Japanese Language

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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
Genetic classification: Disputed, considered language isolate
Official status
Official language of:Japan
Regulated by:-
Language codes
ISO 639-1ja
ISO 639-2jpn
History and classification

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

Specialists in Japanese historical linguistics all agree that Japanese is related to Okinawan (also called Ryukyuan). Among these specialists, the possibility of a genetic relation to Korean is considered plausible but not unequivocally demonstrated; the Altaic hypothesis has somewhat less currency. Almost all specialists reject the idea that Japanese could be related to Austronesian/Malayo-Polynesian languages or Sino-Tibetan languages, and the idea that Japanese could be related to Tamil is given no credence at all.

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. 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. There is also a small community in Davao, Philippines. Their descendants (known as nikkei 日系, literally Japanese descendants), 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.


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. Syllables generally 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:

  • Optionally, an initial consonant, chosen from the 15 consonant phonemes not including ʔ and ɴ,
  • A vowel, which may be short or long, and
  • Optionally, either ɴ or ʔ, the glottal stop. (Note that the latter can only occur preceding subsequent syllables in the same word beginning with the k, s, t, and p phoneme. This is often referred to as a doubled consonant.)

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Japanese vowels are pure sounds like their Italian or Spanish counterparts. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel, which is indicated as /u/. 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:

  • /a/ as in father
  • /i/ as in meet
  • /u/ as in flute
  • /e/ as in etch
  • /o/ as in hope

Vowels have a length distinction (short vs. long). Cf contrasting pairs of words like ojisan ("uncle") vs. ojiisan ("grandfather"), or tsuki ("moon") vs. tsuuki ("airflow").

Although Japanese has formally no diphthongs because phonologically two different vowels in a row are not considered a diphthong, there are diphthong-like monomoraic glide-vowel or bimoraic vowel-vowel sequences. When phonetically considered, sequences like hyo, pyu, hai among others are diphthongs.

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p     b t     d     k     g  
Nasal       m n̩     n        
Flap           ɺ      
Fricative     s     z     h
Approximant             j       w  

The consonant /ɺ/ is tricky for some 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". In American English, the "t"s in be[tt]er and the "d"s in la[dd]er are pronounced like the Japanese "r".

Note that this table does not cover all sounds in the Japanese language. Please refer below for the details of pronunciation.


Japanese contains a number of allophonic processes which greatly alter its phonetic realization. This sometimes causes its phonemic inventory to appear larger than it actually is.

Elision is a major factor in Japanese pronunciation, with /i/ and /u/ tending to be elided when between unvoiced consonants or at the end of sentences, except when they are in accented or lengthened syllables (as in inu or kami, for example). Often, preceding fricatives will replace the vowel altogether. For example, Matsushita is pronounced "MaTSUshta", and the common sentence-ending copula desu is pronounced "dess". Gender roles also play a part: it is regarded as effeminate to pronounce elided vowels, particularly the terminal "u" as in "arimasu". Basilectic varieties of Japanese can sometimes be recognized by their hyper-elision, and formal or archaic dialects by their tendency to pronounce every syllable.

/ʔ/ assimilates to the following consonant, resulting in a geminate (double) consonant. It is thus normally realized as something other than a glottal stop.

/n̩/, the moraic nasal, undergoes a variety of assimilation processes. Its "default" word-final pronunciation varies considerably from dialect to dialect, and is sometimes realized as [m] or [ɴ]. Within words, it variously becomes:

  • bilabial [m] before /p/ and /b/ (like English "ample", "umber);
  • dental [n] before coronals /d/ and /t/ (like English "and" and "ant");
  • palatal [ɲ] before /j/ and /i/ (like English "canyon");
  • velar [ŋ] before /k/ and /g/ (like English "sunk" and "sung");
  • a nasalized vowel before a vowel, approximant, /h/, or /s/.

The vowel /i/ and the "glide vowels" /ja/, /jo/, and /ju/ palatalize the consonants they follow:

  • /s/ and /z/ become alveolo-palatal [ɕ] and [dʑ];
  • /t/ and /d/ become [tɕ], [dʑ];
  • /h/ becomes the palatal fricative [ç], as in German "mich".

