Quick Overview of the Japanese Language and FAQ

Try the Japanese Characters Practice program!

New! We recently started having "Language Lunch" at our company where everyone introduces their native and/or favorite language to others. Here is the PowerPoint presentation that I used.

Kanji

Japanese people started importing the characters from China about 1,500 years ago. Aparently, they didn't have any characters prior to that. Chinese and Japanese are very different languages in pronunciation and grammar. However, many Chinese characters and words have been imported and they became a big part of the Japanese language.

There are several thousand Chinese characters used in the current Japanese language. In Japanese they are called Kanji (漢字). "Kan" is the character for the Han Dynasty. "Ji" means characters.

Hiragana and Katakana

Sometime after Japanese people imported Chinese characters, they also invented their own phonetic alphabet for their language. There are 92 phonetic characters representing 46 basic sounds. Each sound is a combination of a consonant and a vowel.

The first set of 46 characters is called "hiragana." These characters are used for writing original Japanese words. For instance, the 2 hiragana characters in "すし" are pronounced "su" and "shi."

The other 46 characters are called "katakana." These characters are used for imported words and foreign names. For instance, the 4 katakanas in "アメリカ" are pronounced "a", "me", "ri" and "ka" respectively.

Here are tables of hiragana and katakana. The basic characters in the first table are called "The 50 Sounds" although there are fewer than 50 characters.

Roma-ji and Pronunciation

"Roma-ji" (Roman characters) is a system for spelling out Japanese words with the English alphabet. It is also shown in the syllabary chart above. Here are some tips for pronunciation.

  • There are 5 vowels just like in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Like in those languages and unlike in English, 2 or more vowels in a row never modify the sound of each vowel. For instance, "hai" ("yes") is pronounced like English high, not like hay.
  • Also, since there are only 5 vowels, they are pronounced distinctively. In English, the syllables without the accent are often pronounced vaguely as in "a" in readable and "i" in audible. In Japanese, this usually does not happen. "Bonsai" and "banzai" are very different words in Japanese :)
  • Consonants are much more like in English. "G" in "gi" and "ge" are always the hard sound as in gift and get. However, there are some irregularities in the syllabary chart matrix. For example, there is no hiragana/katakana for "ti", "tu" or "di".
  • "Tsu" as in "tsunami" can be difficult for native English speakers. Try saying cats woo very fast, then take out the ca part.
  • The character followed by a small ゃ/ャ/ya, ゅ/ュ/yu and ょ/ョ/yo such as "kyo" are pronounced as one syllable. For instance, Tokyo is actually spelled in hiragana as とうきょう/toukyou and pronounced with the same rhythm as the English "SoHo". It is not like tow key oh.
  • There are variations of the Roma-ji spelling rules. For instance, "sha" is sometimes spelled "sya", etc.
  • Two little dots added to the top-right corner of hiragana/katakana makes an unvoiced sound (for instance, "s", "t") into voiced one ("z", "d").
  • Similarly, a little circle changes "h" to "p."
  • A dash character makes the sound longer. This often appears in English words spelled out in katakana. E.g., カー (ka-) car, キー (ki-) key
  • A small っ/ッ/tsu character makes a short silent pause between the syllables. In Roma-ji, it is spelled with two consonant letters in a row.
    For example, ヒット hitto hit, スパゲッティ (supagetti) spaghetti. Actually, this is very similar to -ss-, -tt-, etc. in Italian.

Tones

The accent in English is stress. One (or two) syllable in the word is uttered more strongly than the others. The accent in Japanese is tonal. Each syllable in the sentence has a high-pitched tone or a low-pitched tone. The sentence must be (mildly) sung like a song with tones. This can be fairly difficult for English speakers. But I suspect that this is also the reason that many foreigners think the sound of Japanese is very pleasant.

Even with wrong tonal accents, many Japanese people will understand what you are saying. However, mastering the correct tonal accents will certainly impress them and make them say "Nihongo jouzu desune!" (Your Japanese is very good!).

