Japanese (日本語, Nihongo, [ɲihoŋɡo] or
[ɲihoŋŋo] ( listen)) is an
East Asian language spoken by
about 126 million people, primarily in Japan, where it is the national
language. It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan)
language family, and its relation to other languages, such as Korean,
is debated. Japanese has been grouped with language families such as
Ainu, Austroasiatic, 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 recorded a
few Japanese words, but substantial texts did not appear until the 8th
century. During the
Heian period (794–1185), Chinese had
considerable influence on the vocabulary and phonology of Old
Late Middle Japanese (1185–1600) included changes in
features that brought it closer to the modern language, and the first
appearance of European loanwords. The standard dialect moved from the
Kansai region to the
Edo (modern Tokyo) region in the Early Modern
Japanese period (early 17th century–mid-19th century). Following the
end in 1853 of Japan's self-imposed isolation, the flow of loanwords
from European languages increased significantly. English loanwords, in
particular, have become frequent, and Japanese words from English
roots have proliferated.
Japanese is an agglutinative, mora-timed language with 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 make 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 equivalents of
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.
Japanese has no genetic relationship with Chinese, but it makes
extensive use of Chinese characters, or kanji (漢字), in its writing
system, and a large portion of its vocabulary is borrowed from
Chinese. Along with kanji, the
Japanese writing system
Japanese writing system primarily uses
two syllabic (or moraic) scripts, hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名)
and katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名).
Latin script is used in a
limited fashion, such as for imported acronyms, and the numeral system
Arabic numerals alongside traditional Chinese numerals.
1.2 Old Japanese
1.3 Early Middle Japanese
1.4 Late Middle Japanese
1.5 Early Modern Japanese
1.6 Modern Japanese
2 Geographic distribution
2.1 Official status
3.1 Korean hypothesis
3.2 Altaic hypothesis
3.3 Southeast Asian languages
5.1 Sentence structure
Inflection and conjugation
7 Writing system
8 Study by non-native speakers
9 See also
12 Works cited
13 Further reading
14 External links
A common ancestor of Japanese and
Ryukyuan languages or dialects is
thought to have been brought to
Japan by settlers coming from either
continental Asia or nearby Pacific islands sometime in the early- to
mid-2nd century BC (the Yayoi period), replacing the languages of the
Jōmon inhabitants, including the ancestor of the modern
Ainu language. Very little is known about the Japanese of this period.
Because writing like the "Kanji" which later devolved into the writing
systems "Hiragana" and "Katakana" had yet to be introduced from
China, there is no direct evidence, and anything that can be discerned
about this period of Japanese must be based on the reconstructions of
A page from the Man'yōshū, the oldest anthology of classical
Main article: Old Japanese
Old Japanese is the oldest attested stage of the Japanese language.
Through the spread of Buddhism, the
Chinese writing system
Chinese writing system was
imported to Japan. The earliest texts found in
Japan are written in
Classical Chinese, but they may have been meant to be read as Japanese
by the kanbun method. Some of these Chinese texts show the influences
of Japanese grammar, such as the word order (for example, placing the
verb after the object). In these hybrid texts,
Chinese characters are
also occasionally used phonetically to represent Japanese particles.
The earliest text, the Kojiki, dates to the early 8th century, and was
written entirely in Chinese characters. The end of Old Japanese
coincides with the end of the
Nara period in 794.
Old Japanese uses
Man'yōgana system of writing, which uses kanji for their phonetic
as well as semantic values. Based on the
Man'yōgana system, Old
Japanese can be reconstructed as having 88 distinct syllables. Texts
Man'yōgana use two different kanji for each of the
syllables now pronounced き ki, ひ hi, み mi, け ke, へ he, め
me, こ ko, そ so, と to, の no, も mo, よ yo and ろ ro. (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.
