Japanese is the language spoken in Japan. It has 3 main alphabets:
  • hiragana: phonetic characters for japanese words and grammar.
  • katakana: phonetic characters used for onomatopeia and foreign words.
  • kanji: complicated characters mostly from chinese, representing an idea, with two different pronunciations: japanese, which was formed by matching an already-existing japanese word to an imported kanji, and chinese, which was formed by japanese-izing an already existing chinese pronunciation of that character.
When kanji appear alone, they usually have the japanese reading, but when they appear in combination with other kanji, they usually take the chinese reading.

This is like how English has two words relating to teeth

  • tooth, which usually occurs alone, and
  • dent-, which appears in combinations with suffixes or prefixes to give it more meaning, as in dentist, dental, trident, etc. In japanese those words could have two kanji, meaning "tooth person", "tooth study", "three tooth", and they would be pronounced the chinese way.
Children use more "native" japanese words and phrasal verbs, and come to use more kanji compounds as they get more educated. That's the same way a kid will say something like "get away" and an adult will say "escape". Kids know lots of concrete words, which are mostly japanese in origin, and as they study more abstract things, they see more chinese kanji compounds.

Japanese is not Tonal, and Chinese is, so when they brought over the kanji from China, a lot of information was lost - there might be 4 tones for the syllable "shu" in chinese, each with a different meaning and its own kanji. But in japanese, they lost this tone information, but kept the different kanji. So there are tons of kanji that have the same sound. This is hard.

The set of sounds used in Japanese are pretty much a subset of english, except for the occasional ryu difficulty (it's not pronounced rye-yu, it's ryu).

Japanese is a monosyllabic language. So, there is a big difference between the words "isho" and "issho" - the first has two syllables, the second three. The basic form is consonant plus vowel. Except for vowels and the letter N, the basic sound units of japanese are "k s t n h m y r w" + one of "a i u e o". Converted to english, there are probably lots more even length words in Japanese than odd. However, you can double the consonant sometimes, for example in the word "haka" if add the doubling symbol between the ha and the ka, it comes out as "hakka".

Because of this, there are no consonant clusters like st, tr, etc. "stack" becomes su ta kku. "elvis" become e ru bi su, since there's no b/v or r/l distinction. Also, there are no articles, plurals or spaces between words. In general to English speakers, spoken Japanese seems easy, but to Japanese, English is really hard.

It's a very captive language; 95+% of speakers are native speakers.

Hard things about Japanese are the ~2000 kanji, polite speech, and the total unwillingness of japanese people to ever correct a mistake.

The alphabetization system of such a complicated language is explained in japanese alphabet. The basic principle is that things are organized by the first sound, not by the first "letter" as an english speaker would think of it. This means the order is

  • a  i u e o
  • ka ki ku ke ko
  • sa shi su se so
  • ta chi tsu te to
  • na ni nu ne no
  • ha hi hu he ho
  • ma mi mu me mo
  • ya yu yo
  • ra ri ru re ro
  • wa wo
  • n

Learning Japanese is a total culture shock to anyone who's only been exposed to Western languages. The writing looks complicated (and it is, horribly) but that's only the tip of the iceberg. The grammar and vocabulary of all the European languages look really similar after you've experienced a language that's totally off the wall (to us).

For example:

  • Individual characters in Japanese writing usually represent what, for us, are consonant-vowel pairs. For example, the name of the famous game designer Miyamoto could be written in 4 characters of the hiragana script: みやもと (mi ya mo to). You can usually also write names in the Chinese-derived kanji script, but that is far more complicated.
  • No clear concept of what a word is. In Japanese writing, there are often no spaces between words.
  • No plural or gender, or articles. neko, depending on context, can mean, "a cat", "the cat" "cats".
  • Verbs can be conjugated in the past or nonpast tense. There is no future tense; use nonpast for both present and future actions. Subject and object can be omitted, and will be deduced from context. A single verb can be a full sentence. Some examples:
    • Taberu. = "(someone) eats/will eat."
    • Tabeta. = "(someone) ate."
  • 2 types of words which correspond to nothing in European languages. They are used largely in place of adjectives. There are 'i-adjectives' which are conjugated like verbs:
    • kawaii neko = "cute cat(s)" (conjugated nonpast)
    • kawaikatta neko = "cat(s) that was cute" (conjugated past)
    and 'na-adjectives' which are very much like nouns.
  • The verb is at the end of a clause. In order to figure out what's the object, subject, etc of the clause, you use "particles" which resemble prepositions and conjunctions. Anata wa taberu. = "You eat (something)." Here you have anata="you", plus the particle wa which indicates that anata is the topic of the sentence. Another common particle is o or wo, which indicates that what precedes it is the object of the clause. Anata o taberu. = "(someone) eats you."
  • Nouns (and na-adjectives) can be "conjugated" like verbs with the help of a word-like grammatical construct, the copula. Most beginners know it as desu, but it has many forms. Thus, not all sentences require a verb: they merely require a word conjugated like a verb. Examples of more complete sentences:
    • Neko desu. = "(something) (is) (a) cat(s)."
    • Kawaii. = "(something) (is) cute."
  • Words can be conjugated not only in past and nonpast, but also positive, negative, polite/normal, plain, etc. These various conjugations are expressed using a different grammatical construct in English (or not at all; some nuances are untranslatable).