Below is a table of accent patterns from the Meikai Japanese Dictionary. Most Japanese people just learn accents by listening to others and they don't even know about this system. So I will elaborate a little bit. The columns represent the number of syllables in the word and the rows represent the accent. If you look up a 2-syllable word in this dictionary and it says "(1)" for instance, then its accent is in the second column of the first row which is high-low-(low). The white circle in the table denotes whatever syllable that comes after the word.
Example: The words 箸 (chopsticks), 橋 (bridge) and 端 (edge) are all spelled はし (hashi).
箸 (chopsticks) is (1) high-low-(low).
橋 (bridge) is (2) low-high-(low).
端 (edge) is (0) low-high-(high).
If someone says "はしをわたる" hashi o wataru ("...o" denotes the object. "wataru" is to cross.) in spoken language, you can know it by the tones whether somebody is crossing the bridge or crossing along the edge, or something (an ant maybe?) is crossing chopsticks.

Grammar

I will not go into the details of Japanese grammar. I will just pick a short sentence and show the anatomy.

   IBMは2001年5月からキューバでiMacを生産する。

JapanesehiraganaRoma-jiMeaning
IBM aibi-emuIBM
 ha
(pronounced "wa" (*1))
Particle denoting the subject.
2001年2001ねん2001 nenthe year 2001
5月5がつ5 gatsuMay (5th month)
...から ... karafrom ...
キューバ kyu-baCuba
...で ... dein ...
iMac aimakkuiMac
...を ... oParticle denoting the object.
生産せいさんseisanto produce
...する ... suruSuffix of the verb
  sentence-ending period

(*1) This is one of the only two cases where the pronunciation of the hiragana changes according to the context. The other case is へ "he" pronounced as "e" when it means to (somewhere).

Besides the trustworthiness :-), this is a typical sentence that you would see in a Japanese article. Kanji characters appear in many words. Particles are written in Hiragana. The country name is in Katakana. Also there are some alphabets for foreign names / acronyms.

Useful Phrases

Here are a few useful expressions. However, if you are learning to say a few sentences to appear "friendly" to the Japanese people you are meeting, please be careful. Japanese people have seen so many foreigners who know nothing more than "Kon-nichiwa" and "Arigatou" and it's a bit of a cliche. It may have an adverse effect of showing one's unwillingness to learn the language and the culture beyond two phrases. On the other hand, if you learn to say "Arigatou-gozaimasu" (full, polite form) and "yoroshiku onegai-shimasu" with good pronunciation, that would imply that you have respect for their language and their culture. Since the Japanese are all about respect and accuracy, you will give them a good first impression.

  • こんにちは kon-nichiwa (flat tone)
    "Good day." Say it like two words "kon" and "nichiwa" with flat tone. If you say it in quick four syllables with the stress on "nich", that's an Epic Fail.
  • こんばんは konbanwa (flat tone)
    "Good evening." こんばんは konbanwa has the exact same tone and rhythm as こんにちは kon-nichiwa.
  • おはようございます ohayou-gozaimasu (flat tone)
    "Good morning." Try to memorize the whole phrase including ございます gozaimasu (see above).
    Pronounce it like the English words "Ohio go zyme ass"
  • よろしくおねがいします yoroshiku onegai-shimasu (flat tone)
    "Nice to meet you." The magic word for a successful negotiation or long-lasting friendship. Literaly means "Nice please" implying "Let's start/continue a good relationship."
  • ではまた (それではまた) DEwa mata (soredewa mata) (stress on "DE")
    "See you again." Literally means "Then, again" implying "Well, (time to leave), see you again." Well-known さようなら sayounara is reserved for a case where the departing parties won't see each other again.
  • またあした mata ashita (flat tone)
    "See you tomorrow." Literally means "Again, tomorrow." それでは またあした Soredewa mata ashita
  • またらいしゅう mata raishuu (flat tone)
    "See you next week." Literally means "Again, next week."
  • (どうも) ありがとうございます (doumo) aRIgatou gozaimasu (stress on "RI")
    "Thank you (very much)."
  • どういたしまして dou itashimashite (flat tone)
    "It's nothing." / "You are welcome."

