In Japanese, Japan is called 日本 (Nihon), which is why you’ll sometimes see it referred to “Nippon.” The literal translation of the name is “land of the rising sun.” The name is also reflected in the design of the country’s flag: a red circle on a white background. So where does the word “Japan” come from? When Portuguese explorers arrived in the Far East, Mandarin speakers were the first ones to introduce them to the existence of the Japanese islands. They called it Jipangu, and that’s where “Japan” came from. This early misnaming of the country has really set the stage for centuries of misconceptions about both Japan and the Japanese language among Westerners.
With about 156,000 learners in the United States, Japanese isn’t nearly as popular a learning language as Spanish or French. But year after year, the language of Mishima — so-called after the Japanese author Yukio Mishima — continues to spread far beyond the Sea of Japan and Mount Fuji.
We’ve put together a brief guide to introduce you to Japanese. Whether you’re interested in learning the language or just want to know more about Japanese culture, this will provide you with a good overview of both the language’s history and the linguistic features that define it.
The History Of The Japanese Language
From The Yamato Period To The 20th Century
Around the year 250 CE, the first dynasty was established in Yamato Province, which now is the Nara Prefecture. Today, the landscape alternates between modern buildings and ancient temples, and it’s where the long evolution of Japanese began. There are few traces of the language before this era because for many centuries, Japanese had only an oral tradition. That is, until Buddhist monks from China brought their system of writing to the islands. In the eighth century, during the Nara period, the Japanese began to use Chinese ideograms. Other systems of writing developed afterward, leading to the composite system typical of Japan that’s still used to this day.
It wasn’t until the Edo period between the 17th and 18th centuries that Japanese was truly formalized as a language. Each new period brought its own set of cultural and linguistic changes. In the Meiji period at the beginning of the 20th century — known as a period of progress and modernization — the language became standardized, based on the dialect spoken in Tokyo. In 1903, the Japanese government published an official Japanese textbook for schools. It was similar to the standardization of Italian based on the Florence dialect, or the use of Parisian French after the French Revolution. Like any other language, Japanese still has varied dialects, but the “official” Japanese was formed during this late era.
The Modern Era Of ‘Cool Japan’
The fascination for Japanese is inextricably linked to its culture. J-Pop, manga, anime, video games, sushi, and sake: called “Cool Japan,” Japanese soft power comes in many forms. With Pikachu, Hello Kitty and bento, kawaii (かわいい), or “cute,” is a fashion concept that has been exported around the world, including North America and Europe. The phrase “Cool Japan” is promoted by the Japanese government itself, shaping the country’s modern image. It’s also been an important way for Japan to distance itself from the resentment that grew toward the country during and after World War II.
Despite Japan’s historical isolationism, the islands have long maintained ties with Western countries. The 1600s saw the first English-speakers establish prolonged contact with Japan, but it wasn’t until 1841 that an English grammar book was finally translated into Japanese. Today around 19 million people in Japan can speak at least some English. And of course, huge numbers of Japanese people have immigrated to the United States, in fact 127,000 made the move between 1901 and 1908 alone.
Where Is Japanese Spoken Today?
There are roughly 126 million speakers of Japanese today. Of those, 125 million people speak the language natively in Japan itself. While that’s a clear majority, there are Japanese-speaking communities spread out across the world.
Historically, the language has been present in California and Hawaii, although it’s gradually disappearing. Still, the United States has one of the largest populations of Japanese speakers with roughly 449,000. There is also a large Japanese population in Brazil, which was a popular destination for Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. The immigrants’ descendants often adopted Portuguese as their main language, but there are likely hundreds of thousands people who speak Japanese to some extent in the country today. There are Japanese speakers in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, Hong Kong and many other countries, though they’re a minority.
Outside of Japan, there’s only one other place that recognizes Japanese as an official language: a small island 3,000 miles south of Honshu, once occupied by Japan. The island is Angaur, one of the 16 states of Palau. In fact, on this Pacific island with around 100 inhabitants and an area three times the size of LAX airport, Japanese is all but extinct.
The Three Writing Systems
Japanese writing uses three types of characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Learning hiragana and katakana (100 characters in total) doesn’t take much more time than learning the Cyrillic alphabet for Russian.
Learning how all three work together can be confusing to someone unused to the language, but each has their purpose. Similar to Latin letters, hiragana are phonetic symbols used to write Japanese words. Along the same lines, katakana are reserved for words with foreign origins (apart from Chinese). As for kanji, they come from Chinese characters. Each character corresponds to its own sound and meaning. Japanese has 50,000 or so kanji, but you technically only need 2,000 for everyday language. There’s an official list of these “everyday kanji,” called joyo kanji. These three writing systems coexist and are used together. It’s not uncommon to see all three in the same sentence.
Doest that mean Japanese and Chinese come from the same language family? No! The origin of kanji doesn’t have anything to do with a common linguistic origin. Mandarin is a Sino-Tibetan language, related to other Chinese languages, while Japanese is an isolate. In other words, it’s in a language family of its own. There’s a theoretical family of Altaic languages, which groups Japanese together with Turkish, Mongolian and even Korean, but its existence is highly controversial.
