Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Japanese language

The Japanese language is a spoken and written language used mainly in Japan. The Japanese name for the language is 日本語 (Nihongo)

Spoken in:Japan
Total speakers: 125 Million
Language isolate
Official status
Official language of:Japan
Regulated by:Language Academy?
Language codes
ISO 639-1: ja
ISO 639-2: jpn

Table of contents
1 History and Classification
2 Geographic distribution
3 Sounds
4 Grammar
5 Vocabulary
6 Writing system
7 See also
8 External links

History and Classification

Although historical linguists do not all agree about the origin of the Japanese language, there are many theories:

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and is still sometimes spoken in countries besides Japan. When Japan occupied
Korea, Taiwan and parts of China, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese and were each given a Japanese name. As a result, there are still many people in these countries who speak Japanese instead of or as well as the local languages. In addition, immigrants from Japan, the majority of whom are found in the United States (notably California and Hawaii), and Brazil also frequently speak Japanese. Their descendants (known as 二世 "nisei" or second generation), however, rarely speak Japanese fluently.

Official status

Japanese is the only official language of Japan, and Japan is the only country to have Japanese as an official language. There are two forms of the language considered standard: hyoujungo (標準語) or standard Japanese, and kyoutsuugo (共通語) or the common language. As government policy has modernized Japan many of the distinctions between the two have blurred. Hyoujungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications, and is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Because it is Japan's only official language and there are few foreign Japanese speakers, the language is heavily tied to Japanese culture and vice-versa. There are many Japanese words describing certain Japanese cultural ideas, traditions, and customs (e.g., Wa, Nemawashi, Kaizen, Kamikaze), which do not have corresponding words in other languages. Understanding the Japanese language requires knowledge of Japanese society.


There are dozens of dialects spoken in Japan. Among them are Kansai-ben, Okinawa-kotoba, Tugaru-ben, and Kanto-ben (Tokyo and surrounding areas). Dialects are generally mutually intelligible, although extremely geographically separated dialects such as the Touhoku and Kyuushuu variants are not. The Ryuukyuu dialects used in and around Okinawa are related to Japanese, but the two are mutually unintelligible. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, morphology of the verb and adjectives, particle usage, vocabulary and in some cases pronunciation.


The Japanese sound system is relatively simple, compared to most languages. For the most part, syllables consist of at most one consonant and one vowel. There are only 5 vowel and 16 consonant phonemes, compared to 14 or 15 vowels and 22 consonants in English.


Japanese has no diphthongs, but there is a contrast between long and short vowels. The vowels of Japanese are:

The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel, which is indicated as /u/ in the diagram. This vowel is often described as unrounded, but is actually pronounced with "compressed lips," which is a different articulatory gesture from either rounded or unrounded lips: it is unrounded, but without spreading. The "u=" to the right of the diagram are possible narrow transcriptions using IPA, as suggested by the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association.


  Bilabial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive p     b t     d       k     g    
Affricate     ts          
Nasal       m       n               ɴ  
Flap             ɽ        
Fricative     s     z         h
Approximant               j       w    


Japanese undergoes a variety of assimilation processes.
  1. The moraic nasal /N/ is usually a uvular nasal, but becomes [m] before /p, b/, [n] before coronals, palatal before /j, i/, and velar before /k, g/. It even will become a nasalized vowel before a vowel, approximant, /h/, or /s/.
  2. /s/ and /z/ become alveolo-palatal [ɕ] and [ʑ] before /i, j/
  3. /h/ becomes palatal [ç] and bilabial [ɸ] before /i/ and /u/ respectively.
  4. /i, u/ tend to become devoiced except when they are in accented or lengthened syllables. Often, preceding fricatives will replace the vowel altogether.


The Japanese sound system, for the purpose of native literacy, is expressed in terms of syllables (or, technically,
morass) rather than isolated vowels or consonants. This is because written Japanese possesses two syllabaries, not an alphabet, in which each character represents a syllable (though some characters represent only one vowel). Any Japanese syllable can be written in Hiragana or Katakana, the two syllabaries, or in Romaji, the Roman alphabet.

The three tables below lists all sounds in the Japanese language.

