Japanese language

From New World Encyclopedia

Japanese (日本語, Nihongo) is a language spoken by over 130 million people, in Japan and Japanese emigrant communities around the world. It is an agglutinative language and is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics reflecting the hierarchical nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary to indicate the relative status of speaker, listener and the person mentioned in conversation. The sound inventory of Japanese is relatively small, and has a lexically distinct pitch-accent system. Early Japanese is known largely on the basis of its state in the eighth century, when the three major works of Old Japanese were compiled; but smaller amounts of material, primarily inscriptional, are older. The earliest attestation of Japanese is in a Chinese document from 252 C.E..

The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of scripts: Chinese characters, kanji, and two syllabic scripts, hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet, rōmaji, is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when inputting Japanese into a computer. Western style Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace.

Japanese vocabulary has been heavily influenced by loans from other languages. A vast number of words were borrowed from Chinese, or created from Chinese models, over a period of at least 1,500 years. Since the late nineteenth century, Japanese has borrowed a considerable number of words from Indo-European languages, primarily English. Because of the special trade relationship between Japan and Holland in the seventeenth century, Dutch has also been a source of vocabulary, with words like bīru (from bier; "beer") and kōhī (from koffie; "coffee").


Some historical linguists who specialize in Japanese agree that it is one of the two members of a Japonic language family, the other member being Ryūkyūan. Others, however, regard the kinds of speech found in the various Ryūkyū Islands as dialects of Japanese, since it is not yet clear when and how the various islands came to be settled by members of this linguistic and cultural group.

The genetic affiliation of the Japonic family is uncertain. Numerous theories have been proposed, relating it to a wide variety of other languages and families, including extinct languages spoken by historic cultures of the Korean Peninsula; the Korean language; the Altaic languages; and the Austronesian languages, among many others. It is also often suggested that it may be a creole language combining more than one of these. At this point, no one theory is generally accepted as correct, and the issue is likely to remain controversial.

Geographic Distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and is still sometimes spoken elsewhere. When Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of the Chinese mainland, and various Pacific islands during and before World War II, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese. As a result, there were many people in these countries until the 1970s, who could speak Japanese in addition to the local languages. Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazil) frequently employ Japanese as their primary language. Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia (especially Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne), and the United States (notably California and Hawaii). There is also a small emigrant community in Davao, Philippines and in Laguna, Philippines. Descendants of Japanese emigrants (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; many schools, both primary and secondary, offer courses.

Official status

Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan, which is the only country to have Japanese as an official working language. There is a form of the language considered standard: hyōjungo (標準語, standard Japanese), or kyōtsūgo (共通語, the common language). The meanings of two terms are almost the same. Hyōjungo (kyōtsūgo) is a concept intended to distinguish the official Japanese language from various Japanese dialects. “Standard Japanese” is the normative language established after the Meiji Restoration (meiji ishin, 明治維新) in 1868, adopted from the Japanese then commonly spoken in the city of Tokyo. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications, and is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Formerly, standard Japanese in writing (bungo, 文語, "literary language") was different from colloquial language (kōgo, 口語, "colloquial language"). The two systems have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. Bungo was the main method of writing Japanese until about 1900, since then kogo gradually extended its influence and both methods were used in writing until 1940s. Bungo still has some relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many of the Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). Kōgo is the predominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today, although bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect.


Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion of dialects is due to many factors, including the length of time the archipelago has been inhabited, its mountainous island terrain, and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usage. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.

The main distinction in Japanese dialects is between Tokyo-type (東京式, Tōkyō-shiki) and Western-type (京阪式, Keihan-shiki) pitch accents. Within each type are several subdivisions. The "Nishi-nihon hōgen" (West Japan dialect, including Kansai hōgen) categories are actually spoken in the central region, with borders roughly formed by Toyama, Kyōto, Hyōgo, and Mie Prefectures; most Shikoku dialects are also Western-type. Dialects spoken further west are actually of the "Higasi-nihon hōgen" (East Japan dialect, including Tokyo hōgen) category. "Kyūshū hōgen," (Kyūshū-type dialects) form a smaller third group. The final category of dialects, "Hachijō hōgen," are those that are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese; these dialects are spoken in Hachijojima, Kochi Prefecture, and very few other locations.

Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Tsushima, may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country. The several dialects used in Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū are famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but even to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū. This may be due to the Kagoshima dialects' peculiarities of pronunciation, which include the existence of closed syllables (syllables that end in a consonant, such as /kob/ or /koʔ/ for Standard Japanese /kumo/ "spider"). The vocabulary of Kagoshima dialect is 84 percent cognate with standard Tokyo dialect. Kansai-ben, a group of dialects from west-central Japan, is spoken by many Japanese; the Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy.

The Ryūkyūan languages, "Ryūkyū hōgen," while closely related to Japanese, are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family, and are not dialects of Japanese. They are spoken in the Ryukyu Islands and in some islands that are politically part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ryūkyūan languages.

Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including in portions of the Ryūkyū islands, such as Okinawa) due not only to television and radio, but also to increased mobility within Japan. Young people usually speak both their local dialect and the standard language, depending on the social circumstances. In most cases, the local dialect is influenced by standard Japanese, and regional versions of "standard" Japanese have variations from the local dialect.


Japanese vowels are "pure" sounds, similar to their Spanish, Greek or Italian counterparts. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel /ɯ/, which is like /u/, but compressed instead of rounded. Japanese has five vowels, and vowel length is phonemic, so each one has both a short and a long version.

Some Japanese consonants have several allophones, which may give the impression of a larger inventory of sounds. However, some of these allophones have since become phonemic. For example, in the Japanese language up to and including the first half of the twentieth century, the phonemic sequence /ti/ was palatalized and realized phonetically as [tɕi], approximately chi; however, now /ti/ and /tɕi/ are distinct, as evidenced by words like pātī [paːtiː] "party" and chi [tɕi] "blood."

The r of the Japanese language (technically a lateral apical postalveolar flap), is of particular interest, sounding to most Europeans' ears to be something between an l and a retroflex r depending on its position in a word.

The syllabic structure and the phonotactics are very simple: the only consonant clusters allowed within a syllable consist of one of a subset of the consonants plus /j/. This type of clusters only occurs in onsets. However, consonant clusters across syllables are allowed as long as the two consonants are a nasal followed by a homo-organic consonant. Consonant length (gemination) is also phonemic.


Sentence Structure

The basic Japanese word order is Subject-Object-Verb. Subject, Object, and other grammatical relations are usually indicated by particles, which are suffixed to the words that they modify, and are thus properly called postpositions.

The basic sentence structure is “topic-comment.” For example, in the sentence, Kochira-wa Tanaka-san desu ( こちらは田中さんです ), Kochira ("this") is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle -wa. The verb is desu, a copula, commonly translated as "to be" or "it is." As a phrase, Tanaka-san desu is the comment. This sentence loosely translates to "As for this person, (it) is Mr./Mrs./Miss Tanaka." Thus Japanese, like Chinese, Korean, and many other Asian languages, is often called a topic-prominent language, which means it has a strong tendency to indicate the topic separately from the subject, and the two do not always coincide. The sentence Zō-wa hana-ga nagai (desu)( 象は鼻が長いです) literally means, "As for elephants, (their) noses are long." The topic is "elephant," and the subject is hana "nose."

Japanese is a pro-drop language, meaning that the subject or object of a sentence need not be stated if it is obvious from context. In addition, it is commonly felt, particularly in spoken Japanese, that the shorter a sentence is, the better. As a result of this grammatical permissiveness and tendency towards brevity, Japanese speakers tend to naturally omit words from sentences, rather than refer to them with pronouns. In the context of the above example, hana-ga nagai would mean "[their] noses are long," while nagai by itself would mean "[they] are long." A single verb can be a complete sentence: Yatta! "[I / we / they / etc] did [it]!" In addition, since adjectives can form the predicate in a Japanese sentence (below), a single adjective can be a complete sentence: Urayamashii! "[I'm] jealous [of it]!."

While the language has some words that are typically translated as pronouns, these are not used as frequently as pronouns in some Indo-European languages, and function differently. Instead, Japanese typically relies on special verb forms and auxiliary verbs to indicate the direction of benefit of an action: "down" to indicate the out-group gives a benefit to the in-group; and "up" to indicate the in-group gives a benefit to the out-group. Here, the in-group includes the speaker and the out-group doesn't, and their boundary depends on context. For example, oshiete moratta (literally, "received an explanation,” with a benefit from the out-group to the in-group) means "[he/she/they] explained it to [me/us]." Similarly, oshiete ageta (literally, "gave an explanation," with a benefit from the in-group to the out-group) means "[I/we] explained [it] to [him/her/them]." Such beneficiary auxiliary verbs thus serve a function comparable to that of pronouns and prepositions in Indo-European languages to indicate the actor and the recipient of an action.

