The Japanese Language

The language people speak influences how they think about many things. To the Japanese people, their language is one of the ways they define their nationality. For example, while English is the national language of many nations and peoples in the world today, and many more people use it as an international language, Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan or by Japanese living abroad. So in one sense, a Japanese is a person who is brought up speaking Japanese.

The Spoken Language

As we learn about Japan, we learn many words to describe events, ideas, or objects having to do with the country and its culture. Fortunately, these words are not difficult for us to pronounce. When Japanese is written in the roman alphabet, each letter stands for a single sound.
The vowel sounds are pronounced
a as in father
i as in meet
u as in rude
e as in say
o as in go

The basic units of the Japanese writing system are syllables. Standard Japanese uses 100 distinct syllables. Of these, 5 are single vowels, 62 are consonants combined with a vowel, and 53 are consonants combined with 'y' plus a vowel.

Syllables of Japanese
wa ra ya ma pa ba ha na da ta za sa ga ka a
-- ri -- mi pi bi hi ni -- chi ji shi gi ki i
-- ru yu mu pu bu hu nu -- tsu zu su gu ku u
-- re -- me pe be he ne de te ze se ge ke e
-- ro yo mo po bo ho no do to zo so go ko o
-- rya -- mya pya bya hya nya -- chya jya shya gya kya --
-- ryu -- myu pyu byu hyu nyu -- chyu jyu shyu gyu kyu --
-- ryo -- myo pyo byo hyo nyo -- chyo jyo shyo gyo kyo --

In addition to these syllables, Japanese uses one single consonant, the letter "n." It may also be pronounced "m." In general, consonants are pronounced the same way they are in English, except that "g" is always hard, as in "get." When a vowel has a diacritical mark over it (e.g. â, ô, û), the sound is the same, but held longer — it is doubled. So "Tôkyô" is pronounced "To-o kyo-o," and "shôgun" is pronounced "sho-o gun."

Notice that several English sounds are missing from the Japanese language entirely: "c," "f," "l," "q," "v," and "x." When Japanese want to represent these sounds, they have to use Japanese syllables that sound almost the same. For example, to pronounce the country name "France," Japanese say "Huransu."

Another difference between English and Japanese is that Japanese syllables are never accented. Americans often say either Hiroshima or Hiroshima, but Japanese say Hiroshima.

Although Japanese is not difficult for Americans to pronounce, it is often difficult for us to learn to speak well, because it is unlike English in almost every way. The sentence structure is different, as you can see in this simple sentence:

I bought a book yesterday.
Kinô watakushi wa hon o kaimashita
Yesterday I (subject indicator) book (object indicator) bought

Even parts of speech are different, as you can see. "I" is still a pronoun, and "book" a noun, but Japanese has particles, like wa and o, that indicate how words are related, a device which is absent in English. Often the subject of the sentence, such as "I" (watakushi wa) is left out, and distinctions between the singular and plural are rarely made, so sentences may seem ambiguous to English speakers. As in English, verbs change to show tense, but so do adjectives, because Japanese is an inflected language.

It is cold. Samui desu.
It was cold. Samukatta desu.

But one of the greatest differences has to do with levels of politeness. People speak differently depending on the person they are talking to, or talking about. A high-school student uses different forms to speak to the class teacher than when speaking to classmates, and the forms used by boy and girl students are slightly different, too. The very words — verbs, nouns, pronouns, and adjectives — often change, too. A person will use a different word for father, for example, when speaking to him and when speaking about him to someone else. These changes reflect the relationship between people, and their relative social positions. To address someone correctly, you must know his or her status in the society — that is, his or her position in a school or company, age, or relationship to you. This is an important way in which the language influences how people think about one another.

Of course, Japanese children learn all these things we consider difficult naturally, as we learn the many difficult aspects of English.

| back to top |

The Written Language

All languages were spoken before they were written. Ways of recording words and ideas were invented in only a few places in the world, and over many millennia were altered to adapt to many diverse languages. Many languages, like ours, use an alphabet — symbols that indicate the way words sound. Other writing systems use symbols to show what words mean as well. The Chinese writing system uses characters that indicate both sound and meaning.

Kanji Thousands of characters borrowed from Chinese writing, each with a different meaning
Hiragana 46 "smooth" style phonetic symbols used for inflected endings, grammatical particles and other Japanese words
Katakana 46 "block" style phonetic symbols used for writing foreign loan words, foreign names, and for emphasis

Kanji: Chinese characters

The Japanese began to use the Chinese writing system about 1,400 years ago. These Chinese characters, called kanji in Japanese, are also called pictographs because they indicate meanings as well as sounds. The way that Japanese use Chinese pictographs to write their own language is a good example of Japanese ingenuity in adapting elements of other cultures to enhance their own.

