A Guide to Japanese - 10 facts about the Japanese language

Useful facts about the Japanese language


Translation in Japanese

Check the Japanese-only version

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1. Where is Japanese spoken?

Japanese is the official language of Japan, which has a population of over 125m. There are also around 2.5m people of Japanese origin, many of whom speak Japanese as their first language, living in Brazil and the rest of the Americas, particularly the United States. You'll also find a sizeable expatriate presence in major cities such as London, New York and Paris.

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2. What you already know about Japanese

It will be probably come as a relief that just like English, words have no gender. Japanese doesn't use articles as prolifically as English does and there's no way of showing whether a word is singular or plural. E.g. the word  友達 [tomodachi] can mean a friend, the friend, friends and so on. Sounds confusing, but once you get the hang of it, this actually makes things a lot simpler.

Since Japanese uses a vast amount of foreign loan words
(  外来語 [gairaigo] - literally words from outside) you’ll constantly hear familiar nouns and adjectives, and not just words borrowed from English. E.g. the word for
TV is  テレビ [terebi],
bread is  パン [pan] from the Portuguese word pão and
part-time worker is  アルバイト [arubaito], from the German Arbeit, work.

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3. How hard is it to learn?

The most obvious challenge is probably learning the characters, but unfortunately, there's no getting around them! However, if you want to stick to spoken Japanese and just learn the Romanised script, then it can be a lot easier than learning many other languages. There are no pronunciations or tones to remember and each syllable is given equal emphasis.

Getting used to Japanese grammar can be a bit tricky because of the word order, which is Subject Object Verb. Great if you're used to other languages, such as German or Turkish which have similar word orders, but possibly a little confusing for English speakers unfamiliar with it. So, the verb is placed at the end, meaning a simple sentence like "I watch television" would be "I television watch". This also means that you have to be patient as until the speaker reaches the very last word of the sentence, you won't know whether they're coming or going, agreeing or disagreeing and so on!

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4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

The Japanese are rather fond of playing tongue twister games and here's one of the most famous, which is difficult enough to say in English, let alone Japanese!:
 生麦、生米、生卵 [Nama mugi, nama gome, nama tamago],
raw wheat, raw rice, raw egg.

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5. Know any good Japanese jokes?

Japanese humour tends to be much more story-based, rather than the telling of simple gags. Whether it be the old style rakugo (storytelling by a comic in traditional dress) or the more modern manzai (comic double act having a rapid-fire conversation), the humour’s in the, often rambling, ins and outs of the story. There’s a lot of playing on words and the use of dialect for full comic effect.
Here’s a very condensed version of the very famous story, Manjū Kowai, told in the rakugo tradition and stripped of all the little side stories woven into the narrative:

  友人達とお酒を飲んでいると、ある一人の人物がこの世で何が一番怖いか皆に問いかけます。一人はクモ、またもう一人はナメクジ、その横の人は蛇と答えます。そのうち一人はまんじゅうが一番怖い。。と答えました。それを聞くと他の友達は良くある冗談として大量のまんじゅうを買い込み、彼を一緒に部屋に閉じ込めてしまいます。しばらくして皆が様子を見ようと扉を開けると、なんと彼はまんじゅうを全部食べてしまっているではないですか!友達の一人が言います。『なんだ、お前まんじゅうが怖いって言ったじゃあないか。このうそつきめ!本当は何が怖いか正直に言ってみろ。』と聞くと、彼は『はて、、』と言ってしばらく考え込み、『いいタイミングで聞いてくれたものだ。今はおいしいお茶が本当に怖い』。

A few friends are sitting around having some drinks. One of them asks the rest what they’re most scared of. One says spiders, another says slugs, the guy next to him snakes and so on...
Finally, one of them admits it’s manjū cakes that scare him the most. So, as a practical joke, his friends go off to get heaps of manju cakes and lock him in a room with them. After a while, they open the door - only to see that he’s actually eaten all of them! "Hey!" shouts one of the friends, "I thought you said you were terrified of manjū! You liar! So come on, tell us the truth now! What is it that you're really frightened of?" "Well," says the man thinking for a while, "Funny you ask that, but at this very moment, I think I'm really scared of a nice cup of tea...."

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6. If I learn Japanese, will it help me with any other languages?

A knowledge of Japanese will help immensely if you intend to learn Korean as the two languages are grammatically very similar. Chinese is very different in this respect although learning the Japanese characters would prepare you for the bigger task of learning the Chinese ones.

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7. What not to say and do

One of the most notorious ways in which foreigners (especially Italians) embarrass themselves is when they first go to a Japanese bar and say cin cin on clinking glasses to toast. Unfortunately for them, chinchin is how Japanese children refer to the male organ!

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8. Famous quotations

Perhaps the best-known Japanese literary form outside Japan is the Haiku. With its simple 5-7-5 syllabic structure and origins within Zen Buddhism, it's been as popular with school teachers as with the Beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
One of the most famous Haiku poets is Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), and this is perhaps his best-known, and most evocative, work:

 古池や 蛙飛びこむ 水の音

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto

The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.

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9. First publication

The strange thing about Japanese is that there’s very little evidence of an indigenous writing system until the Chinese characters were brought over to Japan in the 5th century AD. Even after this, it wasn't until around the 8th century that a truly distinct form of written Japanese was developed. But it was a couple of centuries later when, what is often referred to as the world's first novel,
 源氏物語 [Genji Monogatari], The Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu in 1007.

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10. How to be polite and show respect

In the old days of feudal Japan, a samurai warrior would shout
 身の程を知れ![Mi no hodo o shire!], Know your place! at anyone who dared to show insufficient respect. And with that, a sword would be brought swiftly down upon the unfortunate one's head. Well, you might not have to fear a sword these days but it’s still wise to always remember your place.

Even if you don't have the language skills, a softening of the voice, a discreet awareness of the other person's personal space and undemonstrative body language go a long way when it comes to courtesy and showing respect.

Japanese key phrases

Japanese phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Japanese alphabet

Japanese alphabet

Not one, not two, but three Japanese alphabets

Japanese challenge

Japanese challenge

Try this quiz and see if you can avoid social embarrassment

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