Japanese "pronouns" also function differently from most modern Indo-European pronouns (and more like nouns) in that they can take modifiers as any other noun may. For instance, one cannot say in English:

*The amazed he ran down the street. (ungrammatical)

But one can grammatically say essentially the same thing in Japanese:

Odoroita kare-wa michi-o hashitte itta. (grammatically correct)

This is partly due to the fact that these pronoun words evolved from regular nouns, such as kimi "you" (君 "lord"), anata "you" (あなた "that side, yonder"), and boku "I" (僕, "servant"). Some linguists do not classify Japanese "pronouns" as pronouns, but rather as referential nouns. Japanese personal pronouns are generally used only in situations requiring special emphasis as to who is doing what to whom.

The choice of words used as pronouns is correlated with the sex of the speaker and the social situation in which they are spoken: men and women alike in a formal situation generally refer to themselves as watashi (私 "private") or watakushi (also 私), while men in rougher or intimate conversation are much more likely to use the word ore (俺 "oneself," "myself") or boku. Similarly, different words such as anata, kimi, and omae (お前, more formally 御前 "the one before me") may be used to refer to a listener depending on the listener's relative social position and the degree of familiarity between the speaker and the listener. When used in different social relationships, the same word may have positive (intimate or respectful) or negative (distant or disrespectful) connotations.

Japanese often use titles of the person referred to where pronouns would be used in English. For example, when speaking to one's teacher, it is appropriate to use sensei (先生, teacher), but inappropriate to use anata. This is because anata is used to refer to people of equal or lower status, and one's teacher has higher status.

Inflection and Conjugation

Japanese has no grammatical number or gender. The noun hon (本) may refer to a single book or several books; hito (人) can mean "person" or "people"; and ki (木) can be "tree" or "trees." Where number is important, it can be indicated by providing a quantity (often with a counter word) or (rarely) by adding a suffix. Words for people are usually understood as singular. Words that refer to people and animals can be made to indicate a group of individuals through the addition of a collective suffix (a noun suffix that indicates a group), such as -tachi, but this is not a true plural: the meaning is closer to the English phrase "and company." A group described as Tanaka-san-tachi may include people not named Tanaka. Some Japanese nouns are effectively plural, such as hitobito "people" and wareware "we/us," while the word for tomodachi "friend" is considered singular, although plural in form.

Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: past and present, or non-past, which is used for the present and the future. For verbs that represent an ongoing process, the -te iru form indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others that represent a change of state, the -te iru form indicates a perfect tense. For example, kite iru means "He has come (and is still here)," but tabete iru means "He is eating."

Questions (both with an interrogative pronoun and yes/no questions) have the same structure as affirmative sentences, but with intonation rising at the end. In the formal register, the question particle -ka is added. For example, Ii desu, "It is OK" becomes Ii desu-ka "Is it OK?." In a more informal tone sometimes the particle -no is added instead to show a personal interest of the speaker: Dōshite konai-no?, "Why aren't (you) coming?" Some simple queries are formed simply by mentioning the topic with an interrogative intonation to call for the hearer's attention: Kore-wa? "(What about) this?" Namae-wa? "(What's your) name?"

Negatives are formed by inflecting the verb. For example, Pan-o taberu "I will eat bread" or "I eat bread" becomes Pan-o tabenai "I will not eat bread" or "I do not eat bread."

The so-called -te verb form is used for a variety of purposes: either progressive or perfect aspect (see above); combining verbs in a temporal sequence (Asagohan-o tabete sugu dekakeru "I'll eat breakfast and leave at once"), simple commands, conditional statements and permissions (Dekakete-mo ii? "May I go out?"), etc.

The word da (plain), desu (polite) is the copula verb. It corresponds approximately to the English be, but often takes on other roles, including a marker for tense, when the verb is conjugated into its past form datta (plain), deshita (polite). This comes into use because only keiyōshi adjectives (see types of adjectives below) and verbs can carry tense in Japanese. Two additional common verbs are used to indicate existence ("there is") or, in some contexts, property: aru (negative nai) and iru (negative inai), for inanimate and animate things, respectively. For example, Neko ga iru "There's a cat," Ii kangae-ga nai "[I] haven't got a good idea."

The verb "to do" (suru, polite form shimasu) is often used to make verbs from nouns (ryōri suru "to cook," benkyō suru "to study," etc.) and has been productive in creating modern slang words. Japanese also has a huge number of compound verbs to express concepts that are described in English using a verb and a preposition (e.g., tobidasu "to fly out, to flee," from tobu "to fly, to jump" + dasu "to put out, to emit").