Is Japanese Complicated Or Misunderstood?
Chinese, Russian, Arabic… Westerners often say a language is difficult when it doesn’t look like their own. Japanese is no exception. So is Japanese really that difficult to learn, or is it just misunderstood?
Besides the challenges of the writing systems and the vocabulary that has little in common with European languages, Japanese can seem different because it uses an SOV (subject-object-verb) word order. In Japanese, you would say something like “I the bread eat” instead of “I eat the bread” (SVO, subject-verb-object). Although this might seem counterintuitive to some Westerners’ ears, there are more SOV languages than SVO languages in the world. Turkish, Farsi, Basque and Latin are other examples of SOV languages. In Japanese, the subject is often left out when it’s clear from the context, so it’s not uncommon to find a more simplified OV structure.
Nevertheless, Japanese learners can find relief in some good news on the grammar front. Japanese doesn’t have a plural, nor does it have definite or indefinite articles. Once again, context helps people figure out what is being talked about.
Among the other particularities of Japanese, it also doesn’t have specific names for months like January, February, March, etc. Instead, Japanese uses the kanji 月 (“moon,” and also “month”) with the number of the month.
Simple or complex, whatever the case, it’s the motivation that matters most. Don’t let your nerves get the better for you, because Japanese isn’t that different from learning anything else. Each language has its specific characteristics that make it difficult or easy for the person learning it.
This article originally appeared on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.
How do you introduce Japanese language? ›
- Nice to meet you! [hazimemashite] ...
- My name is ◯◯. [watashino namaewa ◯◯des] ...
- I am from ◯◯. [◯◯kara kimashita] ...
- I am a ◯◯. [watashiwa ◯◯des] ...
- Nice to meet you! / Thank you for your time / Please keep me in mind. [yoroshiku onegai shimas]
These three systems are called hiragana, katakana and kanji. If that sounds overwhelming, don't worry! Hiragana and katakana are easy enough to learn – and will be a big help if you're thinking about travelling to Japan, or learning basic Japanese. Learning kanji is a little trickier, but we'll come to that later.What should I learn first in Japanese language? ›
Learn to Read Hiragana
The other two are katakana and kanji, but hiragana is where everything starts. The ability to read hiragana is going to be a prerequisite for most beginner Japanese textbooks and resources. It's the first thing you learn in a traditional classroom.
Even experts agree that spoken Japanese is not particularly difficult to learn. The sounds of the language are limited (only five vowels and thirteen consonants) and grammatically it is quite regular, without case declensions or other complex issues that are found in languages like Russian, or even German.In what order should I learn Japanese? ›
You should learn hiragana first, followed by katakana and kanji. Hiragana looks more cursive than katakana or kanji. It is used to write native Japanese words, conjugation endings, and grammar particles. Hiragana consists of 46 characters with each character representing a syllable.How many years does it take to learn Japanese fluently? ›
Learning Japanese isn't easy and it will take time. It's probably fair to say that you can expect a commitment of at least three years in order to achieve something resembling fluency. The average learner gets to the advanced level in three or four years.Does it take 6 years to learn Japanese? ›
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English natives to learn. It doesn't have many similarities in structure to English. They estimate it takes 88 weeks of learning, or 2200 hours, to reach fluency.What are the basics of Japanese? ›
- Hai. Yes. はい。
- Iie. No. いいえ。
- O-negai shimasu. Please. おねがいします。
- Arigatō. Thank you. ありがとう。
- Dōitashimashite. You're welcome. どういたしまして。
- Sumimasen. Excuse me. すみません。
- Gomennasai. I am sorry. ごめんなさい。
- Ohayō gozaimasu. Good morning. おはようございます。
Japanese (日本語, Nihongo, [ɲihoŋɡo] ( listen)) is spoken as a native language by about 128 million people, primarily Japanese people and primarily in Japan, the only country where it is the national language. Japanese belongs to the Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language family.What does the word Konnichiwa mean? ›
Konnichiwa (こんにちは) is said between late morning (11am) and early evening (5pm) in Japan. It's a formal kind of 'hello!