Due to these extra syllables, it has been hypothesized that Old
Japanese's vowel system was larger than that of Modern Japanese – it
perhaps contained up to eight vowels. According to Shinkichi
Hashimoto, the extra syllables in
Man'yōgana derive from differences
between the vowels of the syllables in question. These differences
would indicate that
Old Japanese had an eight-vowel system, in
contrast to the five vowels of later Japanese. The vowel system would
have to have shrunk some time between these texts and the invention of
the kana (hiragana and katakana) in the early 9th century. According
to this view, the eight-vowel system of ancient Japanese would
resemble that of the Uralic and
Altaic language families. However,
it is not fully certain that the alternation between syllables
necessarily reflects a difference in the vowels rather than the
consonants – at the moment, the only undisputed fact is that they
are different syllables. A newer reconstruction of ancient Japanese
show strikingly similarities with Southeast-Asian languages,
especially with Austronesian languages.
Old Japanese does not have /h/, but rather /ɸ/ (preserved in modern
fu, /ɸɯ/), which has been reconstructed to an earlier */p/.
Man'yōgana 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 what may have been a mediopassive suffix -yu(ru)
(kikoyu → kikoyuru (the attributive form, which slowly replaced the
plain form starting in the late Heian period) > kikoeru (as all
shimo-nidan verbs in modern Japanese did)); and the genitive particle
ga remains in intentionally archaic speech.
Early Middle Japanese
Two pages from a 12th-century emaki scroll of
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji from
the 11th century
Main article: Early Middle Japanese
Early Middle Japanese is the Japanese of the Heian period, from 794 to
Early Middle Japanese sees a significant amount of Chinese
influence on the language's phonology – length distinctions become
phonemic for both consonants and vowels, and series of both labialised
(e.g. kwa) and palatalised (kya) consonants are added.[citation
needed] Intervocalic /ɸ/ merges with /w/ by the 11th century. The end
Early Middle Japanese sees the beginning of a shift where the
attributive form (Japanese rentaikei) slowly replaces the uninflected
form (shūshikei) for those verb classes where the two were distinct.
Late Middle Japanese
Main article: 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 /ɔː/, in contrast
with /oː/; /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 > hayɔɔ, where modern
Japanese just has hayaku, though the alternative form is preserved in
the standard greeting o-hayō gozaimasu "good morning"; this ending is
also seen in o-medetō "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
Early Modern Japanese
Main article: Early Modern Japanese
Early Modern Japanese, not to be confused with Modern Japanese, was
the dialect used after the Meiji Restoration. Because the two
languages are extremely similar,
Early Modern Japanese is commonly
referred to as Modern Japanese.
Early Modern Japanese gradually
evolved into Modern Japanese during the 19th century. Only after 1945,
shortly after World War II, did Modern Japanese become the standard
language, seeing use in most official communications. In this time
period the Japanese in addition to their use of
Katakana and Hiragana
they also used traditional
Chinese characters called "Han" which later
developed in "Kanji" which is a form of writing used to express ideas
in the Japanese and Chinese languages.
Modern Japanese is considered to begin with the
Edo period, which
lasted between 1603 and 1868. Since Old Japanese, the de facto
standard Japanese had been the
Kansai dialect, especially that of
Kyoto. However, during the
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 a large number of words borrowed from
other languages—such as German, Portuguese and English. Many
English loan words especially relate to technology—for example,
pasokon (short for "personal computer"), intānetto ("internet"), and
kamera ("camera"). Due to the large quantity of English loanwords,
modern Japanese has developed a distinction between /tɕi/ and /ti/,
and /dʑi/ and /di/, with the latter in each pair only found in
Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been
spoken outside. Before and during World War II, through Japanese
Taiwan and Korea, as well as partial occupation of
China, the Philippines, and various Pacific islands, 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 emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in
Brazil, 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) sometimes employ Japanese as their
primary language. Approximately 12% of
Hawaii residents speak
Japanese, with an estimated 12.6% of the population of Japanese
ancestry in 2008. Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru,
Australia (especially in the eastern states), Canada
Vancouver where 1.4% of the population has Japanese
United States (notably California, where 1.2% of
the population has Japanese ancestry, and Hawaii),
Philippines (particularly in Davao and Laguna).
