Japanese language


Irasshai-masu- Welcome

Japanese (Nihongo, 日本語) belongs to the Japonic language family. It is spoken as a first language by 122 million and as a second language by over 1 million people in Japan. It is also spoken in American Samoa, Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Germany, Guam, Mexico, Micronesia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and USA.The number of Japanese speakers worldwide is estimated at close to 123 million people (Ethnologue).Japan map

There have been numerous attempts to establish a genetic relationship between Japanese and other languages and language families. The most popular theory is that Japanese, like Korean, is a member of the Altaic language family. This suggests that Japanese and Korean are related, although extremely remotely. As far as Ainu, spoken in northern Japan, is concerned, there is no evidence that there is a relationship between Ainu and Japanese. Ainu is considered to be a language isolate.

In addition to Japanese, there are 14 Ryukyuan languages spoken in Okinawa and neighboring Ryukyu islands. These are mutually unintelligible with Japanese and, in most cases, also with each other. Since these languages cannot be understood by Japanese speakers as well as by speakers of other Ryukyuan varieties, some scholars in the past considered them to be separate languages. However, the prevailing view today is that they constitute a variety of Japanese. The data below is based on Ethnologue.

Japanese 121 million in Japan; 122.5 million worldwide. throughout Japan
Amami-Oshima, Northern 10,000 Northwestern Okinawa; northern Amami-oshima Island
Amami-Oshima, Southern 1,800 Northern Okinawa; southern Amami-oshima, Kakeroma, Yoro, and Uke islands
Kikai almost extinct Northeastern Okinawa; Kikai Island.
Kunigami 5,000 Central Okinawa; central and northern Okinawa Island, Iheya, Izena, Ie-jima, Sesoko islands
Miyako 67,000 Southern Okinawa; Miyako, Ogami, Ikema, Kurima, Irabu, Tarama, Minna islands.
Okinawan, Central (Okinawan) 985,000 Central Okinawa; southern Okinawa Island, Kerama Islands, Kume-jima, Tonaki, Aguna islands, and islands east of Okinawa Island.
Oki-No-Erabu 3,200 North central Okinawa; Oki-no-erabu Island.
Toku-No-Shima 5,100 Northern Okinawa; Toku-no-shima Island.
Yaeyama almost extinct Southern Okinawa; Ishigaki, Iriomote, Hatoma, Kohama, Taketomi, Kuroshima, Hateruma, Aregusuku islands
Yonaguni 800 Southern Okinawa; Yonaguni Island.
Yoron 950 North central Okinawa; Yoron Island.


Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Japanese is spoken in the US.



Japanese is the official language of Japan. All education, media, business, and government are conducted in Japanese.



Although Japan is a relatively small country, it has a surprisingly large number of dialects differing from each other in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. Many of them are mutually unintelligible. They are usually divided into two major groups:

  • Eastern Japanese
  • Western Japanese


Two forms of the language are considered standard:

  • Hyojungo, or Standard Japanese
    It is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications. Standard Japanese can also be divided into bungo ‘literary language’ and kogo ‘oral language.’ The two varieties differ in grammar and vocabulary. Bungo was the main written form of Japanese until the late 1940s and is still important today for historians, literary scholars and lawyers. Kogo is mostly used today.
  • Kyotsugo, or the common language.


Standard Japanese is based on, but is not identical to the Tokyo dialect. It is not uniformly spoken across Japan. Instead, there are different versions of Standard Japanese influenced by local varieties. Many people speak their local dialect in addition to Standard Japanese.


Sound system

Japanese has a simple syllabic structure consisting of a Consonant + Vowel.



Standard Japanese has five vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. Vowels can be short or long. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning, e.g., ojisan ‘uncle’ and ojiisan ‘grandfather.’ Other Japanese dialects may have as few as three and as many as eight vowel phonemes.

  • /u/ is not rounded, rather, the lips are compressed, leaving a space between them for the air to escape. It is pronounced as a close back unrounded vowel [ɯ].
  • The vowels /i/ and /u/ are devoiced in voiceless environments, e.g., kutsu ‘shoe.’



Japanese has a very small consonant inventory. The consonant phonemes are listed below. A notable feature of Japanese is that the dental consonants /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/ undergo regular mutations before the front vowels /i/ and /u/.

Stops voiceless
Fricatives voiceless
Affricates voiceless
Lateral flap
ɺ ~ l
  • /s/ is pronounced as [ʃ] before i, and as [s] elsewhere
  • /z/ is pronounced as [dʒ] before i, as [dz] before u, and as [z] elsewhere
  • /t/ is pronounced as [tʃ] before i, as [ts] before u, and as [t] elsewhere
  • /d/ is pronounced as [dʒ] before i, as [dz] before u, and as [d] elsewhere
  • /r/ sounds like something between an [r] and an [l]. It is produced by lightly placing the tip of the tongue in the back of the upper teeth.