I could go on forever: this is like comparing cars and bicycles. I love learning Japanese even though I'm bored by European languages, because of all this difference.
Or maybe it's just because I watch so much anime.

A lot has been said about how difficult Japanese is to write, how difficult the grammar is and so on. However no one has brought up the point that Japanese is really easy to pronounce. Ever taken Spanish, remember how there are only 5 vowel sounds- "a e i o u"? Well, Japanese uses the same five vowels only they usually order them "a i u e o". After this one takes a consonant and puts it on the front of these vowels to produce more sounds.

For example- "ka ki ku ke ko" There are only a couple of irregularities: the "t" group of "ta chi tsu te to" has no "ti" sound and no "tu" sound.

Also there is no "si" sound, rather the hiragana are "sa shi su se so".

Now because there are so few sounds in Japanese, there tend to be a lot of these tounge-twister words that are long but are comprised of many small syllables (again think of Spanish). Also getting used to "Japanese" pronunciations of loanwords (think "orenjii juusu", or better yet, "urutoraman") is a bit of a trick. Really however one should concentrate more on learning the language and think less about why it is different. This is why IMO young children are the best at learning other languages, because they just learn the language without obsessing about the differences between one language and another.

  • also- Kanji were taken from China at several different times through history and as such their pronunciations vary depending upon when they were "borrowed". Sometimes the "on" readings are very close to the modern Chinese pronunciation while other times they vary greatly. These Japanese loanwords serve as the basis of many linguistic reconstructions of middle Chinese because of the stable nature of their pronunciation after they entered the Japanese language. Also note that there are often differences in meaning between Chinese and Japanese uses for kanji, again in part due to the fact that the kanji were borrowed at different times in history and reflect the current usages at the time they were borrowed.

Japanese is actually much easier to read than
people think. Sure, there are no spaces between
words, but they are not necessary. Because
Japanese uses two syllabaries (not alphabets),
katakana and hiragana, as well as kanji, you
can easily tell where a word ends because the
sentence switches from kanji to hiragana, or
katakana to hiragana. Also, due to the sentence
, once you learn the particles like
ha, wo, he, ni, ga and so on, you will
quickly recognise the ends of words.

A surprisingly easy language to learn. Relatively few people learn Japanese in the West, mainly due to the distances between it and Japan. However, studying it can have great benefits.
  • First, as Japanese is so rare, it is in great demand in the business world. Even a basic understanding of Japanese can set you apart from someone else when applying for a job.
  • Second, if you ever want to travel to Japan, it is essential to know a little Japanese. Kanji is extremely difficult to read and although romaji is being used more widely, kanji is still the most common. Therefore, the only avenue left is to learn it.

Many people think that Japanese is difficult to learn. That is a bit of an old wives' tale. Though like any language, mastering it is hardly easy, to gain basic understanding of Japanese is not difficult.

  • Japanese uses a lot of easily distinguishable sounds. Whereas Chinese dialects seem to use a lot of consonants, Japanese uses more vowels. Therefore, it is easier to pronouce and therefore learn them. There are problems in that some words sound very similar and others can be difficult to pronounce. But that's the same with any language. As a whole Japanese words are quite distinctive.
  • Japanese grammar at a basic level is very easy. No conjugations, easy formations of past and present verbs and so forth. For example, ikimasu (present) changes to ikimashita (past). Easy! Equally, though it can be confusing, persons are easy. The words desu (is/are) can mean "he/she/it is". Desu is one of the most flexible words in the Japanese language.

My advice is to give Japanese a go, especially if you are interested in Japan. It requires dedication and patience but after learning even a little, you will feel very proud of yourself! If you travel to Japan and feel bold enough to use your skills, the locals will be very impressed, even if you are still a beginner. It makes a change from having to try their English on you!

Some of us have been working on making E2 into a Valuable Japanese Language Reference, resulting in a plethora of nodes concerning Japanese, the language. I'm sure there are some I've missed, please let me know or hard-link below if you find any.

Not listed here are the nodes/writeups about individual Japanese words -- you can just look those up by searching. After a few thousand more nodes, E2 will be a viable romanized Japanese-English dictionary.


