In linguistics a distinction is made between stress accent and pitch accent. Stress accent refers to variation in loudness, while pitch accent refers to variation in musical pitch (frequency). English or German has stress accent. Japanese has only pitch accent, with an accent of rising pitch and another of falling pitch. The accent makes a difference in meaning only in a limited number of cases and therefore plays hardly any role in making oneself understood. One-syllable words that stand alone have no accent. An accent only arises when a word is concatenated with other words. Which accent arises then depends on the context. And in combination with other words or syllables an accent can disappear. In other words, the accentuation of a word, phrase, and sentence need not agree with each other. What makes the issue of accents even more complicated is that the use of accents in regional dialects can vary from what is heard in the Tokyo area. All of this explains why most teaching materials and dictionaries dispense with indicating the accents of words. In addition, accent labeling can clutter up how the text appears on the page, distracting from what is important (e.g., the characters) and in the end making learning more difficult. This makes it all the more important in practice to learn correct pronunciation from the beginning, ideally by listening to a native speaker (who speaks standard Japanese), or by repeatedly listening to audio recordings of the words, expressions, sentence, and texts to be learned. For what is mislearned is hard to correct later.
Examples where the accent makes a difference in the meaning (here, a rising accent is indicated by ´ and a falling accent is indicated by `):
hashì bridge ⇔ hashí chopsticks
hanà flower ⇔ haná nose
hi gá détà the sun has risen ⇔ hi gà deta a fire has broken out
October 2005, W.H. with Mark Spahn
updated June 2008