How would you go about writing English with Chinese pictographs? You could do it easily enough by using each Chinese character to represent the same meaning as an English word. 日, for example, means "day," or the "sun." Then you would read it "day" or "sun" instead of pronouncing as it is in Chinese. Or, you could use 日, which is pronounced "rur" in Chinese, to represent the English sound 'r.' Then, of course, you would be pronouncing the pictograph much as it is in Chinese, but it would have lost its original meaning.

Japanese people use both these techniques. As a result, each Japanese kanji can be pronounced in several different ways.

Characters also sometimes look like what they mean: 三 san, or mitsu, means three. But usually they do not, especially when the meaning is a more complicated concept: 愛 ai means love. A character can have only one line, or stroke, like 一 ichi, or hitotsu, which means one, but some have as many as twenty strokes or more, like 響 hibiki, or kyô, which means to echo or vibrate.

There are thousands of kanji, or characters, and students must learn 881 of them in elementary school, and a total of 1,850 by the time they graduate from high school. So you can understand that it takes a Japanese student a long time to learn how to write his/her language. See how many kanji you can learn to recognize in the next section.

Kana: Syllabaries

When the Japanese started to use Chinese characters for their own language, they ran into some problems. Chinese words are only one or two syllables, and they can use a character for each syllable, but Japanese words frequently have many syllables, especially inflected words. So the Japanese developed symbols from the kanji, called kana, to indicate sound without meaning, the way our alphabet does. But the symbols in these syllabaries indicate the sound of a whole Japanese syllable instead of each separate part. か is ka, for example, and つ is tsu. Kana usually have many fewer strokes than kanji.

There are two standard syllabaries being used today, each one with forty-six symbols. One is called hiragana, and is used for inflected endings, grammatical particles, and other Japanese words. For example, do you remember the sentence "I bought a book yesterday"? It sounds like this: Kinô watakushi wa hon o kaimashita. But is it usually written with a combination of kanji and hiragana, and looks like this:

昨日 私は 本を 買いました

Japanese can be written horizontally, from left to right, as it is here. But it is usually written vertically, in columns running from right to left. Books, therefore, begin at what is the back of English books. Can you recognize which symbols are kanji and which are kana? Which kanji have you seen before?

The other syllabary is called katakana. It is squarer-looking than hiragana. Ka is カ instead of か, and tsu is ツ instead of つ. Japanese, like English, has many foreign loan words in its vocabulary, and katakana is used for these, such as テレビ (terebi) for television, アイスクリーム (aisu kurîmu) for ice cream, or rômaji for roman letters. It is also used for foreign names, like ヅヨン (zu-yo-n) for John or カレン (ka-re-n) for Karen, and it is used for emphasis, the way we use underlining or italic type in English.

Mastering the language

As you can imagine, it takes many years to learn how to read and write Japanese. For English we need to know only twenty-six symbols — the letters of our alphabet — to have the basic tools of our written language, although it takes a lot of practice to use these tools well. Japanese students must learn about two thousand symbols to have their basic tools, and still it takes practice to use them well. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), some people wanted to switch to the roman alphabet, or even to English. In the years after World War II, the written language was simplified and standardized to make it easier to learn.

However, the difficulties of learning Japanese have their compensations. Having symbols that indicate both sound and meaning gives the language flexibility, and can express deep and subtle meanings. The writing system is also a beautiful one, and when it is written with a brush and ink it is an art form in itself.

This essay was written by Dr. Amy Vladeck Heinrich, director, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University.

| back to top |

Discussion Questions

  1. How many countries can you name in which English is the national language? How about French? Spanish? How do you think this came about?
  2. What aspects of Japanese do you think would be hardest for you to learn? What aspects of English do you think are hardest for Japanese students to learn?
  3. In addition to loan words from English such as terebi and aisu kurîmu, Japanese has many loan words from Chinese, and some from French, German, Portuguese, and other languages. Make a list of loan words we use in English from other languages. See how many languages are represented in your list.
  4. Practice saying the following Japanese words out loud, using the pronunciation guide you have read:
Konnichi wa Hello
Arigato gozaimasu Thank you
Dô itashimashite Don't mention it
samurai traditional Japanese warrior
Meiji era from 1868-1912
tatami smooth straw matting used for the floors in Japanese homes
Ohashi chopsticks
ichi one
ni two
san three
shi four
go five
roku six
shichi seven
hachi eight
kyû nine
Getsuyôbi Monday
Kayôbi Tuesday
Suiyôbi Wednesday
Mokuyôbi Thursday
Kinyôbi Friday
Doyôbi Saturday
Nichiyôbi Sunday

| back to top |

© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |