Japanese Language
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Japanese Language


The kanji for Japanese (read nihongo)
Native toJapan
EthnicityJapanese (Yamato)
Native speakers
~128 million (2020)[1]
  • Japanese
Early forms
Signed Japanese
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
Glottolognucl1643  excluding Hachijo, Tsugaru, and Kagoshima
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Japanese (, Nihongo, [?ihoo] ) 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. There have been many attempts to group the Japonic languages with other families such as the Ainu, Austroasiatic, Koreanic, and the now-discredited Altaic, but none of these proposals has gained widespread acceptance.

Little is known of the language's prehistory, or when it first appeared in Japan. Chinese documents from the 3rd century AD recorded a few Japanese words, but substantial Old Japanese texts did not appear until the 8th century. From the Heian period (794-1185), extensive waves of Sino-Japanese vocabulary entered the language, affecting the phonology of Early Middle Japanese. Late Middle Japanese (1185-1600) saw extensive grammatical changes and the first appearance of European loanwords. The basis of the standard dialect moved from the Kansai region to the Edo region (modern Tokyo) in the Early Modern Japanese period (early 17th century-mid 19th century). Following the end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in 1853, the flow of loanwords from European languages increased significantly, and words from English roots have proliferated.

Japanese is an agglutinative, mora-timed language with relatively simple phonotactics, a pure vowel system, phonemic vowel and consonant length, and a lexically significant pitch-accent. Word order is normally subject-object-verb with particles marking the grammatical function of words, and sentence structure is topic-comment. Sentence-final particles are used to add emotional or emphatic impact, or form questions. Nouns have no grammatical number or gender, and there are no articles. Verbs are conjugated, primarily for tense and voice, but not person. Japanese adjectives are also conjugated. Japanese has a complex system of honorifics, with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned.

The Japanese writing system combines Chinese characters, known as kanji (, 'Han characters'), with two unique syllabaries (or moraic scripts) derived by the Japanese from the more complex Chinese characters: hiragana (? or , 'simple characters') and katakana (? or , 'partial characters'). Latin script (r?maji ?) is also used in a limited fashion (such as for imported acronyms) in Japanese writing. The numeral system uses mostly Arabic numerals, but also traditional Chinese numerals.



Proto-Japonic, the common ancestor of the Japanese and Ryukyuan languages, is thought to have been brought to Japan by settlers coming from the Korean peninsula sometime in the early- to mid-4th century BC (the Yayoi period), replacing the languages of the original J?mon inhabitants,[2] including the ancestor of the modern Ainu language. Because writing had yet to be introduced from China, there is no direct evidence, and anything that can be discerned about this period must be based on internal reconstruction from Old Japanese, or comparison with the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese dialects.[3]

Old Japanese

Page from the Man'y?sh?
A page from the Man'y?sh?, the oldest anthology of classical Japanese poetry

The Chinese writing system was imported to Japan from Baekje around the start of the fifth century, alongside Buddhism.[4] The earliest texts were written in Classical Chinese, although some of these were likely intended to be read as Japanese using the kanbun method, and show influences of Japanese grammar such as Japanese word order.[5] The earliest text, the Kojiki, dates to the early eighth century, and was written entirely in Chinese characters, which are used to represent, at different times, Chinese, kanbun, and Old Japanese.[6] As in other texts from this period, the Old Japanese sections are written in Man'y?gana, which uses kanji for their phonetic as well as semantic values.

Based on the Man'y?gana system, Old Japanese can be reconstructed as having 88 distinct syllables. Texts written with Man'y?gana use two different sets of kanji for each of the syllables now pronounced ? (ki), ? (hi), ? (mi), ? (ke), ? (he), ? (me), ? (ko), ? (so), ? (to), ? (no), ? (mo), ? (yo) and ? (ro).[7] (The Kojiki has 88, but all later texts have 87. The distinction between mo1 and mo2 apparently was lost immediately following its composition.) This set of syllables shrank to 67 in Early Middle Japanese, though some were added through Chinese influence. Man'y?gana also has a symbol for /je/, which merges with /e/ before the end of the period.