Japanese has no official status, but is the de facto national
language of Japan. There is a form of the language considered
standard: hyōjungo (標準語), meaning "standard Japanese", or
kyōtsūgo (共通語), "common language". The meanings of the two
terms are almost the same. Hyōjungo or kyōtsūgo is a conception
that forms the counterpart of dialect. This normative language was
born after the
Meiji Restoration (明治維新, meiji ishin, 1868)
from the language spoken in the higher-class areas of
Yamanote). Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and
even in official communications. It is the version of Japanese
discussed in this article.
Formerly, standard Japanese in writing (文語, bungo, "literary
language") was different from colloquial language (口語, kōgo). 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 kōgo 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
World War II are still written in bungo,
although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). Kōgo
is the dominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today,
although bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern
Japanese for effect.
Main article: Japanese dialects
Japanese dialects and Japonic languages
Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to many
factors, including the length of time the
Japanese 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 accents is between Tokyo-type
(東京式, Tōkyō-shiki) and Kyoto-Osaka-type (京阪式,
Keihan-shiki). Within each type are several subdivisions.
Kyoto-Osaka-type dialects are in the central region, roughly formed by
Kansai, Shikoku, and western Hokuriku regions.
Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Kagoshima, may be
unintelligible to speakers from the other parts of the country. There
are some language islands in mountain villages or isolated islands
such as Hachijō-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 Tōhoku and
North Kantō are associated with typical farmers.
The Ryūkyūan 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 Ryūkyūan languages. However, in contrast to
linguists, many ordinary
Japanese people tend to consider the
Ryūkyūan languages as dialects of Japanese. This is the result of
the official language policy of the Japanese government, which has
declared these languages to be dialects and prohibited their use in
The imperial court also seems to have spoken an unusual variant of the
Japanese of the time. 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.
Modern Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the
Ryūkyū islands) due to education, mass media, and an increase of
mobility within Japan, as well as economic integration.
See also: Classification of the Japonic languages
Japanese is a member of the
Japonic languages family, which also
includes the languages spoken throughout the Ryūkyū Islands. As
these closely related languages are commonly treated as dialects of
the same language, Japanese is often called a language isolate.
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. 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, Ural-Altaic,
Altaic, Uralic, Mon–Khmer, Malayo-Polynesian and Ryukyuan. At the
fringe, some linguists have suggested a link to Indo-European
languages, including Greek, and to Lepcha. As it stands, only the link
to Ryukyuan has wide support, though linguist Kurakichi Shiratori
maintained that Japanese was a language isolate.
Similarities between Korean and Japanese were noted by Arai Hakuseki
in 1717, and the idea that the two might be related was first
proposed in 1781 by Japanese scholar Teikan Fujii. The idea
received little attention until
William George Aston
William George Aston proposed it again
in 1879. Japanese scholar Shōsaburō Kanazawa took it up in 1910, as
did Shinpei Ogura in 1934. Shirō Hattori was nearly alone when he
criticised these theories in 1959. Samuel Martin furthered the
idea in 1966 with his "Lexical evidence relating Korean to Japanese",
as did John Whitman with his dissertation on the subject in 1985.
Despite this, definitive proof of the relation has yet to be provided.
Historical linguists studying Japanese and Korean tend to accept the
genealogical relation, while general linguists and historical
Korea have remained skeptical.
Alexander Vovin suggests that, while typologically modern Korean and
Japanese share similarities that sometimes allow word-to-word
translations, studies of the pre-modern languages show greater
differences. According to Vovin, this suggests linguistic convergence
rather than divergence, which he believes is amongst the evidence of
the languages not having a genealogical connection.