What level is beginner Japanese? ›
The JLPT has five levels: N1, N2, N3, N4 and N5. The easiest level is N5 and the most difficult level is N1. N4 and N5 measure the level of understanding of basic Japanese mainly learned in class. N1and N2 measure the level of understanding of Japanese used in a broad range of scenes in actual everyday life.Is basic Japanese easy to learn? ›
The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.How many Japanese words do you need to know to be fluent? ›
For starters, Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Kanji includes over 50,000 different characters, however, you only need to know about 2,000 of them to be considered fluent. You also only need to know about 5,000 Japanese vocabulary words to be considered fluent as well.What is the easiest Japanese language? ›
Altaic languages have three features: they have vowels and consonants, follow the subject-object-verb word order, and have glue. First of all, overall, the easiest language to learn for Japanese is Korean.Can I learn Japanese in a year? ›
In fact, Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn for a native English speaker. If you want to speak enough Japanese to make friends in Japan and carry on simple conversations, you can master casual Japanese in under a year, especially if you are skipping over hiragana and katakana.Is Japanese easier than Chinese? ›
Japanese is slightly easier to learn. But, Chinese is much more widely spoken. Both languages have their pros and cons.Is learning Japanese worth it? ›
There are lots of social benefits of learning Japanese. Being able to communicate with more people means you are able to meet and get to know more people. If you know how to speak Japanese, you'll find it much easier to make Japanese friends than someone who doesn't speak Japanese.Do you need to learn all 3 Japanese alphabets? ›
The Japanese language relies on not one but three different alphabets — hiragana, katakana and kanji — which are differentiated both by their distinct appearances and by their use. No wonder Japanese is such a difficult language for English-speakers to learn!What is the best way to become fluent in Japanese? ›
- Don't rush the basics. For some learners, the three Japanese writing systems can be intimidating. ...
- Find media you love. ...
- Practise with native speakers. ...
- Record yourself speaking. ...
- Set goals. ...
- Use mnemonics. ...
- Stay positive.
Am I too old to study Japanese in Japan? You may have heard recently that it's now impossible to study in Japan if you are over 30 years old. Luckily for those who fall in that category, this isn't actually true and it's actually never too late to chase your Japanese language dreams.
What is the hardest language to learn? ›
Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center puts Mandarin in Category IV, which is the list of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.Is it easier to learn Korean or Japanese? ›
Unlike other East-Asian languages, Korean isn't a tonal language. This means, that the meaning of the word doesn't change, regardless of what your accent is like. This makes learning Korean much easier than Japanese.Is Duolingo good to learn Japanese? ›
Duolingo is an excellent free resource for learning languages, especially if you consider yourself a beginner who is looking to immerse yourself quickly in Japanese.How many kanji are there? ›
The total number of kanji is well over 50,000, though few if any native speakers know anywhere near this number. In modern Japanese, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries each contain 46 basic characters, or 71 including diacritics.What's the easiest language to learn? ›
- Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
- Dutch. ...
- Norwegian. ...
- Spanish. ...
- Portuguese. ...
- Italian. ...
- French. ...
Always start with hiragana. It is the basic alphabet for japanese words, and will help you understand katakana, which is for western words, generally speaking. Without hiragana you won't understand kanji. For example にほんご (Japanese language) is the four hiragana (and four sounds) that make up the kanji, 日本語.Is Japanese read right to left? ›
Japanese also uses the traditional tategaki ("vertical writing") style which, similarly to Traditional Chinese, is read right to left and down the columns.What is the first alphabet in Japanese? ›
Any intensive Japanese course includes study of the Hiragana and Katakana. Also known as the Japanese syllabary, Hiragana is a primary component of the Japanese writing system (along with kanji, katakana, and the Latin alphabet).What is a good beginning presentation phrase? ›
Welcoming and greeting the audience
I'd like, first of all, to thank the organizers of this meeting for inviting me here today. Good morning everyone and welcome to my presentation. First of all, let me thank you all for coming here today. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
The most common and simple way to introduce yourself in Japanese is the phrase "Watashi no namae wa ___ desu." (wah-TAH-shee no nah-MAH-eh wah ___ dess). It means "My name is ___." If you're using your full name, say your surname first.
How do I start my presentation introduction? ›
- Tell your audience who you are. Introduce yourself, and then once your audience knows your name, tell them why they should listen to you. ...
- Share what you're presenting. ...
- Let them know why it's relevant. ...
- Tell a story. ...
- Make an interesting statement. ...
- Ask for audience participation.
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English natives to learn. It doesn't have many similarities in structure to English. They estimate it takes 88 weeks of learning, or 2200 hours, to reach fluency.Which Japanese alphabet is used most? ›
Hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. It's used on its own or in conjunction with kanji to form words, and it's the first form of Japanese writing that children learn. What is this?Why does Japanese have 3 alphabets? ›
Why does the Japanese language have to use three different types of script; Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana? A. This is because each of the three types of script, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana, has its own specific role. Let's examine a sentence like “I'm Anna,” WATASHI WA ANNA DESU.Why do Japanese write top to bottom? ›
Traditionally, Japanese was only written vertically. Most historical documents are written in this style. However, with the introduction of western materials, the alphabet, Arabic numbers, and mathematical formulas, it became less convenient to write things vertically.What is my name in Japan? ›
お名前は何ですか？ Onamae wa nan desu ka? What is your name?WHAT IS A to Z in Japanese? ›
Letters: A = chi B = tsu C = te D = to E = na F = ni G = nu H = ne I = no J = ha K = hi L = fu M = he N = ho O = ma P = mi Q = mu R = me S = mo T = ya U... Japanese Alphabet. Less. gobling.What is i in Japan? ›
Most-frequently-used word to say 'I/me. ' It's a modest way to express yourself in any situations.