The Japanese Language

Japanese, or nihongo (日本語), is a national language of Japan and is spoken by about 128 million native speakers, which makes it the 9th most spoken language in the world. Japanese is spoken mainly in Japan, and to some extent, in emigrant communities outside of Japan.

Japanese is a member of the Japonic language family, which includes the endangered Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa and Amami. The early history of Japanese language and its relationship to other languages is largely unknown. Nevertheless, there were sources that revealed Japanese and Korean came from a common ancestor of a particular language family, while other sources claimed that Japanese belongs to the Ainu, Ural-Altaic, Austroasiatic, or even the Tai-Kadai language family. These claims have yet to receive any widespread acceptance.

Japanese is not related to Chinese, even though majority of Japanese words are of Chinese origin. These Chinese words are known as kanji (漢字), a Chinese writing system, which was believed to have major influence to Japanese.

In the 3rd century, the Yamato state in Japan established diplomatic relationship with China and since then, the Japanese state was under heavy Chinese influence. Many from the ruling class in Japan sought to emulate some aspects of the Chinese culture. This probably explains why Old Japanese texts were found on Chinese documents during this period, and probably how written Chinese was introduced to the Japanese.

The earliest texts found in Japan were written in Classical Chinese. There were two different writing systems for Old Japanese. One of them was the kanbun (漢文) method, which was used from the Heian period to the mid-20th century. The other was the man’yogana (萬葉仮名), an ancient writing system that employs Chinese characters to phonetically represent the Japanese language. It was probably in use since the 7th century, but the earliest usage of such a writing system is unknown.

During the Late Middle Japanese period from 1185 to the 1600s, more changes were significantly added to the Japanese language that brought it closer to modern Japanese.  Although it was not until the end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation in 1853, this period saw the influx of many European loanwords into the language.

Modern Japanese is considered to have begun with the Edo period (1603 to 1868), and as Edo grew into being the largest city in Japan, the Edo dialect became known to be standard Japanese. Since 1945, more loanwords from other languages such as German, Portuguese, and English were adopted into the language, and also due to the advancement of technology. For instance, words like intanetto or Internet (インタネット), kamera or camera (カメラ), and sarariman or salaryman (サラリーマン) were adopted as well.

Sentence Structure

Japanese sentence structure follows the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) pattern while in English, it is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). Japanese is not heavily grammatical. Words do not change a great deal to express tenses, numbers, and even aspects. However, learning how to form sentences is important for beginners, because contexts and the subject are highly emphasized in Japanese.

For example:

Jack eats an apple.”

Jack” is the subject, “eats” is the verb and “an apple” is the object. 

As Japanese follows the SOV sentence structure, the subject comes first, followed by  the object or objects, and then the verb.

Japanese Sentence Structure

This sentence structure may seem a little strange to beginners but one will get used to it. It takes a while to rewire the mind to fit into the language like a hand to the glove. 

In Japanese, there are no plurals, no determiners or articles (a/the), very few inflections and only two main tenses.

Verbs and Tenses

Japanese verbs have two main tenses. They are past and non-past. Most of these verbs are highly regular unlike in English when most past tenses are expressed by changing the end of the verb. Japanese verbs are conjugated to form past or future tenses.

Japanese Verbs and Tenses

Natives will tell you that when Japanese people are speaking, they seldom or never use the words “私は” (watashi wa; meaning “I”), or “あなたは” (anata wa; meaning “you”), as these pronouns are usually non-spoken and automatically understood. 

Although sentences such as “私はあなた好きです。” (watashi wa anata ga suki desu; meaning “I like you”), makes grammatical sense, it sounds rather odd when spoken in conversations. Typically, Japanese would simply say “好きです” for short, which actually means the same thing. However, this form of usage tend to be more colloquial. Use it only towards Japanese people you are more familiar with.

Japanese is also an agglutinative language. To put it simply, agglutinative means adding a bunch of syllables to the end of a word, usually a verb. This can be rather challenging for beginners even though the Japanese language only has two tenses.

Japanese Verbs and Tenses (Examples)

Japanese Pronouns and Gender

Japanese Pronouns are highly used as subject or object references in sentences and formal conversations. Therefore, this is an essential section for beginners to learn about both genders in Japanese, as well as how to make references when starting any conversation.

Japanese Pronouns and Gender

Japanese Questions and Answers

Let's take a look at some of these day-to-day Japanese questions and answers using the 5Ws.  

Japanese Questions and Answers in Day-to-Day Conversations