Grammar and Usage Writing and Phonology Others And new ones are cropping up all the time. This writeup will be updated to incorporate new or missed writeups about the Japanese language as they appear and when I remember.


Japanese is the language of Japan and of ethnic Japanese people. Outside of Japan itself, Japanese is spoken by older people in Tawain and Korea (who were raised under Japanese occupation), in US-controlled former Japanese territory, such as the islands of Guam and Saipan, and in parts of Peru, Brazil, the western United States, and Hawaii, which saw large influxes of Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. Japanese is considered a very difficult language to learn, and thus has very few non-native speakers (less than 5%). Nevertheless, Japanese is one of the largest languages in the world and its approximately 125 million fluent speakers make it the ninth most spoken language on Earth.


The origins of Japanese are uncertain, and Japanese remains the only major language whose genetic affiliation remains significantly in dispute. Grammatically, Japanese is most similar to Korean, a fact which has produced tentative attempts to connect it to the Altaic language group. But Japanese also appears to share some common vocabulary with Austronesian languages, such as Maori, and debates surrounding the origins of the Ainu tongue and people must also be considered. The best answer to the questions surrounding the origins of Japanese is that it is most likely a mixture of various influences, shaped by its location on an large archipelago that witnessed intermittent periods of contact with the outside world sandwiched between long periods of isolation.

Linguistic History

The linguistic history of Japanese can only be extended as far back as the oldest extant example of written Japanese, the Kojiki ("Record of Ancient Matters"), a mythologized history of Japan composed in AD 712. Japanese from this time forward is generally broken into four periods: Late Old Japanese (8th11th centuries), Middle Japanese (12th16th centuries), Early Modern Japanese (17th18th centuries), and Modern Japanese (19th century to the present), with "Old Japanese" referring to the largely unknowable state of the language before the composition of the Kojiki. Japanese grammar remained remarkably stable across these periods, however, at least up until modern times, such that a modern reader trained in Classical Japanese grammar can just as readily appreciate works as old as the Tale of Genji (ca. AD 1011) as works composed in the late 19th century. For this reason, Japanese linguistic history is often gainfully divided into just two periods: Classical and Modern.


The Mora

Unlike in many other languages, which are based on the syllable, the most important suprasegmental unit in Japanese is the mora - a rhythmical unit that dictates the length of syllables. In standard Japanese, each mora is perceived to be identical in length (although the true length of morae often varies in practice and across dialects). This is true of the special morae in Japanese: long vowels, syllabic nasals, and doubled consonants. Thus, while Tokyo has two syllables (to-kyo) it has four morae, due to long vowels (to-o-kyo-o). Similarly, Nihon ("Japan") has three morae (ni-ho-n), as does itta ("went"; i-t-ta).

Each mora has a pitch accent of either high (H), or low (L) and in Japanese pitch changes occur at the mora, rather than the syllabic, boundary. Japanese is replete with homonyms (for reasons that shall be discussed below), and thus pitch becomes crucial for distinguishing words. In the Tokyo dialect for example, the word hashi pronounced with a high-low (HL) tone denotes "chopsticks," but with a low-high (LH) tone it denotes "bridge." These tone rules vary across dialects however, and thus in the Kansai dialect, the situation is reversed, with the high-low tone denoting "bridge" and with a low-high tone denoting "chopsticks."

An understanding of the mora is crucial to appreciating so-called "syllabic" forms in Japanese poetry - such as the haiku and the tanka, which are actually based on the mora. (e.g. a strict haiku would have 17 morae, not 17 syllables).


Japanese has 21 distinct phonemes: five vowels, /i, e, a, o, u/, and 16 consonants, /p, t, k, b, d, g, s, h, z, r, m, n, w, j, N, Q/. The high back vowel /u/ is unrounded, and along with the other high vowel, /i/, tends to be devoiced between voiceless consonants or in final position after a voiceless consonant, as in the copula desu, often pronounced /des/. Another pervasive phonological phenomenon in Japanese is the palatalization and affrication that affects /t/, /s/, and /h/ when they precede /i/.

Grammar and Syntax

Japanese is a mildly agglutinative language, and thus makes extensive usage of relational particles to modify nouns. Verbs, however, are conjugated for both tense and aspect. There are two types of adjectives - those that are marked for tense and aspect like verbs ("adjectival verbs"), and those that are marked with particles line nouns ("adjectival nouns"). Nouns and the noun-like adjectives are accompanied by a copula when used as predicates.

Japanese follows SOV word order (i.e. subject+object+verb). The headword of a phrase usually appears in the final position, and thus objects, adverbs, and adverbial phrases precede the verbs or adjectives the modify, adjectives in turn precede the nouns they modify, and noun phrases precede relational particles, which are always deployed postpositively.

In addition to analysis by subject and predicate, Japanese sentences can frequently be broken down into a topic and a comment. The topic, marked by the particle wa (は), appears in the initial position of a sentence or sequence of related sentences. Topics can be, and frequently are, nested.

The predicate is the only part of the sentence that must be present. Other sentence components such as topic, subject, and object(s) can be omitted whenever they may be considered understood from context. Moreover, Japanese culture prizes implied meaning over direct or forceful speech, so context becomes even more crucial to understanding. The result is that Japanese can often acquire an overwhelmingly passive character. To take a simple example, although either can be said, Japanese will almost always say Fujisan ga mieru (富士山が見える), or "Mount Fuji is visible," rather than Fujisan o miru (富士山を見る), "I see Mount Fuji."

Distinctive Features

Interestingly, there is no obligatory distinction between singular and plural nouns. The word yama (山), for example, can mean "mountain" or "mountains," depending on context, while similarly hito (人) can mean "person," "man," or "people." In certain cases however, nouns can be reduplicated to indicate "many," as in yamayama (山々), "many mountains," or hitobito (人々), "many people," or "everybody." Meanwhile, numbers are usually marked with a byzantine system of counters, which classify and categorize the objects being counted (often with cultural overtones).

Of course one of the most famous distinguishing features of Japanese grammar is the elaborate system for marking speech styles to express varying degrees of politeness, and to mark gender and junior-senior relations. A plentitude of honorific forms may take shape in markers, distinct words, or even syntactically, with greater length and complexity generally connoting greater politeness.

Writing System

Japan did not possess a native writing system prior to the 8th century, when Chinese ideographs were imported and appeared in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, however, were written largely in Classical Chinese using Classical Chinese syntax, with the exception of a few Japanese songs, which were phonetically transcribed using crude Chinese character readings. The reason was that Chinese characters are almost peculiarly unsuited for writing Japanese for a multitude of reasons, foremost of which are that Chinese is a tonal language whereas Japanese is not, and that Japanese is inflected, whereas Chinese is not. Japanese vocabulary seems also to have been, even in early times, larger and more diverse than in Chinese, and certainly is today after centuries of word-borrowing by the Japanese. The result of this maladaptivity has been one of the most difficult-to-master writing systems ever constructed. Today, with less than 2,500 Chinese-derived characters, or kanji, in common usage, it takes most Japanese their entire educational career through high school to learn how to read their own language, and most younger people cannot write it without the assistance of dictionaries or electronic aids. And yet Modern Japanese has the most simplified writing system yet; prior to the introduction of the Joyo Kanji in 1941, there were approximately 10,000 characters in common usage, and some dictionaries listed over 50,000.

The first systematic attempt to use Chinese ideographs to represent Japanese phonology appeared in Japan's first written collection of poetry, the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), compiled around AD 759. Under this system of writing, now known as manyogana after the title of the collection, Chinese character readings were used to approximate Japanese phonemes. This system became the basis of what we now know as the Japanese writing system, and manyogana characters would later evolve into the two Japanese syllabaries in use today - hiragana, used for particles, verb inflections, and by children, and katakana, used for foreign loanwords and onomatopoeia.

In later centuries, the Japanese readings of Chinese characters were adopted as loanwords, especially by elites who viewed anything Chinese as more sophisticated. This added a new layer of complexity to the writing system, in which each kanji character usually has at least two readings, the on-yomi, or Chinese caracter reading, and the kun-yomi, which is the native Japanese word that Chinese ideograph is denotatively associated with. Moreover, successive borrowings of the same Chinese characters from different parts of China in different time periods produced multiple Chinese character readings for some characters, while the phonological characteristics of Japanese added further readings when characters were deployed in certain combinations, with the result that many kanji have three or four readings, while some have more than ten. Lastly, there are the nanori, or special readings used for family, personal, or place names, some of which can be quite bizarre, and often had their origins in regional dialects.

Everything Japanese Encyclopedia::Japanese, the language

After 1662 entries, the Everything Japanese Encyclopedia became too big to fit in a single volume. After much deliberation, it was decided that the EJE would be broken up into separate tomes; this is one of those.

This portion of the EJE is devoted to the Japanese language. Nodes on grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and useful phrases have all been collected here. If, during your wanderings through the nodegel, you spot a node that has been overlooked by the watchful eyes of the Encyclopedists, drop me a /msg.


Japanese, The Language

Jap`a*nese" (?), a.

Of or pertaining to Japan, or its inhabitants.


© Webster 1913.

Jap`a*nese", n. sing. & pl.


A native or inhabitant of Japan; collectively, the people of Japan.

2. sing.

The language of the people of Japan.


© Webster 1913.

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