Distribution of the proposed
Altaic languages across Eurasia,
tentatively including Japanese and Korean
The largely discredited Altaic family, which would include languages
from far eastern Europe to northeastern Asia, has had its supporters
and detractors over its history. The most controversial aspect of the
hypothesis is the proposed inclusion of Korean and Japanese, which
even some proponents of Altaic have rejected. Philipp Franz von
Siebold suggested the connection in 1832, but the inclusion first
attracted significant attention in the early 1970s. Roy Andrew
Miller published Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages, and
dedicated much of his later career to the subject. Sergei Starostin
published a 1991 monograph which was another significant stepping
stone in Japanese—Altaic research. A team of scholars made a
database of Altaic etymologies available over the internet, from which
the three-volume Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages was
published in 2003. Scholars such as
Yevgeny Polivanov and Yoshizo
Itabashi, on the other hand, have proposed a hybrid origin of
Japanese, in which Austronesian and Altaic elements became
Skepticism over the Japanese relation to Altaic is widespread among
Altaic's proponents, in part because of a large number of unsuccessful
attempts to establish genealogical relationships with Japanese and
other languages. Opinions are polarized, with many strongly
convinced of the Altaic relation, and others strongly convinced of the
lack of one. While some sources are undecided, often strong proponents
of either view will not even acknowledge the claims of the other
Southeast Asian languages
Japanese shows in its proto-form strong similarities to Southeast
Asian languages. A 2015 analysis using the Automated Similarity
Judgment Program resulted in the
Japonic languages being grouped with
the Ainu and then with the Austroasiatic languages.
Main article: Japanese phonology
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering
support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead
Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see
All Japanese vowels are pure—that is, there are no diphthongs, only
monophthongs. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel /ɯ/
listen (help·info), which is like /u/, but compressed
instead of rounded. 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
rōmaji, a repeated vowel character in hiragana, or a chōonpu
succeeding the vowel in katakana.
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
[tɕi], approximately chi listen (help·info); however, now
/ti/ and /tɕi/ are distinct, as evidenced by words like tī [tiː]
"Western style tea" and chii [tɕii] "social status".
The "r" of the
Japanese language (technically a lateral apical
postalveolar flap), is of particular interest, sounding to most
English speakers to be something between an "l" and a retroflex "r"
depending on its position in a word. The "g" is also notable; unless
it starts a sentence, it is pronounced /ŋ/, like the ng in "sing," in
the Kanto prestige dialect and in other eastern dialects.
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 cluster only occurs in
onsets. However, consonant clusters across syllables are allowed as
long as the two consonants are a nasal followed by a homorganic
Consonant length (gemination) is also phonemic.
The phonology of Japanese also includes a pitch accent system, which
is a system that helps differentiate words with identical Hiragana
spelling or words in different Japanese dialects. An example of words
Hiragana would be the words [haꜜ.shi] (chopsticks)
and [ha.shiꜜ] (bridge), both spelled (はし, hashi) in Hiragana.
The stresses differentiate the words.
This section includes a list of references, related reading or
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citations. Please help to improve this section by introducing more
precise citations. (November 2013) (Learn how and when to remove this
Main article: Japanese grammar
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
The basic sentence structure is topic–comment. For example, 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
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 Mr./Ms. 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 Zō wa hana ga nagai
(象は鼻が長い) literally means, "As for elephant(s), (the)
nose(s) (is/are) long". The topic is zō "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! (やった!)"[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! (羨ましい!)"[I'm] jealous [of
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 (教えてもらった)
(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 (教えてあげた) (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
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
*The amazed he ran down the street. (grammatically incorrect insertion
of a pronoun)
But one can grammatically say essentially the same thing in Japanese:
Odoroita kare wa michi o hashitte itta. (grammatically correct)
This is partly because these words evolved from regular nouns, such as
kimi "you" (君 "lord"), anata "you" (あなた "that side, yonder"),
and boku "I" (僕 "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 (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 nouns have no grammatical number, gender or article aspect.
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,
or sometimes by duplication (e.g. 人人, hitobito, usually written
with an iteration mark as 人々). Words for people are usually
understood as singular. Thus Tanaka-san usually means Mr./Ms. 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 "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 (いいです) "It is OK" becomes ii
desu-ka (いいですか。) "Is it OK?". In a more informal tone
sometimes the particle -no (の) 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?"; O-namae wa?
(お名前は？) "(What's your) name?".
