When foreign words or proper names are used in Japanese, some modifications are necessary, in particular a lot of vowels are introduced. E.g. 'plastic' (two syllables) becomes プラスチック (five). In this case, it is not that the three /u/ will turn out to be unvoiced: this vowel was chosen precisely to yield a pronunciation not too different from 'plastic' -- it is unvoiced by design so to speak.

So are there either formal rules or a tendency to silence these vowels to be as close as possible to the original? Or is there no special status?

  • Usually only the vowel in ス is devoiced. – snailcar Feb 12 '19 at 12:17
  • Doesn't the ッ in プラスチック count? – BJCUAI Feb 12 '19 at 19:30

As far as I know, there is no special status. Vowels in loanwords are unvoiced in the same contexts that vowels in other types of words are unvoiced: that is, typically high vowels surrounded by unvoiced consonants (or at the end of a word after an unvoiced consonant).

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You have several other syllable that can be unvoiced for pronounciation reasons like キ or ト. The perfect example would be the word for Christianity which is キリスト教(pronounced きりすときょう). Here, the 「キ」 corresponds to the 'Ch' so the 'i' is unvoiced. The same goes for 「ト」which corresponds to the 't' in 'Christ'.

Loanwords use the Japanese syllabary so you can't put a consonant alone : you have to use another syllable which voyel can be unvoiced. As a general tendency, syllables ending with 'u' have got it unvoiced. For the た行, you should use 「ト」 and not 「ツ」 (e.g. トラウマ, trauma) and, where the か行 is concerned, 「ク」is the most used one, but 「キ」can be used sometimes (as you can see in the first example).

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