Finally, the vowel /u/ has some effects of its own:

  • preceding /h/ becomes bilabial [ɸ] (like English "f" but considerably softer: it is not made by pressing the teeth against the lips; rather, it is made by closing one's lips slightly and lightly blowing);
  • /t/ and /d/ respectively become [ts] and [z].

In English, stressed syllables in a word are pronounced louder and longer. In Japanese, all morae are pronounced with equal length and loudness. Syllables typically consist of one or two moras, depending on the presence or absence of a long vowel, a syllable-final "n", or a doubled consonant (often but not always pronounced with an accompanying glottal stop), each of which adds one mora to the syllable length, but some syllables have three (e.g., tootta 'passed through') or even four (e.g., hoooo 'phoenix') moras. 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. See also Japanese pitch accent.

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 many non-native speakers.

The Japanese intonation pattern varies with regional dialect.


Main article: Japanese grammar

Japanese grammar has the following features:

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

  • 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" while hitobito means "people"; ware is a form of "I" while wareware means "we". Sometimes suffixes may also indicate plurality. Examples include the suffixes -tachi and -ra: watashi, a form of "I", becomes watashitachi, meaning "we", and kare (him) becomes karera (them).
  • With some exceptions Japanese is SOV (with the verb at the end of the sentence.) It also has an unmarked phrase order of Time Manner Place (the reverse of English order).
  • Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: past and present (also called non-past tense, since the same form is used for the present and the future). The present 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.
  • There are two parts of speech that correspond to adjectives. One kind of adjectives behave similarly to nouns, while the others are somehow verb-like and are inflected to show tense and negation. The latter also have a regular way to turn them into adverbs.
  • The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by postpositions. These include possession (no), subject (ga), direct object (o), indirect object (ni) and others. The topic is also marked by a postposed particle (wa). These particles play an extremely important function in Japanese.
  • Japanese has many ways to express different levels of politeness, including à different conjugation for verbs, special verbs and pronouns, verbs indicating relative status, use of different nouns, etc., as shown above.
  • The verb desu/da is the copula verb, though it doesn't play all the roles of the English "to be" and often takes on other roles. 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.
  • Strictly speaking, desu is a contraction of -de, the particle indicating subject complement, (see copula verb) and su, an elision of arimasu or imasu as appropriate. So an alternative, more accurate (though seldom seen) parsing of Kochira-wa, Sumisu-san desu is Kochira-wa, Sumisu-san-de su:
Kochira-waThis person, subject
Sumisu-san-deMr. Smith, subject complement
su (=imasu)is, (animate)
  • The verb "to do" (suru, polite form shimasu) is often used to make verbs from nouns of action and state (aisuru "to love", benkyousuru "to study", etc.). Japanese also employs regular compounding of verbs (e. g. tobidasu "to fly out, to flee" from tobu "to fly, to jump" + dasu "to go out").
  • There are many derivative forms of words that may turn one part of speech into another. 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(ing) to do X"; e.g., tabetai desu means "I want to eat".
  • Japanese has a lot of pronouns for use in different occasions, and different pronouns for men and women, younger or older, etc. These pronouns are not used all the time, but often elided when the reference has been established and is obvious from context. Therefore is therefore called a pro-drop language. For example, instead of saying "Watashi wa byōki desu" ("I am sick"), one would simply say "Byōki desu" ("Am sick"). A single verb can often constitute a complete sentence.

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. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until their teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner. See uchi-soto

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. See Japanese honorifics

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 also borrowed many words from European languages starting in the 19th century, including Portuguese, Dutch, German, French, and most recently English. Japanese also coined many neologisms (in kanji) to carry Western concepts; many of these were exported to Chinese and Korean via characters, in late 19th and early 20th century. In the past few decades, wasei-eigo (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
See Main Article: Japanese writing system
Learning Japanese
Learning Japanese involves understanding grammar, pronunciation, 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 is the 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 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.
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