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Japanese language
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Japanese language

The Japanese language is a spoken and written language used mainly in Japan. The Japanese name for the language is Nihongo 日本語.

Japanese (日本語 [Nihongo])
Spoken in: Japan
Region: East Asia
Total speakers: 127 million
Ranking: 8
Genetic classification: Disputed, considered language isolate
Official status
Official language of: Japan
Regulated by: valign="top"
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ja
ISO 639-2 jpn

Table of contents
1 History and Classification
2 Geographic distribution
3 Sounds
4 Grammar
5 Vocabulary
6 Writing system
7 Learning Japanese
8 See also
9 External links

History and Classification

Historical linguists do not all agree about the origin of the Japanese language; there are several competing theories:

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and is still sometimes spoken in countries besides Japan. When Japan occupied
Korea, Taiwan and parts of China, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese and in Korea people were given a Japanese name. As a result, there are still many people in these countries who speak Japanese instead of or as well as the local languages. In addition, emigrants from Japan, the majority of whom are found in the United States (notably California and Hawaii), and Brazil also frequently speak Japanese. Their descendants (known as nisei 二世 or second generation), however, rarely speak Japanese fluently. There are estimated to be several million non-Japanese studying the language as well.

Official status

Japanese is the only official language of Japan, and Japan is the only country to have Japanese as an official language. There are two forms of the language considered standard: hyōjungo 標準語 or standard Japanese, and kyōtsūgo 共通語 or the common language. As government policy has modernized Japan many of the distinctions between the two have blurred. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications, and is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Because it is Japan's only official language and there are few foreign Japanese speakers, the language is heavily tied to Japanese culture and vice-versa. There are many Japanese words describing certain Japanese cultural ideas, traditions, and customs (e.g., wa, nemawashi, kaizen, seppuku), which do not have corresponding words in other languages. Understanding the Japanese language requires knowledge of Japanese society.


There are dozens of dialects spoken in Japan. Among them are Kansai-ben, Tohoku-ben, and Kanto-ben (Tokyo and surrounding areas). Dialects are generally mutually intelligible, although extremely geographically separated dialects such as the Tōhoku and Kyūshū variants are not. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, morphology of the verb and adjectives, particle usage, vocabulary and in some cases pronunciation.

The Ryukyuan languages used in and around Okinawa are related to Japanese, but the two are mutually unintelligible. Due to the close relationship they are still sometimes considered only dialects of Japanese.


The Japanese sound system is relatively simple, compared to most languages. For the most part, syllables consist of at most one consonant and one vowel. There are 5 vowel and 17 consonant phonemes (compared to 15 vowels and 22 consonants in English). Japanese syllables consist of:


Japanese has no diphthongs, but there is a contrast between long and short vowels. The vowels of Japanese are:

Japanese vowels are pure sounds like their Italian counterparts. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel, which is indicated as /u/ in the diagram. This vowel is often described as unrounded, but is actually pronounced with "compressed lips", which is a different articulatory gesture from either rounded or unrounded lips: it is unrounded, but without spreading. The "u=" to the right of the diagram are possible narrow transcriptions using IPA, as suggested by the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association.

In some English dialects, Japanese vowels can be approximated as follows:


  Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive p     b t     d       k     g    
Nasal       m       n          ŋ    
Flap           ɺ          
Fricative    Φ   s     z    ʃ   ç     h
Affricate        ts    ʤ        
Approximant               j       w    

The consonant /ɺ/ is tricky for English speakers. To an English speaker's ears, its pronunciation lies somewhere between an "r" /ɹ/, an "l", and a "d". The sound may be made by lightly placing the tongue on the back of the upper set of teeth and producing the sound /l/. Some have noted that the pronunciation is close to the Spanish "r".


Japanese undergoes a variety of assimilation processes.


English, stresseded syllables in a word are pronounced louder and longer. In Japanese, all moras are pronounced with equal length and loudness. Syllables can consist of one or two moras, depending on the presence or absence of a long vowel, a syllable-final "n", or a doubled consonant (really a glottal stop), each of which adds one mora to the syllable length. Japanese is therefore said to be a mora-timed language.