There are three types of adjective (see also Japanese adjectives):

  1. 形容詞 keiyōshi, or i adjectives, which have a conjugating ending i (such as atsui, "to be hot") which can become past (atsukatta - "it was hot"), or negative (atsuku nai - "it is not hot"). Note that nai is also an i adjective, which can become past (atsuku nakatta - it was not hot).
    暑い日 atsui hi "a hot day."
  2. 形容動詞 keiyōdōshi, or na adjectives, which are followed by a form of the copula, usually na. For example hen (strange)
    変なひと hen na hito "a strange person."
  3. 連体詞 rentaishi, also called true adjectives, such as ano "that"
    あの山 ano yama "that mountain."

Both keiyōshi and keiyōdōshi may predicate sentences. For example,

ご飯が熱い. Gohan-ga atsui. "The rice is hot."
彼は変だ. Kare-wa hen da. "He's strange."

Both inflect, though they do not show the full range of conjugation found in true verbs. The rentaishi in Modern Japanese are few in number, and unlike the other words, are limited to directly modifying nouns. They never predicate sentences. Examples include ookina "big," kono "this," iwayuru "so-called" and taishita "amazing."

Both keiyōdōshi and keiyōshi form adverbs, by following with ni in the case of keiyōdōshi:

変になる hen ni naru "become strange,"

and by changing i to ku in the case of keiyōshi:

熱くなる atsuku naru "become hot."

The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by postpositions, also called particles. These include:

  • が ga for the nominative case. Not necessarily a subject.
Kare ga yatta. "He did it."
  • に ni for the dative case.
田中さん聞いて下さい。 Tanaka-san ni kiite kudasai "Please ask Mr. Tanaka."
  • の no for the genitive case, or nominalizing phrases.
カメラ。 watashi no kamera "my camera"
スキー行くのが好きです。 Sukī-ni iku no ga suki desu "(I) like going skiing."
  • を o for the accusative case. Not necessarily an object.
食べますか。 Nani o tabemasu ka? "What will (you) eat?"
  • は wa for the topic. It can co-exist with case markers above except no, and it overrides ga and o.
タイ料理がいいです。 Watashi wa tai-ryōri ga ii desu. "As for me, Thai food is good." The nominative marker ga after watashi is hidden under wa. Note: While wa indicates the topic, which the rest of the sentence describes or acts upon, it carries the implication that the subject indicated by wa is not unique, or may be part of a larger group.
Ikeda-san wa yonjū-ni sai da. "As for Mr. Ikeda, he is forty-two years old." Others in the group may also be of that age.

Absence of wa often means the subject is the focus of the sentence.

Ikeda-san ga yonjū-ni sai da. "It is Mr. Ikeda who is forty-two years old." This is a reply to an implicit or explicit question as to who in this group is forty-two years old.


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

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 position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, 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 they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

Uchi-soto is a concept embodied in the Japanese language, which involves making a distinction between in-groups (uchi, 内, "inside") and out-groups (soto, 外, "outside"). When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the uchi-soto relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom. Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family), while honorific language is mostly used when describing the interlocutor and his/her group. A Japanese person will use vocabulary and inflections of the honorific register when speaking directly to a superior in his company or when speaking to other company employees about a superior. When speaking to a person from another company (a member of an out-group), however, he will use the plain or the humble register to refer to the speech and actions of his superior. The register used in Japanese to refer to the person, speech, or actions of any particular individual varies depending on the relationship (either in-group or out-group) between the speaker and listener, as well as the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents. For this reason, the Japanese system for explicit indication of social register is known as a system of "relative honorifics." In contrast, the Korean language uses a system of "absolute honorifics," in which the same register is used to refer to a particular individual, such as one's father or one's company president, in any context regardless of the relationship between the speaker and interlocutor.

Whereas teineigo (丁寧語) (polite language) is commonly an inflectional system, sonkeigo (尊敬語) (respectful language) and kenjōgo (謙譲語) (humble language) often employ special honorific and humble alternate verbs: iku "to go" becomes ikimasu in polite form, but is replaced by irassharu in honorific speech and mairu in humble speech.

Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made polite by the addition of o- or 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 regular speech, such as gohan 'cooked rice; meal.' Such a construction often 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 (though mothers often use this form to refer to their children's friends). On the other hand, a polite speaker may sometimes refer to mizu 'water' as o-mizu in order to show politeness.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender.