Several fossilizations of Old Japanese grammatical elements remain in the modern language - the genitive particle tsu (superseded by modern no) is preserved in words such as matsuge ("eyelash", lit. "hair of the eye"); modern mieru ("to be visible") and kikoeru ("to be audible") retain a mediopassive suffix -yu(ru) (kikoyu -> kikoyuru (the attributive form, which slowly replaced the plain form starting in the late Heian period) -> kikoeru (all verbs with the shimo-nidan conjugation pattern underwent this same shift in Early Modern Japanese)); and the genitive particle ga remains in intentionally archaic speech.

Early Middle Japanese

Genji Monogatari emaki scroll
A 12th-century emaki scroll of The Tale of Genji from the 11th century

Early Middle Japanese is the Japanese of the Heian period, from 794 to 1185. It formed the basis for the literary standard of Classical Japanese, which remained in common use until the early 20th century.

During this time, Japanese underwent numerous phonological developments, in many cases instigated by an influx of Chinese loanwords. These included phonemic length distinction for both consonants and vowels, palatal consonants (e.g. kya) and labial consonant clusters (e.g. kwa), and closed syllables.[8][9] This had the effect of changing Japanese into a mora-timed language.[8]

Late Middle Japanese

Late Middle Japanese covers the years from 1185 to 1600, and is normally divided into two sections, roughly equivalent to the Kamakura period and the Muromachi period, respectively. The later forms of Late Middle Japanese are the first to be described by non-native sources, in this case the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries; and thus there is better documentation of Late Middle Japanese phonology than for previous forms (for instance, the Arte da Lingoa de Iapam). Among other sound changes, the sequence /au/ merges to /?:/, in contrast with /o:/; /p/ is reintroduced from Chinese; and /we/ merges with /je/. Some forms rather more familiar to Modern Japanese speakers begin to appear - the continuative ending -te begins to reduce onto the verb (e.g. yonde for earlier yomite), the -k- in the final syllable of adjectives drops out (shiroi for earlier shiroki); and some forms exist where modern standard Japanese has retained the earlier form (e.g. hayaku > hayau > hay, where modern Japanese just has hayaku, though the alternative form is preserved in the standard greeting o-hay? gozaimasu "good morning"; this ending is also seen in o-medet? "congratulations", from medetaku).

Late Middle Japanese has the first loanwords from European languages - now-common words borrowed into Japanese in this period include pan ("bread") and tabako ("tobacco", now "cigarette"), both from Portuguese.

Modern Japanese

Modern Japanese is considered to begin with the Edo period (which spanned from 1603 to 1867). Since Old Japanese, the de facto standard Japanese had been the Kansai dialect, especially that of Kyoto. However, during the Edo period, Edo (now Tokyo) developed into the largest city in Japan, and the Edo-area dialect became standard Japanese. Since the end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in 1853, the flow of loanwords from European languages has increased significantly. The period since 1945 has seen many words borrowed from other languages--such as German, Portuguese and English.[10] Many English loan words especially relate to technology--for example, pasokon (short for "personal computer"), int?netto ("internet"), and kamera ("camera"). Due to the large quantity of English loanwords, modern Japanese has developed a distinction between [t?i] and [ti], and [d?i] and [di], with the latter in each pair only found in loanwords.[11]

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been spoken outside. Before and during World War II, through Japanese annexation of Taiwan and Korea, as well as partial occupation of China, the Philippines, and various Pacific islands,[12] locals in those countries learned Japanese as the language of the empire. As a result, many elderly people in these countries can still speak Japanese.

Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazil,[13] with 1.4 million to 1.5 million Japanese immigrants and descendants, according to Brazilian IBGE data, more than the 1.2 million of the United States[14]) sometimes employ Japanese as their primary language. Approximately 12% of Hawaii residents speak Japanese,[15] with an estimated 12.6% of the population of Japanese ancestry in 2008. Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia (especially in the eastern states), Canada (especially in Vancouver where 1.4% of the population has Japanese ancestry[16]), the United States (notably Hawaii, where 16.7% of the population has Japanese ancestry[clarification needed],[17] and California), and the Philippines (particularly in Davao region and Laguna province).[18][19][20]