Negatives are formed by inflecting the verb. For example, Pan o taberu
(パンを食べる。) "I will eat bread" or "I eat bread" becomes
Pan o tabenai (パンを食べない。) "I will not eat bread" or "I
do not eat bread". Plain negative forms are actually i-adjectives (see
below) and inflect as such, e.g. Pan o tabenakatta
(パンを食べなかった。) "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
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 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 adjective (see Japanese adjectives):
形容詞 keiyōshi, or i adjectives, which have a conjugating ending
i (い) (such as 暑い atsui "to be hot") which can become past
(暑かった atsukatta "it was hot"), or negative (暑くない
atsuku nai "it is not hot"). Note that nai is also an i adjective,
which can become past (暑くなかった atsuku nakatta "it was not
暑い日 atsui hi "a hot day".
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".
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 for example:
が ga for the nominative case.
彼がやった。Kare ga yatta. "He did it."
に ni for the dative case.
田中さんにあげて下さい。 Tanaka-san ni agete kudasai
"Please give it to Mr. Tanaka."
It is also used for the lative case, indicating a motion to a
日本に行きたい。 Nihon ni ikitai "I want to go to Japan."
However, へ e is more commonly used for the lative case.
パーティーへ行かないか。 pātī e ikanai ka? "Won't you go
to the party?"
の no for the genitive case, or nominalizing phrases.
私のカメラ。 watashi no kamera "my camera"
スキーに行くのが好きです。 Sukī-ni iku no ga suki desu
"(I) like going skiing."
を o for the accusative case.
何を食べますか。 Nani o tabemasu ka? "What will (you) eat?"
は wa for the topic. It can co-exist with the case markers listed
above, and it overrides ga and (in most cases) o.
私は寿司がいいです。 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 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, such as
"who in this group is forty-two years old?"
Main article: Honorific speech in Japanese
Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and
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 (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 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." or "Miss") 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
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.
Yamato kotoba and Gairaigo
There are three main sources of words in the Japanese language, the
yamato kotoba (大和言葉) or wago (和語), kango (漢語), and
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 or infrequently 大和詞, i.e. "Yamato words"),
which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as wago (和語
or rarely 倭語, 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
(漢語), entered the language from the 5th century onwards via
contact with Chinese culture. According to the Shinsen Kokugo Jiten
(新選国語辞典) Japanese dictionary, kango comprise 49.1% of the
total vocabulary, wago make up 33.8%, other foreign words or gairaigo
(外来語) account for 8.8%, and the remaining 8.3% constitute
hybridized words or konshugo (混種語) that draw elements from more
than one language.
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 a simpler 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
In the Meiji era, the Japanese also coined many neologisms using
Chinese roots and morphology to translate European concepts;[citation
needed] 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.[citation
needed] For example, seiji 政治 ("politics"), and kagaku 化学
("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 a large number of 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 wanpatān
ワンパターン (< one + pattern, "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 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
The popularity of many Japanese cultural exports has made some native
Japanese words familiar in English, including futon, haiku, judo,
kamikaze, karaoke, karate, ninja, origami, rickshaw (from 人力車
jinrikisha), samurai, sayonara, Sudoku, sumo, sushi, tsunami, tycoon.
See list of English words of Japanese origin for more.
Japanese writing system
Japanese writing system and Japanese braille
Literacy was introduced to
Japan in the form of the Chinese writing
system, by way of
Baekje before the 5th century. 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,
China to learn more of the Chinese writing system.
Japanese emperors gave an official rank to Chinese scholars
(続守言/薩弘格/[b][c] 袁晋卿[d]) and spread the use of
Chinese characters from the 7th century to the 8th century.
Kana (including Youon):
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,
Japanese language was already very distinct from the Ryukyuan
An example of this mixed style is the Kojiki, which was written in AD
712. They then started to use
Chinese characters to write Japanese in
a style known as man'yōgana, 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
Manyogana from Baekje. However this hypothesis "
Baekje" is denied by other scholars.[additional citation(s)
Katakana were first simplified from Kanji, and Hiragana,
emerging somewhere around the 9th century, was mainly used by
Hiragana was seen as an informal language, whereas
Kanji were considered more formal and was typically used by men and in
official settings. However, because of hiragana's easy of use, more
and more people began using it. Eventually, by the 10th century,
hiragana was used by everyone.