You Don't Say "You"

The second-person pronouns are あなた anata (formal) and きみ kimi (informal) but I think it is very interesting that you don't get to use these pronouns in conversations. First, I think きみ kimi is much more intimate or even threatening than the informal pronouns in German, French, etc. It is often used when criticizing someone. So, I would suggest staying away from it even with your close Japanese friend (unless he or she says otherwise). Secondly, you can omit the subject whenever it's obvious.

Lastly, the most interesting aspect (I think) is that you use the name of the listener as the subject of the sentence even though he or she is right there. For instance, "Are you a programmer, (Mr. Harada)?" translates to
"はらださんはプログラマーですか?"
"Harada-san ha(wa) purogurama- desuka?"
There is no あなた anata in the sentence. In fact, I came to realize that the use of "anata" is what makes the sentence sound somewhat exotic even when someone speaks with an impeccable Japanese accent.

Another interesting word is おたく otaku which literally means "your home" but you can also use it as the subject of the sentence such as "Where do you live?" and "Do you own a car?" These days, オタク (written in katakana) is the slang for "nerd" or "geek" because they often ask "おたくは..."-form questions like "Do you use a Mac?" and "Is your camera made by Nikon?"


FAQs

Why is Japanese difficult?
Some reasons I can think of are:

  • Most kanji characters have more than one reading. The pronunciation of the kanji often depends on the context in the sentence. This also makes it hard to look up the words in the dictionary. This also makes it difficult to read articles and books and build your vocabulary by yourself.
  • The verb conjugation is fairly irregular. Plus, there is something called "honorific" which makes the conjugation even more complicated. Honorific is used to show respect to others and make the sentence polite.
  • Tonal accents are not shown in most textbooks. That makes it hard to master natural-sounding Japanese.
However, I do know many non-Japanese people who have learned to speak perfect Japanese.

Why learn Japanese?

  • You can impress your business partner or friends by saying a few greeting sentences in perfect-sounding Japanese or reciting a whole line from your favorite anime/manga.
  • You can read the Japanese manuals of software and video games. You will be surprised how many English words you'll find (in katakana, of course).
  • You just want to be really fluent. --- If that's the case, I recommend you to learn all hiragana and katakana quickly and forget about Roma-ji.

How do you say "How are you?" in Japanese?
This is usually the second question after how to say hello. "How are you?" can be translated to "お元気ですか (o-genki desuka; Are you in good health?)" but ... come to think of it, I don't think we say that too often. I think I would rather say something like "How is your work?", "Are you busy lately?", "How's your family?" or "How was your weekend?" (We may be too workaholic to start our conversation by asking about work.) I'm interested in hearing from other Japanese people what they would say first when they see each other.

What are the common names in Japan?
The Japanese last names (family names) that you might be familiar with:

  • 鈴木 すずき Suzuki; Like the motorbike company; 鈴 bell 木 tree
  • 山口 やまぐち Yamaguchi; like Christie Yamaguchi, the skater; 山 mountain 口 mouth, entrance
  • 本田 ほんだ honda; Like the car company; 本 book, origin; 田 rice field
  • 松下 まつした Matsushita; Panasonic or Matsushita Electric; 松 pine, 下 under
  • 川崎 かわさき Kawasaki; Like the motorbike company; 川 river, 崎 cape
"Sony" is not a Japanese name. It is written in katakana ソニー.
"Nokia" sounds somewhat Japanese but it is a Finnish company :-)

Unlike in China or Korea where a few surnames cover the majority of the population, the Japanese family names are more evenly distributed. People are more often addressed by their family name than by their first name.