Official status

Japanese has no official status in Japan,[21] but is the de facto national language of the country. There is a form of the language considered standard: hy?jungo (), meaning "standard Japanese", or ky?ts?go (), "common language". The meanings of the two terms are almost the same. Hy?jungo or ky?ts?go is a conception that forms the counterpart of dialect. This normative language was born after the Meiji Restoration (?, meiji ishin, 1868) from the language spoken in the higher-class areas of Tokyo (see Yamanote). Hy?jungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications.[22] It is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Formerly, standard Japanese in writing (, bungo, "literary language") was different from colloquial language (, k?go). 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 k?go gradually extended its influence and the two methods were both used in writing until the 1940s. Bungo still has some relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). K?go is the dominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today, although bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect.

The 1982 state constitution of Angaur, Palau, names Japanese along with Palauan and English as an official language of the state.[23] However, the results of the 2005 census show that in April 2005 there were no usual or legal residents of Angaur aged 5 or older who spoke Japanese at home at all.[24]

Dialects and mutual intelligibility

Map of Japanese dialects and Japonic languages

Japanese 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.

In terms of mutual intelligibility, a survey in 1967 found the four most unintelligible dialects (excluding Ry?ky?an languages and Tohoku dialects) to students from Greater Tokyo are the Kiso dialect (in the deep mountains of Nagano Prefecture), the Himi dialect (in Toyama Prefecture), the Kagoshima dialect and the Maniwa dialect (in Okayama Prefecture).[25] The survey is based on recordings of 12- to 20- second long, of 135 to 244 phonemes, which 42 students listened and translated word-by-word. The listeners are all Keio University students who grew up in the Kanto region.[25]

Intelligibility to students from Tokyo and Kanto region (Date: 1967)[25]
Dialect Kyoto City ?gata, K?chi Tatsuta, Aichi Kumamoto City Osaka City Kanagi, Shimane Maniwa, Okayama Kagoshima City Kiso, Nagano Himi, Toyama
Percentage 67.1% 45.5% 44.5% 38.6% 26.4% 24.8% 24.7% 17.6% 13.3% 4.1%

There are some language islands in mountain villages or isolated islands such as Hachij?-jima island whose dialects are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese. Dialects of the Kansai region are spoken or known by many Japanese, and Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy (see Kansai dialect). Dialects of T?hoku and North Kant? are associated with typical farmers.

The Ry?ky?an languages, spoken in Okinawa and the Amami Islands (politically part of Kagoshima), are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family; not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ry?ky?an languages. However, in contrast to linguists, many ordinary Japanese people tend to consider the Ry?ky?an languages as dialects of Japanese. The imperial court also seems to have spoken an unusual variant of the Japanese of the time.[26] Most likely being the spoken form of Classical Japanese language, a writing style that was prevalent during the Heian period, but began decline during the late Meiji period.[27] The Ry?ky?an languages are spoken by a decreasing number of elderly people so UNESCO classified it as endangered, because they could become extinct by 2050. Young people mostly use Japanese and cannot understand the Ryukyuan languages. Okinawan Japanese is a variant of Standard Japanese influenced by the Ryukyuan languages. It is the primary dialect spoken among young people in the Ryukyu Islands.[28]

Modern Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ry?ky? islands) due to education, mass media, and an increase of mobility within Japan, as well as economic integration.


Japanese is a member of the Japonic language family, which also includes the Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. As these closely related languages are commonly treated as dialects of the same language, Japanese is often called a language isolate.[29]

According to Martine Irma Robbeets, Japanese has been subject to more attempts to show its relation to other languages than any other language in the world.[30] Since Japanese first gained the consideration of linguists in the late 19th century, attempts have been made to show its genealogical relation to languages or language families such as Ainu, Korean, Chinese, Tibeto-Burman, Uralic, Altaic (or Ural-Altaic), Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian. At the fringe, some linguists have suggested a link to Indo-European languages, including Greek, and to Lepcha. Main modern theories try to link Japanese either to northern Asian languages, like Korean or the proposed larger Altaic family, or to various Southeast Asian languages, especially Austronesian. None of these proposals have gained wide acceptance (and the Altaic family itself is now considered controversial).[31][32][33] As it stands, only the link to Ryukyuan has wide support.[34]

Other theories view the Japanese language as an early creole language formed through inputs from at least two distinct language groups, or as a distinct language of its own that has absorbed various aspects from neighbouring languages.[35][36][37]


Spoken Japanese


The vowels of Standard Japanese on a vowel chart. Adapted from Okada (1999:117).

Japanese has five vowels, and vowel length is phonemic, with each having both a short and a long version. Elongated vowels are usually denoted with a line over the vowel (a macron) in r?maji, a repeated vowel character in hiragana, or a ch?onpu succeeding the vowel in katakana. /u/ (listen) is compressed rather than protruded, or simply unrounded.


Bilabial Alveolar Alveolo-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n (?) (?) (?)
Stop p  b t  d k  ?
Affricate (t?s)  (d?z) (t)  (d)
Fricative (?) s  z (?)  (?) (ç) h
Liquid r
Semivowel j w
Special moras /N/, /Q/

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 20th century, the phonemic sequence /ti/ was palatalized and realized phonetically as [t?i], approximately chi (listen); however, now [ti] and [t?i] are distinct, as evidenced by words like t? [ti:] "Western-style tea" and chii [t?ii] "social status".

The "r" of the Japanese language is of particular interest, ranging between an apical central tap and a lateral approximant. The "g" is also notable; unless it starts a sentence, it may be pronounced , in the Kanto prestige dialect and in other eastern dialects.

The phonotactics of Japanese are relatively simple. The syllable structure is (C)(G)V(C),[38] that is, a core vowel surrounded by an optional onset consonant, a glide /j/ and either the first part of a geminate consonant (?/?, represented as Q) or a moraic nasal in the coda (?/?, represented as N).

The nasal is sensitive to its phonetic environment and assimilates to the following phoneme, with pronunciations including [?, m, n, ?, ?, ]. Onset-glide clusters only occur at the start of syllables but clusters across syllables are allowed as long as the two consonants are the moraic nasal followed by a homorganic consonant.

Japanese also includes a pitch accent, which is not represented in syllabic writing; for example [ha?.?i] ("chopsticks") and [ha.?i?] ("bridge") are both spelled (hashi), and are only differentiated by the tone contour.[39]


Sentence structure

Japanese word order is classified as subject-object-verb. Unlike many Indo-European languages, the only strict rule of word order is that the verb must be placed at the end of a sentence (possibly followed by sentence-end particles). This is because Japanese sentence elements are marked with particles that identify their grammatical functions.

The basic sentence structure is topic-comment. For example, Kochira wa Tanaka-san desu (?). kochira ("this") is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle wa. The verb de aru (desu is a contraction of its polite form de arimasu) is a copula, commonly translated as "to be" or "it is" (though there are other verbs that can be translated as "to be"), though technically it holds no meaning and is used to give a sentence 'politeness'. As a phrase, Tanaka-san desu is the comment. This sentence literally translates to "As for this person, (it) is Mx Tanaka." Thus Japanese, like 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 that the two do not always coincide. The sentence Z? wa hana ga nagai () literally means, "As for elephant(s), (the) nose(s) (is/are) long". The topic is z? "elephant", and the subject is hana "nose".

In Japanese, the subject or object of a sentence need not be stated if it is obvious from context. As a result of this grammatical permissiveness, there is a tendency to gravitate towards brevity; Japanese speakers tend to omit pronouns on the theory they are inferred from the previous sentence, and are therefore understood. 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. In some cases Japanese 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 does not, and their boundary depends on context. For example, oshiete moratta (?) (literally, "explained" with a benefit from the out-group to the in-group) means "[he/she/they] explained [it] to [me/us]". Similarly, oshiete ageta () (literally, "explained" 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 does not say in English:

The amazed he ran down the street. (grammatically incorrect insertion of a pronoun)