In Japanese, a stressed syllable is merely pronounced at a higher pitch. This is part of the Japanese intonation pattern.

Japanese does have a distinct intonation pattern. This pattern can be heard not only in individual words, but also in whole sentences. Intonation is produced by a rise and fall in pitch over certain syllables. In the case of questions, the Japanese intonation patterns bear little resemblance to the English ones. This is a large source of confusion for westerners.

The Japanese intonation pattern varies with regional dialect.


Main article: Japanese grammar

Japanese grammar has the following features:

1. The basic sentence structure of a Japanese sentence is topic-comment.

For example:

Kochira wa, Sangaa san desu.
Kochira is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle wa. This means "as for this person."
The verb is desu ("be").
Sangaa san desu is the comment.
Therefore, this loosely translates to:
"As for this person, (it) is Mr. Sanger."

Therefore Japanese, like Chinese, is often called a topic-prominent language, which means it marks topic separately from subject, and the two do not always coincide.

2. Japanese nouns in general have neither number nor gender. Thus hon (book) can be used for the singular or plural. However, in the case of a small number of native words (of proto-Japanese rather than Chinese origin) plurality may be indicated by reduplication. For example, hito means "person" whilst hitobito means "people"; ware means "I" whilst wareware means "we". Sometimes suffixes may also indicate plurality. Examples include the suffixes tachi and ra: watashi, meaning "I", becomes watashitachi, meaning "we", and kare (him) becomes karera (them).

3. With some exceptions Japanese is SOV (with the verb at the end of the sentence.) It also has the prepositional order of Time Manner Place which is opposite to English's prepositional order.

4. Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: the present (sometimes, because the same form is used for both the present and future, called the "non-past") and the past. The present tense (or imperfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple present and the future tense, while the past tense (or perfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple past tense. The distinction is between actions which are completed (perfect) or are not yet completed (imperfect). The present perfect, present continuous, present perfect continuous, future perfect, future continuous, and future perfect continuous are usually expressed as a gerund (-te form) plus the auxiliary form imasu/iru. Similarly, the past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous are usually expressed with the gerund plus the past tense of imasu/iru. For some verbs, that represent an ongoing process, the -te iru form regularly indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others, that represent a change of state, the -te iru form regularly indicates a perfect tense. For example, kite imasu regularly means "I have come", and not "I am coming", but tabete imasu regularly means "I am eating", and not "I have eaten". Note that in this form the initial i of imasu/iru is often not voiced, especially in casual speech and the speech of young people. The exact meaning is determined from the context, as Japanese tenses do not always map one-to-one to English tenses. In addition, Japanese verbs are also conjugated to show various moods.

5. Adjectives are inflected to show the present, past, affirmative and negative.

6. The grammatical function of nouns like possession, direct object, indirect object etc. are indicated by postposition particles, like ha and no above. Particles play an extremely important function in Japanese.

7. Japanese has many ways to express different levels of politeness, including special verbs, verbs indicating relative status, use of different nouns, etc., as was shown above.

8. The verb desu/da is not a copula in the western sense of the verb "to be". In the sentences above, it has played the copulative function of equality, that is: A = B. However a separate function of "to be" is to indicate existence, for which the verbs arimasu/aru and imasu/iru are used for inanimate and animate things respectively.

9. Derived forms of words occur often in Japanese. Nouns can be made into verbs, adjectives into nouns, gerunds, and other forms, and so on. Verbs, in addition to other derived forms, have one (the -tai form) which is an adjective meaning "want to do X"; e.g., tabetai desu means "I want to eat".

10. Instead of having Pronouns, Japanese often simply remove any obvious nouns. for example, instead of someone saying "watashi wa byuoku desu" (I am sick), one would say "byuoku desu" (am sick). This is a very simple example, and can be more complex. Whole sentences can be made of verbs alone.


Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Broadly speaking, there are three main politeness levels in spoken Japanese: the plain form (kudaketa), the simple polite form (teinei) and the advanced polite form (keigo).

Since most relationships are not equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or even psychological state (e.g., a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Interestingly, Japanese children rarely use polite speech until their teenage years, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

The plain form in Japanese is recognized by the shorter, so-called dictionary (jisho) form of verbs, and the da form of the copula. In the teinei level, verbs end with the helping verb -masu, and the copula desu is used. The advanced polite form, keigo, actually consists of two kinds of politeness: honorific language (sonkeigo) and humble (kenjōgo) language. Whereas teineigo is an inflectional system, keigo often employs many special (often irregular) honorific and humble verb forms.

The difference between honorific and humble speech is particularly pronounced in the Japanese language. Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family) whilst honorific language is mostly used when describing the interlocutor and his group. For example, the -san suffix ("Mr.", "Mrs." or "Ms.") is an example of honorific language. It should not be used to talk about oneself. Nor should it be employed when talking about someone from one's own company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group".

Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made honorific by the addition of お o- or ご go-; as a prefix. o- is generally used for words of native Japanese origin, whereas go- is affixed to words of Chinese derivation. In some cases, the prefix has become a fixed part of the word and is included even in non-honorific speech, such as gohan, or rice. Such a construction usually indicates deference to either the item's owner or to the object itself. For example, the word tomodachi ("friend"), would become o-tomodachi when referring to the friend of someone of higher status. On the other hand, a female speaker may sometimes refer to mizu (water) as o-mizu merely to show her cultural refinement, compared to more abrupt male speech patterns.

Many researchers report that since the 1990s, the use of polite forms has become rarer, particularly among the young, who employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but as a relationship becomes more intimate, they speak more frankly. This often occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.


Historically, Japanese has a large number of words that are borrowed from Chinese. See further discussion below in the section on the Japanese writing system. Japan borrowed many words from European languages starting in the 19th century, including Portuguese, German, French, and most recently English. In the past few decades, waseieigo (made-in-Japan English) has become a prominent phenomenon, particularly in the speech of the young and trendy. Words such as wanpatan (one-pattern) and sukinshippu (skinship), although coined from English, are nonsensical in a non-Japanese context.

Writing system

Modern Japanese writing system

Modern Japanese uses four different scripts:

For example, here is a sentence using all four scripts (a headline from the Asahi Shimbun on April 19, 2004):

ラドクリフ、マラソン五輪代表に 1万m出場にも含み
radokurifu, marason gorin daihyō ni 1 man m shutsujō ni mo fukumi
"Radcliffe, Olympic marathon contestant, to consider also appearing in the 10,000 m"

For an example of a word (watashi, meaning "I") written in each of the four scripts, see the table below.

Kanji Hiragana Katakana Rōmaji
わたし ワタシ watashi

Since all Japanese are taught English in middle school and high school, most Japanese can read rōmaji. As a result, the amount of rōmaji in Japanese has increased considerably in recent decades. Japanese popular music lyrics in particular increasingly contain English words and phrases. Foreign loanword (gairaigo 外来語) usage has both proponents and opponents in and out of Japan.

Early Writing System

The Japanese writing system can be traced back to the 4th century AD, when Chinese characters (kanji) came into use in Japan. No definitive evidence of any native Japanese writing system that predates kanji is known to exist. Around the 8th century AD, hiragana and katakana were developed from kanji by Buddhist monks, who used them as pronunciation guides when reading scrolls from China.

Due to the large number of words and concepts entering Japan from China which had no native equivalent, many kanji words entered Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original Chinese. This Chinese-derived reading is known as on-yomi 音読み, and this vocabulary as whole is referred to as Sino-Japanese. At the same time, native Japanese already had words corresponding to many borrowed kanji. Authors increasingly used kanji to represent these words. This Japanese-derived reading is known as kun-yomi 訓読み. A kanji may have zero, one or several of each of on-yomi and kun-yomi.

Linguists have sometimes compared Japan's borrowing and adaptation of Chinese words into Japanese as similar to the effect of the Norman conquest of the British Isles had on the English language. Like English, Japanese has many synonyms of differing origin: words from both Chinese and native Japanese. In another similarity, words of Chinese origin often sound more formal or intellectual to a Japanese speaker, just as the latinate words in English often sound to an English speaker.

Written language reforms and Western influence

The Japanese writing system remained largely unchanged up until the 19th century Meiji era educational reforms. These reforms included:

Western influences during the Meiji Era, and continued influences during the American occupation after World War II, also had important effects on the Japanese written language. One effect was on the use of foreign words (gairaigo 外来語) in Japanese, as well as the increased use of rōmaji;. Another effect was to change the writing direction of Japanese.

Until the Meiji era, Japanese text was written top to bottom, right to left. The Meiji era saw the first use of horizontally written Japanese. Before World War II, this horizontal text was written from right to left, so as to be consistent with traditional Japanese writing. After the end of World War II, text started to be written from left to right, in the common western style. Both kinds of writing are still in use today. Occasionally, horizontal writing from right to left can still be seen, when the reader is likely to encounter the text in in that direction (as in on the sides of vehicles, where text is often written from the front to the rear on both sides of the vehicle). This can sometimes cause a funny situation. "Kaba", a type of tree, was used as a name for a frigate in WW2 but was spelled "Baka", "idiot" on the side of the ship.

Nuances of the writing system

One of the less well-known aspects of the modern Japanese writing system is that it allows for transmitting information usually done by using different words or by adding extra descriptive words in other languages. For example, Kanji watashi 私 "I" is often used in a formal writing and by both sexes. Hiragana watashi わたし tends to be used in informal writing such as a diary or a letter to a friend and by a female. Katakana watashi ワタシ is often used to show that the subject is a foreigner unfamiliar with Japanese because Katakana is used to spell out foreign words. Rōmaji watashi is rarely used and when it is, is used with a special message in mind.

When a Japanese reader encounters the different script, he or she can infer what kind of character wrote or is the subject in the sentence. In manga (to a lesser extent, video games), encoding information by script shifts plays a significant role as it enables artists to pack more information in a little space. For example, with the single word watashi in Katakana readers will expect a foreign character to appear next, without even a single drawing of a foreigner beforehand. This could also be used for a dramatic effect coupled with the conjugation of verbs. A female disguised as a male could be written to use Kanji watashi when her secret is kept with the appropriate conjugation of verbs. Then when the secret is revealed, she would be written to use Hiragana watashi without taking off her disguise or any change in the way she is drawn. This technique could be inverted if a male is disguised as a female. With these techniques, even artists with limited drawing skill could represent different characters easily. This technique is used in other forms of literature, with the same or even dramatic effects.


There are a number of methods of rendering Japanese in Roman letters. The Hepburn method of romanization, designed for English speakers, is a de facto standard widely used inside and outside Japan (and used in Wikipedia). The Kunrei-shiki system has a better correspondance with kana, making it easier for the Japanese themselves to learn; it is officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, but rarely used outside Japan. Other systems of romanization include Nihon-shiki and JSL. A comparison of the four main systems is given in the rōmaji; article.

Learning Japanese

Learning Japanese involves understanding grammar, the pronounciation system and the writing system and acquiring adequate vocabulary. While the sound system is simple compared with other languages, the writing system and certain words that have a close connection with Japanese culture may prove to be difficult. Those who speak a language involving Chinese characters may find learning kanji easy. A large number of learners come from Australia, China and Korea. The Japanese government has provided some standard tests to measure the ability to speak Japanese for non-Japanese speakers. Among them are Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The motivation to learn Japanese is usually an opportunity of a job in Japanese companies or access to Japanese pop and sub cultures. Unlike languages like Chinese, knowing a standard Japanese suffices most of the time but it may be necessary to be familiar with local dialects on some occasions. Many learners testify that reading manga and watching anime helps quite a lot.

See also

External links