Basic Syllables: Vowel, Unvoiced Consonant plus vowel, "n"
  A I U E O
あ ア
い イ
う ウ
え エ
お オ
K ka
か カ
き キ
く ク
け ケ
こ コ
S sa
さ サ
si shi
し シ
す ス
せ セ
そ ソ
T ta
た タ
ti chi
ち チ
tu tsu
つ ツ
て テ
と ト
N na
な ナ
に ニ
ぬ ヌ
ね ネ
の ノ
H ha
は ハ
ひ ヒ
hu fu
ふ フ
へ ヘ
ほ ホ
M ma
ま マ
み ミ
む ム
め メ
も モ
Y ya
や ヤ
ゆ ユ
よ ヨ
R ra
ら ラ
り リ
る ル
れ レ
ろ ロ
W wa
わ ワ
ゐ ヰ
- we(e)
ゑ ヱ
を ヲ
N   n
ん ン

Voiced syllables: Voiced or semi-voiced consonant plus vowel
  A I U E O
G ga
が ガ
ぎ ギ
ぐ グ
げ ゲ
ご ゴ
Z za
ざ ザ
zi ji
じ ジ
ず ズ
ぜ ゼ
ぞ ゾ
D da
だ ダ
di ji
ぢ ヂ
du dzu
づ ヅ
で デ
ど ド
B ba
ば バ
び ビ
ぶ ブ
べ ベ
ぼ ボ
P pa
ぱ パ
ぴ ピ
ぷ プ
ぺ ペ
ぽ ポ
Blended syllables: consonant plus ya, yu, yo
  ya yu yo
K kya
きゃ キャ
きゅ キュ
きょ キョ
G gya
ぎゃ ギャ
ぎゅ ギュ
ぎょ ギョ
S sha sya
しゃ シャ
shu syu
しゅ シュ
sho syo
しょ ショ
Z ja jya
じゃ ジャ
ju jyu
じゅ ジュ
jo jyo
じょ ジョ
T cha tya
ちゃ チャ
chu tyu
ちゅ チュ
cho tyo
ちょ チョ
N nya
にゃ ニャ
にゅ ニュ
にょ ニョ
H hya
ひゃ ヒャ
ひゅ ヒュ
ひょ ヒョ
B bya
びゃ ビャ
びゅ ビュ
びょ ビョ
P pya
ぴゃ ピャ
ぴゅ ピュ
ぴょ ピョ
M mya
みゃ ミャ
みゅ ミュ
みょ ミョ
R rya
りゃ リャ
りゅ リュ
りょ リョ

Some points of note:

Japanese Pronunciation

As the above syllabaries indicate, Japanese has five vowel sounds: /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/. All other consonant sounds only occur with a consonant-vowel or "blended-syllable" structure.

Rules for Japanese pronunciation are as follows.

Double (Geminate) Consonants

A prefixed small "tsu", っ (hiragana) or ッ (katakana), indicates the immediately following consonant is preceded by a glottal stop and held for an additional syllable.

These consonants often involve the glottis in speech, but may not necessarily be a full glottal stop. In romaji they are indicated by a doubled consonant.

Long Vowels

A long vowel mark, ー (Katakana), indicates the immediately preceding vowel sound is held for an additional syllable.

In hiragana a long vowel is usually indicated by appending the same vowel. Note that "o" can be doubled by "u" (Toukyou -> Tōkyō) and "e" by "i" if spoken quickly (but is usually romanized as "ei").

In romaji, long vowels may be indicated by either a macron (bar over the vowel), circumflex, additional vowel to match the Japanese orthography, or not at all. This is a cause of confusion in transliteration. For example, "Tokyo" is more properly written as either "Tōkyō" or "Toukyou".


  1. In English, stressed syllables in a word are pronounced louder and longer. In Japanese, all syllables, with a few exceptions, are pronounced with equal length and loudness.
  2. In Japanese, a stressed syllable is merely pronounced at a higher pitch. This is part of the Japanese intonation pattern.
  3. Japanese does have a distinct intonation pattern. This pattern can be heard not only in individual words, but also in whole sentences. Intonation is produced by a rise and fall in pitch over certain syllables. In the case of questions, the Japanese intonation patterns bear little resemblance to the English ones. This is a large source of confusion for westerners.
  4. The Japanese intonation pattern varies with regional dialect.


detailed explanations, Japanese grammar has the following features.