The original language of Japan, or at least the original language of a certain population that was ancestral to a significant portion of the historical and present Japanese nation, was the so-called yamato kotoba (大和言葉, 大和詞, "Yamato words"), which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as wa-go (和語, 倭語, the "Wa words"). In addition to words from this original language, present-day Japanese includes a great number of words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots following Chinese patterns. These words, known as kango (漢語), entered the language from the fifth century onwards via contact with Chinese culture, both directly and through the Korean peninsula. According to some estimates, Chinese-based words may comprise as much as 60-70 percent of the total dictionary vocabulary of the modern Japanese language and form as much as 18-40 percent of words used in speech. Like Latin-derived words in English, kango words are typically perceived as somewhat formal or academic, compared to equivalent Yamato words.

A much smaller number of words has been borrowed from Korean and Ainu. Japan has also borrowed a number of words from other languages, particularly ones of European extraction, which are called gairaigo (gai (outside) rai (come) go (language). This began with borrowings from Portuguese in the sixteenth century, followed by borrowing from Dutch during Japan's long isolation (sakoku) of the Edo period. With the Meiji Restoration and the reopening of Japan in the nineteenth century]], borrowing occurred from German, French and English. Currently, words of English origin are the most commonly borrowed.

In the Meiji era, the Japanese also coined many neologisms using Chinese roots and morphology to translate Western concepts. The Chinese and Koreans imported many of these pseudo-Chinese words into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese via their kanji characters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, 政治 seiji ("politics"), and 化学 kagaku ("chemistry") are words derived from Chinese roots that were first created and used by the Japanese, and only later borrowed into Chinese and other East Asian languages. As a result, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese share a large common corpus of vocabulary in the same way that a large number of Greek- and Latin-derived words are shared among modern European languages.

In the past few decades, wasei-eigo (made-in-Japan English) has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpatān ワンパターン (one + pattern, means "to be in a rut," "to have a one-track mind") and sukinshippu スキンシップ (skin + -ship, "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are nonsensical in a non-Japanese context. A small number of such words have been borrowed back into English.

Additionally, many native Japanese words have become commonplace in English, due to the popularity of many Japanese cultural exports. Words such as sushi, judo, karate, sumo, karaoke, origami, tsunami, samurai, haiku, ninja, sayonara, rickshaw (from 人力車 jinrikisha), futon, tycoon and many others have become part of the English language.

Writing System

Before the fifth century, the Japanese had no writing system of their own. They began to adopt the Chinese writing script, along with many other aspects of Chinese culture, after its introduction by Korean monks and scholars during the fifth and sixth centuries.

The table of Kana

At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later this latter principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose. An example of this style is the Kojiki, (The Record of Ancient Matters) which was written in 712 C.E. Japanese scholars then began to use Chinese characters to write Japanese words in a style known as man'yōgana, a syllabic script which employed Chinese characters for their sounds, in order to transcribe the words of Japanese speech syllable by syllable.

Over time, a writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese, or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters used to write grammatical elements were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana.

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three main systems: kanji, characters of Chinese origin used to represent both Chinese loanwords into Japanese and a number of native Japanese morphemes; and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet is also sometimes used. Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji characters when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds, such as 統一 tōitsu ("unification").

Hiragana are used for words without kanji representation, for words no longer written in kanji, and also following kanji to show conjugational endings. Because of the way verbs (and adjectives) in Japanese are conjugated, kanji alone cannot fully convey Japanese tense and mood, as kanji cannot be subject to variation when written without losing its meaning. For this reason, hiragana are suffixed to the ends of kanji to show verb and adjective conjugations. Hiragana used in this way are called okurigana. Hiragana are also written in a superscript called furigana above or beside a kanji to show the proper reading. This is done to facilitate learning, as well as to clarify particularly old or obscure (or sometimes invented) readings.

Katakana, like hiragana, are a syllabary; katakana are primarily used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis. For example "Australia" has been adapted as Ōsutoraria, and "supermarket" has been adapted and shortened into sūpā. Rōmaji (ローマ字), literally "Roman letters," is the Japanese term for the Latin alphabet. Rōmaji are used for some loan words like "CD," "DVD," etc., and also for some Japanese creations like "Sony."