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

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

This is partly because these words evolved from regular nouns, such as kimi "you" (? "lord"), anata "you" ( "that side, yonder"), and boku "I" (? "servant"). This is why some linguists do not classify Japanese "pronouns" as pronouns, but rather as referential nouns, much like Spanish usted (contracted from vuestra merced, "your [(flattering majestic) plural] grace") or Portuguese o senhor. 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 (? "private") or watakushi (also ?), while men in rougher or intimate conversation are much more likely to use the word ore (? "oneself", "myself") or boku. Similarly, different words such as anata, kimi, and omae (, more formally "the one before me") may 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 (, 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 nouns have no grammatical number, gender or article aspect. The noun hon (?) may refer to a single book or several books; hito (?) can mean "person" or "people", and ki (?) 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, or sometimes by duplication (e.g. , hitobito, usually written with an iteration mark as ). Words for people are usually understood as singular. Thus Tanaka-san usually means Mx Tanaka. 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 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) aspect, similar to the suffix ing in English. For others that represent a change of state, the -te iru form indicates a perfect aspect. For example, kite iru means "They have come (and are still here)", but tabete iru means "They are 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: D?shite 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?"; O-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". Plain negative forms are i-adjectives (see below) and inflect as such, e.g. Pan o tabenakatta (?) "I did 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 i-adjectives 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 (ry?ri suru "to cook", benky? 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 an adverbial particle (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 adjectives (see Japanese adjectives):

  1. keiy?shi, 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").
    atsui hi "a hot day".
  2. ? keiy?d?shi, or na adjectives, which are followed by a form of the copula, usually na. For example, hen (strange)
    hen na hito "a strange person".
  3. rentaishi, also called true adjectives, such as ano "that"
    ano yama "that mountain".

Both keiy?shi and keiy?d?shi may predicate sentences. For example,

Gohan ga atsui. "The rice is hot."
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 keiy?d?shi and keiy?shi form adverbs, by following with ni in the case of keiy?d?shi:

? hen ni naru "become strange",

and by changing i to ku in the case of keiy?shi:

? atsuku naru "become hot".

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

?Kare ga yatta. "He did it."
? Tanaka-san ni agete kudasai "Please give it to Mx Tanaka."

It is also used for the lative case, indicating a motion to a location.

Nihon ni ikitai "I want to go to Japan."
  • However, ? e is more commonly used for the lative case.
p?t? e ikanai ka? "Won't you go to the party?"
? watashi no kamera "my camera"
? Suk?-ni iku no ga suki desu "(I) like going skiing."
Nani o tabemasu ka? "What will (you) eat?"
  • ? wa for the topic. It can co-exist with the case markers listed above, and it overrides ga and (in most cases) o.
Watashi wa sushi ga ii desu. (literally) "As for me, sushi is good." The nominative marker ga after watashi is hidden under wa.

Note: The subtle difference between wa and ga in Japanese cannot be derived from the English language as such, because the distinction between sentence topic and subject is not made there. 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 yonj?-ni sai da. "As for Mx Ikeda, they are 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 yonj?-ni sai da. "It is Mx Ikeda who is forty-two years old." This is a reply to an implicit or explicit question, such as "who in this group is forty-two years old?"


Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality. This reflects the hierarchical nature of Japanese society.[41]

The Japanese language can express differing levels in social status. The differences in social position are determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or even psychological state (e.g., a person asking a favour tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other person might use a plainer 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. See uchi-soto.

Whereas teineigo () (polite language) is commonly an inflectional system, sonkeigo () (respectful language) and kenj?go () (humble language) often employ many special honorific and humble alternate verbs: iku "go" becomes ikimasu in polite form, but is replaced by irassharu in honorific speech and ukagau or mairu in humble speech.

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 their group. For example, the -san suffix ("Mr" "Mrs.", "Miss", or "Mx") is an example of honorific language. It is not used to talk about oneself or when talking about someone from one's company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's in-group. When speaking directly to one's superior in one's company or when speaking with other employees within one's company about a superior, a Japanese person will use vocabulary and inflections of the honorific register to refer to the in-group superior and their speech and actions. When speaking to a person from another company (i.e., a member of an out-group), however, a Japanese person will use the plain or the humble register to refer to the speech and actions of their own in-group superiors. In short, 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 depending on the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents.

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. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but if a relationship becomes more intimate, they no longer use them. This occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.


