, are you doing anything tomorrow?
3. そうそう — “sou sou”
This is a way of saying “that’s right” or “correct” as an exclamation. More literally, it’s like saying “yes, yes!”
Use it to quickly let someone know you agree with them, they have a point or they’ve figured something out. Imagine a one-sided conversation on the phone: “Ah, yes, yes. Mm-hm! I see.”
ああ、そうそう、きみは絶対に正しいです！(ああ、そうそう、きみはぜったいにただしいです！) — Ah, yes, yes, you’re absolutely right!
4. ていうか — “te iu ka”
Use this one to say “I mean…” when you need to think about what you’re going to say or politely disagree with something.
You can also use it to rephrase something to make it clearer, similar to saying “What I mean is…”
映画を見てみましょう。 ていうか、映画館に行きましょう。(えいがをみてみましょう。 ていうか、えいがかんにいきましょう。) — Let’s watch a movie. I mean, let’s go to the movies.
5. なんか — “nanka”
なんか is very similar to the word “like” when used as a filler word, often used when you’re searching for the correct word or phrase to say.
It can also be said when you’re listening for something or discover something. In this case, なんか would be more like a “hey…” or “wait…”
なんか、今日は雨みたいだよ。(なんか きょう は あめ みたいだよ。) — Hey, it seems like rain today.
6. そういえば — “sō ieba”
そう言えば can mean several things, including “speaking of,” “which reminds me,” “come to think of it” or “now that you mention it…” It almost always comes at the beginning of a sentence.
そういえば、私は前にこの映画を見たことがありました。(そう いえ ば、わたし は まえ に この えいが を みたこと が ありました。) — Come to think of it, I’ve seen this film before.
7. あのね — “ano ne”
Use this one to get someone’s attention with a verbal nudge, similar to saying “hey” or “hey there.” This is also the expression you’d use if you suddenly remembered something, had an idea or just want a moment to collect your thoughts.
Although there isn’t a single English equivalent, think of it like saying “You know…” or “Hang on a sec…”
あのね、聞いて！(あのね、きいて！) — Hey, listen!
8. うーん — “uun”
If thinking had a sound, it would be うーん.
When you’re not sure what to say, you’re stalling for time or you haven’t come up with an answer or decision, use this handy filler word. It’s the equivalent of the English “Ummm…”
うーん . . . 赤いものが好きです。(うーん . . . あかいものがすきです。) — Umm… I like the red one.
9. あら — “ara”
When you’re saying that you’ve just noticed something, you’d use あら.
You can also use あら when expressing that you understand something you’ve been told or along the lines of “Ah, I see.” It’s mostly used by women.
あら、小麦粉を見つけた！(あら、こむぎ こな を みつけた！) — Oh, I found the flour!
10. ええ — “ee”
ええ is a very versatile filler word. It can be affirming and used in place of “yes” or “sure.” It can be used in place of “umm” or “uhh” similar to えーと. It can also be placed in a negative context to express displeasure.
One variation of ええ is ええと, which we learned earlier in this post, and the two can be used interchangeably.
ええ、家に帰りたい。(ええ、 いえ に かえりたい。) — Ughh, I want to go home.
11. あの — “ano”
あの is very similar to えーと in that it essentially represents a “pause” to think, similar to “err” or “umm.”
日本語を、あの、話しません。(にっぽん ご を、 あの、 はなしません。) — I don’t, uhh, speak Japanese.
12. はあ — “hā”
はあ is an affirmative filler word that usually means “yes” or “indeed.” However, it can also be used to denote confusion, making it similar to “huh?”
Sometimes はあ is also used in place of a sigh.
はあ、めんどくさい。— Ahh, what a pain.
So uhhh, how did you like our list of Japanese filler words?
It’s comforting to know that learning a new language doesn’t automatically mean ascribing to pristine perfection in your way of speaking. Language is definitely organic and constantly changing!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.