Most dialects, including Standard Japanese, use morae (defined variously as length, weight, and delay) as the basis of the sound system rather than syllables. The Japanese syllable-final n is moraic, as is the first part of a double (geminated) consonant. For example, the word Nippon ‘Japan” has four morae ni + p + po + n, even though it has only three syllables. The number of characters in the hiragana spelling of the word reflect the number of morae. This moraic structure is imposed on loanwords with the result that the monosyllabic English word strike in Japanese becomes a four-morae word su + to + rai + ku.



Japanese stress is associated with differences in pitch. In Standard Japanese, the pitch shape is predictable on the basis of the location of pitch fall. The rules for pitch shape differ somewhat from dialect to dialect.




  • Japanese nouns are not marked for either number or gender. When necessary, number can be expressed by indicating quantity or adding a suffix. in a small number of native Japanese words, plurality can be expressed by reduplication, e.g., yama ‘mountain’, yamayama ‘many mountains.’
  • There are no articles.
  • Politeness is marked by o for native native Japanese, and go– for Sino-Japanese nouns, e.g., plain form for ‘money’ is kane, the respectful form is o-kane, the plain form for ‘rice’ is meshi, the respectful form is go-han.
  • Grammatical functions of nouns are signalled by postpositions, often referred to as particles, e.g.,
subject marker
indirect object marker
direct object marker
‘Hiroko gave Misako that book.’



Japanese lacks true pronouns like those in Indo-European languages. Rather, there is a subset of nouns called daimeishi that unlike true pronouns take modifiers and do not constitute a closed class (new daimeishi can be added and old ones can go out of use). Personal daimeishi are seldom used because Japanese sentences do not always require explicit subjects, and because names or titles are often used where pronouns would appear in Indo-European languages such as English.

There are three series of demonstratives:

  • ko– (proximal) series refers to things closer to the speaker than the hearer, e.g., kore ‘this one.’
  • so (mesial) series refers for things closer to the hearer, e.g., sore ‘that one.’
  • a (distal) series for things distant to both the speaker and the hearer, e.g., are ‘that one over there.’
  • With do-, demonstratives turn into interrogatives.
  • Demonstratives can also be used to refer to people.



Japanese adds suffixes to stems to represent different verb forms.

  • There are six stems: imperfective, continuative, terminal, attributive, hypothetical and imperative.
  • Verbs have two marked tenses: past and nonpast with the difference between present and future not being marked in conjugation.
  • Voice and aspect are indicated by means of conjugation.



The normal word order is Japanese is Subject – Object – Verb. The verb must always be in final position even though permutations of other sentence components are possible. The basic sentence structure of a Japanese sentence is topic-comment. The particle wa is attached to various components of the sentence to topicalize them.

Kochira wa
Yamamoto san desu
‘As for this person’
particle wa marks topic kochira ‘person’
‘Yamamoto Mr. is’
desu ‘is’
‘This person is Mr. Yamamoto.’



One of the most salient characteristics of Japanese grammar is the notion of politeness. There are three main levels of politeness levels in spoken Japanese: the plain form, the simple polite form, and the advanced polite form (honorific and humble). Since most relationships are not equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position than the other. This position is determined by such factors as social position, age, job, etc. The person in the lower position will use the polite form, whereas the person in the higher position will use the plain form. Humble language is used when talking about oneself or one’s group, while the honorific language is used to describe the interlocutor and his/her group. The plain form in Japanese is characterized by the dictionary form of verbs + the da form of the copula. In the simple polite level, verbs end in –masu, and the copula desuis used. The advanced polite level frequently uses special honorific and humble verb forms. The honorific suffix –san ‘Mr., Mrs. or Ms.’ should not be used to talk to an outsider about oneself or someone from one’s own group.



The basic vocabulary of Japanese is a mixture of native Japanese words and words borrowed from Chinese and other languages. Japanese vocabulary abounds in borrowings from other languages. Japanese borrowed extensively from Chinese when they adopted the Chinese orthography. Linguists have sometimes likened the impact of Chinese writing on Japanese to the effect of the Norman conquest on the English language. Japanese words often have synonyms, one of them from Chinese, the other from Japanese. Words of Chinese origin (Sino-Japanese) are called kanga. They often appear more formal to Japanese speakers, just as Latinate words often sound more formal to English speakers. It is estimated that up to 60% of Japanese vocabulary consists of Sino-Japanese words. Even Japanese numerals have two forms.