Top 10 Japanese Family Names

  1. 佐藤 さとう Satou (Sato); 佐 assist(ance); 藤 wisteria
  2. 鈴木 すずき Suzuki; 鈴 bell; 木 tree
  3. 高橋 たかはし Takahashi; 高 high; 橋 bridge
  4. 田中 たなか Tanaka; 田 rice field; 中 middle, inside
  5. 渡辺 わたなべ Watanabe; 渡 to cross; 辺 side
  6. 伊藤 いとう Itou (Ito); 伊 this; 藤 wisteria
  7. 山本 やまもと Yamamoto; 山 mountain; 本 book, origin
  8. 中村 なかむら Nakamura; 中 middle, inside; 村 village
  9. 小林 こばやし Kobayashi; 小 small; 林 woods
  10. 加藤 かとう Katou (Kato); 加 to add; 藤 wisteria

Top 20 Commonly-Used Kanjis in Family Names

  1. 田 た ta; rice field
  2. 藤 ふじ fuji, とう tou; wisteria
  3. 野 の no; field, plain
  4. 井 い i; well
  5. 山 やま yama; mountain
  6. 川 かわ kawa; river
  7. 村 むら mura; village
  8. 木 き ki; tree
  9. 中 なか naka; middle, inside
  10. 小 こ ko, お o; small
  11. 林 はやし hayashi; woods
  12. 原 はら hara; field, plain
  13. 大 おお oo; big
  14. 森 もり mori; forest
  15. 谷 たに tani, や ya; valley
  16. 本 ほん hon, もと moto; book, origin
  17. 島 しま shima; island
  18. 松 まつ matsu; pine
  19. 瀬 せ se; shallow, shoal
  20. 橋 はし hashi; bridge
田 た ta, 川 かわ kawa, etc. become voiced sounds (hiragana with the dots) だ da, がわ gawa when they are after certain sounds.
E.g., 原田 はらだ Harada, 小川 おがわ Ogawa

Written Text

Just how many kanjis are there?
My kanji dictionary says it has 7,500 characters. I have the graphic image of all the characters in the JIS (Japanese Industry Standard) code table if you would like to count them.

If the Japanese people know so many Chinese characters, can they read Chinese?
No. I like to use the English/French analogy. Many English words derive from the French language and some of them are spelled exactly the same. However, they are pronounced very differently. Also, the vocabulary for daily conversation is fairly different. Same situation with Japanese and Chinese. Plus, mainland China nowadays uses simplified characters which most Japanese people are not familiar with.

Isn't Japanese written from right to left?
In newspapers and novels, text is written from top to bottom, and then right to left. In many magazines, the text is written as in English; left to right, top to bottom, partially because many English words (in alphabet) appear.
The Japanese version of Microsoft Word does support the vertical-style writing.

Computers

How do you type Japanese text into computers?

There are programs called IME (Input Method Editors) that is part of Windows, OS X, etc. and enable the user to input Japanese.

The one shown below is old (Microsoft's IME 2000) but the idea is still the same. Suppose I am about to finish the example sentence above.


I already switched into the Japanese mode by typing Alt + ~. Since I am in Roma-ji hiragana mode, typing "seisansuru" will give me the hiragana "せいさんする". The dotted underline indicates the text is "not committed."

Then I hit the space key. The dotted-underlined part gets converted into kanji with hiranaga suffix.

Since 生産する are the characters I wanted, I could hit the Enter key to "commit" the underlined part. If it is not what I wanted or if I am unsure, I can hit the space key again.

The IME shows all the candidates that is spelled せいさんする (seisansuru). IME 2000 kindly shows the meaning of each candidate in a pop-up window. I will choose the first one anyway.

By selecting from the list, the text is "committed". I can continue typing the next word.


Japanese Characters Practice

Japanese Characters Practice


Links

Here are some of the links my friends have sent to me. Thank you, everyone!

News and Media in Japan

There are also CNN.co.jp and Yahoo! Japan News http://headlines.yahoo.co.jp/hl if you want to see the familiar logos with Japanese text :-)

Updated: March 12, 2016

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