There are three main sources of words in the Japanese language, the yamato kotoba (?) or wago (), kango (), and gairaigo ().[42]

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 (? or infrequently , i.e. "Yamato words"), which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as wago ( or rarely , i.e. the "Wa language"). In addition to words from this original language, present-day Japanese includes a number of words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots following Chinese patterns. These words, known as kango (), entered the language from the 5th century onwards via contact with Chinese culture. According to the Shinsen Kokugo Jiten () Japanese dictionary, kango comprise 49.1% of the total vocabulary, wago make up 33.8%, other foreign words or gairaigo () account for 8.8%, and the remaining 8.3% constitute hybridized words or konshugo () that draw elements from more than one language.[43]

There are also a great number of words of mimetic origin in Japanese, with Japanese having a rich collection of sound symbolism, both onomatopoeia for physical sounds, and more abstract words. A small number of words have come into Japanese from the Ainu language. Tonakai (reindeer), rakko (sea otter) and shishamo (smelt, a type of fish) are well-known examples of words of Ainu origin.

Words of different origins occupy different registers in Japanese. Like Latin-derived words in English, kango words are typically perceived as somewhat formal or academic compared to equivalent Yamato words. Indeed, it is generally fair to say that an English word derived from Latin/French roots typically corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas an Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Yamato equivalent.

Incorporating vocabulary from European languages, gairaigo, began with borrowings from Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by words from Dutch during Japan's long isolation of the Edo period. With the Meiji Restoration and the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, borrowing occurred from German, French, and English. Today most borrowings are from English.

In the Meiji era, the Japanese also coined many neologisms using Chinese roots and morphology to translate European concepts;[] these are known as wasei kango (Japanese-made Chinese words). Many of these were then imported into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese via their kanji in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[] For example, seiji (, "politics"), and 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 many Greek- and Latin-derived words - both inherited or borrowed into European languages, or modern coinages from Greek or Latin roots - are shared among modern European languages - see classical compound.[]

In the past few decades, wasei-eigo ("made-in-Japan English") has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpat?n (< one + pattern, "to be in a rut", "to have a one-track mind") and sukinshippu (< skin + -ship, "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are nonsensical in most non-Japanese contexts; exceptions exist in nearby languages such as Korean however, which often use words such as skinship and rimokon (remote control) in the same way as in Japanese.

The popularity of many Japanese cultural exports has made some native Japanese words familiar in English, including emoji, futon, haiku, judo, kamikaze, karaoke, karate, ninja, origami, rickshaw (from jinrikisha), samurai, sayonara, Sudoku, sumo, sushi, tofu, tsunami, tycoon. See list of English words of Japanese origin for more.

Writing system


Literacy was introduced to Japan in the form of the Chinese writing system, by way of Baekje before the 5th century.[44][45][46][47] Using this language, the Japanese king Bu presented a petition to Emperor Shun of Liu Song in AD 478.[a] After the ruin of Baekje, Japan invited scholars from China to learn more of the Chinese writing system. Japanese emperors gave an official rank to Chinese scholars (//[b][c][d]) and spread the use of Chinese characters from the 7th century to the 8th century.

Table of Kana (including Youon): Hiragana top, Katakana in the center and Romanized equivalents at the bottom

At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later, during the 7th century AD, the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose, but some Japanese words were still written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. This is when the history of Japanese as a written language begins in its own right. By this time, the Japanese language was already very distinct from the Ryukyuan languages.[48]

An example of this mixed style is the Kojiki, which was written in AD 712. Japanese writers then started to use Chinese characters to write Japanese in a style known as man'y?gana, a syllabic script which used 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 were also used to write grammatical elements, were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana which were developed based on Manyogana. Some scholars claim that Manyogana originated from Baekje, but this hypothesis is denied by mainstream Japanese scholars.[49][50]

Hiragana and katakana were first simplified from kanji, and hiragana, emerging somewhere around the 9th century,[51] was mainly used by women. Hiragana was seen as an informal language, whereas katakana and kanji were considered more formal and was typically used by men and in official settings. However, because of hiragana's accessibility, more and more people began using it. Eventually, by the 10th century, hiragana was used by everyone.[52]

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 script (or romaji in Japanese) is used to a certain extent, such as for imported acronyms and to transcribe Japanese names and in other instances where non-Japanese speakers need to know how to pronounce a word (such as "ramen" at a restaurant). Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds, such as t?itsu ("unification").