Below are a few basic words and phrases in Japanese given in romanization.

hello ohayoo gozaimasu (morning)
konnichi wa (afternoon) こんにちは
konban wa (evening)
good bye sayonara さよなら
please kudasai
thank you domo (informal)
arigatoo gozaimasu (
Excuse me sumimasen
yes hai はい
no iie いいえ
man otoko no hito
woman onna no hito

There are two ways of writing the numbers in Japanese, in Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) or in Chinese numerals (一, 二, 三). The Arabic numerals are more often used in writing horizontally.

Native Japanese
よ(っつ) )
ya(ttsu) や(っつ) kokono(tsu) ここの(つ)


Japanese has also borrowed a number of words from Portuguese in the 16th century, e.g., pan ‘bread,’ Iesu ‘Jesus.’ With the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, Japanese borrowed from Dutch, German, French, and most recently from English. Loanwords exist alongside native words, e.g., the word bypass can be rendered into Japanese are mawarimiti (native Japanese), ukairo (Sino-Japanese), or baipasu (English borrowing).

Onomatopoetic words
Onomatopoetic, or sound symbolic, words are very frequent in Japanese, e.g., wan-wan ‘bow-wow,’ yobo-yobo ‘wobbly,’ doki-doki ‘fast heartbeat.’ Onomapoetic words are often used in conjunction with regular words that have a general meaning, e.g., waa-waa naku ‘weep,’ meso-meso naku ‘sob,’oi-oi naku ‘whimper.’



The Japanese writing system can be traced back to the 4th century AD, when Chinese writing was introduced to Japan through the medium of Buddhism, as Japan adopted Chinese cultural practices and reorganized its government in accordance with the Chinese administrative structure.

Because the Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) could not represent all the elements of the Japanese language, two syllabaries of approximately 50 syllables each, called hiragana and katakana, were created in the 12th century. Today, Japanese is written with a mixture of kanji, hiragana, and katakana. In addition, rōmaji (Roman script) is also used.

  • Kanji are used to write nouns, including proper names, and stems of adjectives and verbs;
  • Hiragana is used to write inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs, various grammatical particles, words for which there are no kanji, and some high frequency words;
  • Katakana is mostly used to write loanwords;
  • Rōmaji is used to write Arabic numerals, international units of measurement, and acronyms. The Internet has accelerated its spread.

As an example, here is the word for ‘I’ written in the three scripts:

Japanese I in kanji
Japanese I in hiragana
Japanese I in Katakana

Below is an example from Wikipedia that illustrates the use of all four elements of Japanese writing in one sentence ( Red kanji, Green katakana, Blue hiragana, Black Rōmaji and Arabic numeral).

Japanese Writing

Radokurifu, marason, gorin daihyō ni 1 man m shutsujō ni mo fukumi
‘Radcliffe, Olympic marathon contestant, to consider also appearing in the 10,000m.’
(a headline from the Asahi Shimbun, April 19, 2004)

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a combination of three Japanese scripts and in romanization (rōmaji).

Subete no ningen wa, umare nagara ni shite jiyū de ari, katsu, songen to kenri to ni tsuite byōdō de aru. Ningen wa, risei ryōshin o sazukerareteari, tagai ni dōhō no seishin o motte kōdō shinakeraba naranai.
Article 1
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.


Did You Know?

Japanese words in English

English has a fairly large number of Japanese loanwords. Among them are the following:

geisha Japanese girl whose profession is to sing and dance to entertain men, ‘ from gei ‘art, performance’ + sha ‘person’
hara-kiri from hara ‘belly’ + kiri ‘cut’
honcho hancho ‘group leader;’ from han ‘corps, squad’ + cho ‘head, chief’
judo from ju ‘softness, gentleness’ + do ‘way’
karaoke from kara ’empty’ + oke ‘orchestra,’ a shortened form of okesutora, a Japanization of English ‘orchestra’
karate from kara ’empty’ + te ‘hand’
kimono from ki ‘wear’ + mono ‘thing’
rickshaw shortened from jinrikisha, from jin ‘man’ + riki ‘power’ + sha ‘carriage’
sake rice wine
samurai samurai ‘warrior, knight’
shinto from shin ‘god’ + to ‘way’
soy soyu, variant of shoyu
sumo sumo ‘to compete’
sushi rice with seafood, vegetable, meat, or egg filling or topping
tsunami from tsu ‘harbor’ + nami ‘waves’
tycoon taikun ‘great lord or prince’



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Japanese?
Japanese is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.