Historically, attempts to limit the number of kanji in use commenced in the mid-nineteenth century, but did not become a matter of government intervention until after Japan's defeat in the World War II|Second World War. During the period of post-war occupation by the United States, various schemes including the complete abolition of kanji and exclusive use of rōmaji were considered. In 1946, the government introduced a list of 1850 characters known as the general-use kanji (tōyō kanji 当用漢字). In 1981 this was replaced with the “common use kanji,” (“jōyō kanji,” 常用漢字).

Japanese students begin to learn kanji characters from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of kyōiku kanji ("education kanji," a subset of jōyō kanji), specifies the 1,006 simple characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 939 characters in junior high school, covering in total 1,945 jōyō kanji characters, which is generally considered sufficient for everyday life, although many kanji used in everyday life are not included in the list. Various semi-official bodies were set up to monitor and enforce restrictions on the use of kanji in newspapers, publishing, and in television broadcasts. There are no official restrictions on the kanji used in publications and literature. The official list of jōyō kanji was revised several times, but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained largely unchanged.

The Jinmeiyō kanji 人名用漢字 are 2,928 characters consisting of the Jōyō kanji, plus an additional 983 kanji found in people's names. Sometimes the phrase Jinmeiyō kanji refers to all 2928, and sometimes it only refers to the 983 that are only used for names. Over the years, the Minister of Justice has on several occasions added to this list. Jōyō kanji and jinmeiyō kanji (an appendix of additional characters for names) are approved for registering personal names with the government. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration. However, as with the list of jōyō kanji, criteria for inclusion were often arbitrary and led to many common and popular characters being disapproved for use. Under popular pressure and following a court decision holding the exclusion of common characters unlawful, the list of jinmeiyō kanji was substantially extended from 92 in 1951 (the year it was first decreed) to 983 in 2004. Furthermore, families whose names are not on these lists were permitted to continue using the older forms.

Learning Japanese

Many major universities throughout the world provide Japanese language courses, and a number of secondary and even primary schools worldwide offer courses in the language. International interest in the Japanese language dates from the 1800s but has become more prevalent following Japan's economic bubble of the 1980s and the global popularity of Japanese martial arts and Japanese pop culture (such as anime and anime-based video games) since the 1990s.

The Japanese government provides standardized tests to measure spoken and written comprehension of Japanese for second language learners; the most prominent is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The Japanese External Trade Organization JETRO organizes the Business Japanese Proficiency Test which tests the learner's ability to understand Japanese in a business setting.

See also


  • Bloch, Bernard. "Studies in colloquial Japanese I: Inflection." Journal of the American Oriental Society 66 (1946): 97-130.
  • Bloch, Bernard. "Studies in colloquial Japanese II: Syntax." Language 22 (1946): 200-248.
  • Chafe, William L. "Giveness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics, and point of view." In C. Li (Ed.), Subject and topic. (25-56). New York: Academic Press, 1976. ISBN 0124473504.
  • Endo, Orie. A Cultural History of Japanese Women's Language. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center for Japanese Studies, 2006. ISBN 978-1929280391.
  • Kuno, Susumu. The structure of the Japanese language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973. ISBN 0262110490.
  • Kuno, Susumu. "Subject, theme, and the speaker's empathy: A re-examination of relativization phenomena." In Charles N. Li (ed.), Subject and topic. (417-444). New York: Academic Press, 1976. ISBN 0124473504.
  • Martin, Samuel E. A reference grammar of Japanese. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975. ISBN 0300018134.
  • McClain, Yoko Matsuoka. Handbook of modern Japanese grammar. 口語日本文法便覧 [Kōgo Nihon bumpō]. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1981. ISBN 4590005700; ISBN 0893461490.
  • Miller, Roy. The Japanese language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. ISBN 0226527174.
  • Miller, Roy. Origins of the Japanese language: Lectures in Japan during the academic year, 1977-78. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980. ISBN 0295957662.
  • Mizutani, Osamu, & Nobuko Mizutani. How to be polite in Japanese: 日本語の敬 Tokyo: The Japan Times. 1991, (in English) ISBN 4789003388[Nihongo no keigo].
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. "Japanese." In B. Comrie (ed.), The major languages of east and south-east Asia. London: Routledge, 1990. ISBN 0415047390.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0521360706.
  • Shibamoto, Janet S. Japanese women's language. New York: Academic Press, 1985. ISBN 012640030X.
  • Tsujimura, Natsuko. An introduction to Japanese linguistics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0631198563.
  • Tsujimura, Natsuko. (ed.). The handbook of Japanese linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0631205047.

External links

All links retrieved September 21, 2018.


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