Historically, attempts to limit the number of kanji in use commenced in the mid-19th century, but did not become a matter of government intervention until after Japan's defeat in the Second World War. During the period of post-war occupation (and influenced by the views of some U.S. officials), various schemes including the complete abolition of kanji and exclusive use of r?maji were considered. The j?y? kanji ("common use kanji", originally called t?y? kanji [kanji for general use]) scheme arose as a compromise solution.

Japanese students begin to learn kanji from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of ky?iku kanji ("education kanji", a subset of j?y? kanji), specifies the 1,006 simple characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 1,130 characters in junior high school, covering in total 2,136 j?y? kanji. The official list of j?y? kanji was revised several times, but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained largely unchanged.

As for kanji for personal names, the circumstances are somewhat complicated. J?y? kanji and jinmeiy? kanji (an appendix of additional characters for names) are approved for registering personal names. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration. However, as with the list of j?y? 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 jinmeiy? 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.


Hiragana are used for words without kanji representation, for words no longer written in kanji, for replacement of rare kanji that may be unfamiliar to intended readers, 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 their meaning. For this reason, hiragana are appended to kanji to show verb and adjective conjugations. Hiragana used in this way are called okurigana. Hiragana can also be 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, constitute a syllabary; katakana are primarily used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis. For example, "Australia" has been adapted as ?sutoraria (?), and "supermarket" has been adapted and shortened into s?p? (?).

Gender in the Japanese language

Depending on the speakers' gender, different linguistic features might be used.[53] The typical lect used by females is called joseigo () and the one used by males is called danseigo ().[54] Josiego and danseigo are different in various ways, including first-person pronouns (such as watashi or atashi ? for women and boku (?) for men) and sentence-final particles (such as wa (?), na no (), or kashira () for joseigo, or zo (?), da (?), or yo (?) for danseigo).[53] In addition to these specific differences, expressions and pitch can also be different.[53] For example, joseigo is more gentle, polite, refined, indirect, modest, and exclamatory, and often accompanied by raised pitch. [53]

Kogal Slang

In the 1990s, the traditional feminine speech patterns and stereotyped behaviors were challenged, and a popular culture of "naughty" teenage girls emerged, called kogyaru (?), sometimes referenced in English-language materials as "kogal".[55] Their mischievous behaviors, deviant language usage, the particular make-up called ganguro (?), and the fashion became objects of focus in the mainstream media.[55] Although kogal slang was not appreciated by older generations, these girls kept creating novel terms and expressions.[55] Kogal culture changed Japanese norms of gender and the Japanese language as well.[55]

Non-native study

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. This is a significant increase from before World War II; in 1940, only 65 Americans not of Japanese descent were able to read, write and understand the language.[56]

International interest in the Japanese language dates from the 19th century but has become more prevalent following Japan's economic bubble of the 1980s and the global popularity of Japanese popular culture (such as anime and video games) since the 1990s. As of 2015, more than 3.6 million people studied the language worldwide, primarily in East and Southeast Asia.[57] Nearly one million Chinese, 745,000 Indonesians, 556,000 South Koreans and 357,000 Australians studied Japanese in lower and higher educational institutions.[57] Between 2012 and 2015, considerable growth of learners originated in Australia (20.5%), Thailand (34.1%), Vietnam (38.7%) and the Philippines (54.4%).[57]

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), which features five levels of exams. The JLPT is offered twice a year.

Example text

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Japanese:





















































? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Subete no ningen wa, umarenagara ni shite jiy? de ari, katsu, songen to kenri to ni tsuite by?d? de aru. Ningen wa, risei to ry?shin to o sazukerarete ori, tagai ni d?h? no seishin o motte k?d? shinakereba naranai.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.[59]

See also


  1. ^ Book of Song ,:?,?,?,?,?,,,,?,?,?,,?,?,?,?,?,,?,?,?,?,,?,?,?,?,?,?,,,?,,,?,?,?,,?,?,,,?,,
  2. ^ Nihon shoki Chapter 30:?
  3. ^ Nihon shoki Chapter 30:? ?
  4. ^ Shoku Nihongi ?



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Works cited

Further reading

External links

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