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 統一 tōitsu ("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 rōmaji were considered. The
jōyō kanji ("common use kanji", originally called tōyō 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 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
1,130 characters in junior high school, covering in total 2,136 jōyō
kanji. The official list of jōyō kanji was revised several times,
but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained
As for kanji for personal names, the circumstances are somewhat
Jōyō kanji and jinmeiyō 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 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
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 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, 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
(オーストラリア), and "supermarket" has been adapted and
shortened into sūpā (スーパー).
Study by non-native speakers
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 much changed from before World
War II; in 1940, only 65 Americans not of Japanese descent were able
to read, write and understand the language.
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. Close to 4
million people studied the language worldwide in 2012: more than 1
million Chinese, 872,000 Indonesian, and 840,000 South Koreans studied
Japanese in lower and higher educational institutions. In the three
years from 2009 to 2012 the number of students studying Japanese in
China increased by 26.5 percent/three years, and by 21.8 percent in
Indonesia, but dropped 12.8 percent in South Korea.
In Japan, more than 90,000 foreign students studied at Japanese
Japanese language schools, including 77,000 Chinese
and 15,000 South Koreans in 2003. In addition, local governments and
some NPO groups provide free
Japanese language classes for foreign
residents, including Japanese Brazilians and foreigners married to
Japanese nationals. In the United Kingdom, study of the Japanese
language is supported by the British Association for Japanese Studies.
In Ireland, Japanese is offered as a language in the Leaving
Certificate in some schools.
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
Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT),
which features five levels of exams (changed from four levels in
2010), ranging from elementary (N5) to advanced (N1). The JLPT is
offered twice a year. 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. The
Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, which took over the BJT from
JETRO in 2009, announced in August 2010 that the test would be
discontinued in 2011 due to financial pressures on the Foundation.
However, it has since issued a statement to the effect that the test
will continue to be available as a result of support from the Japanese
Culture of Japan
Japanese language and computers
Japanese orthography issues
Japanese Sign Language
Japanese Sign Language family
Japanese words and words derived from Japanese in other languages at
Wiktionary,'s sibling project
Romanization of Japanese
Shogakukan Progressive Japanese–English Dictionary (book)
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p. 588. Retrieved 1 March 2012. (All rights reserved,
copyright 1903 by Christopher Noss; reprinted April 1907 by the
Methodist Publishing House, Tokyo, Japan) (Original from the New York
Public Library) (Digitized 2 April 2008)
Rudolf Lange (1907). Christopher Noss, ed. A text-book of colloquial
Japanese (revised English ed.). TOKYO: Methodist publishing house.
p. 588. Retrieved 1 March 2012. (All rights reserved;
copyright 1903 by Christopher Noss; reprinted April 1907 by the
Methodist Publishing House, Tokyo, Japan) (Original from Harvard
University) (Digitized 10 October 2008)
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Japanese (English ed.). The Kaneko Press, North
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Japanese: based on the Lehrbuch der japanischen umgangssprache by Dr.
Rudolf Lange (revised English ed.). TOKYO: Methodist publishing house.
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copyright 1903 by Christopher Noss; reprinted April 1907 by the
Methodist Publishing House, Tokyo, Japan) (Original from the
University of California) (Digitized 10 October 2007)
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"Japanese Language". MIT. Retrieved 2009-05-13.
For a list of words relating to Japanese language, see the Japanese
language category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikiversity has learning resources about Topic:Japanese
Japanese edition of, the free encyclopedia
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Japanese language.
Wikibooks has more on the topic of: Japanese language
Wikivoyage has a phrasebook for Japanese.
National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics
Japanese Language Student's Handbook
Japanese language at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
by stroke count
by stroke count
Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai
Transcription into Japanese
ARIB STD B24
Verb and adjective conjugations
Consonant and vowel verbs
Native words (yamato kotoba)
Loan words (gairaigo)
Court lady language (nyōbō kotoba)
Languages of Japan
Japanese Sign Language
Amami Oshima Sign
BNF: cb11932171r (data)