1. The basic sentence structure of a Japanese sentence is

     For example:
     Kochira wa, Sangaa san desu.
     Kochira is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle "wa."
     This means "as for this person."
     The verb is "desu" meaning 'is.'
     "Sangaa san desu" is the comment.
     Therefore, this loosely translates to:
     "As for this person, (it) is Mr. Sanger."   

Japanese, like Chinese, is often called a 'topic prominent' language, which means it marks topic separately from subject, and the two do not always coincide.

2. Japanese nouns in general have neither number nor gender. Thus "hon" meaning "book" can be used for the singular or plural. However, in the case of certain native words (of proto-Japanese rather than Chinese origin) plurality may be indicated by reduplication . For example, "hito" means "person" whilst "hitobito" means "people"; "ware" means "I" whilst "wareware" means "we". Sometimes suffixes may also indicate plurality. Examples include the suffixes "tachi" and "ra": "watashi", meaning "I", becomes "watashitachi", meaning "we", and "kare" (him) becomes "karera" (them).

3. Though there is no set word order per se, verbs normally come at the end of a sentence.

4. Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: the present (sometimes, because the same form is used for both the present and future, called the "non-past") and the past. The present tense (or imperfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple present and the future tense, while the past tense (or perfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple past tense. The distinction is between actions which are completed (perfect) or are not yet completed (imperfect). The present perfect, present continuous, present perfect continuous, future perfect, future continuous, and future perfect continuous are usually expressed as a gerund (-te form) plus the auxiliary form imasu/iru. Similarly, the past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous are usually expressed with the gerund plus the past tense of imasu/iru. For some verbs, that represent an ongoing process, the "-te iru" form regularly indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others, that represent a change of state, the "-te iru" form regularly indicates a perfect tense. For example, "kite imasu" regularly means "I have come," and not "I am coming," but "tabete imasu" regularly means "I am eating," and not "I have eaten." Note that in this form the initial "i" of "imasu/iru" is often not voiced, especially in casual speech and the speech of young people. The exact meaning is determined from the context, as Japanese tenses do not always map one-to-one to English tenses. In addition, Japanese verbs are also conjugated to show various moods.

5. Adjectives are inflected to show the present, past, affirmative and negative.

6. The grammatical function of nouns like possession, direct object, indirect object etc. are indicated by particles, like "wa" and "no" above. Particles play an extremely important function in Japanese.

7. Japanese has many ways to express different levels of politeness, including special verbs, verbs indicating relative status, use of different nouns, etc., as was shown above.

8. The verb desu/da is not a copula in the western sense of the verb "to be". In the sentences above, it has played the copulative function of equality, that is: A = B. However a separate function of "to be" is to indicate existence, for which the verbs arimasu/aru and imasu/iru are used for inanimate and animate things respectively.

9. Derived forms of words occur often in Japanese. Nouns can be made into verbs, adjectives into nouns, gerunds, and other forms, and so on. Verbs, in addition to other derived forms, have one (the "-tai" form) which is an adjective meaning "want to do X"; e.g., "tabetai desu" means "I want to eat."


Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Broadly speaking, there are three main politeness levels in spoken Japanese: the plain form (kudaketa), the simple polite form or teinei and the advanced polite form or keigo.

Since most relationships are not equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or even psychological state (e.g., a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Interestingly, Japanese children rarely use polite speech until their teenage years, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

The plain form in Japanese is recognized by the shorter, so-called dictionary form of verbs, and the da form of the copula. In the teinei level, verbs end with the helping verb -masu, and the copula desu is used. The advanced polite form, keigo, actually consists of two kinds of politeness: honorific language (sonkeigo) and humble (kenjougo) language. Whereas teineigo is an inflectional system, keigo often employs many special (often irregular) honorific and humble verb forms.

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 his group. For example, the "-san" suffix ("Mr.", "Mrs." or "Ms.") is an example of honorific language. It should not be used to talk about oneself. Nor should it be employed when talking about someone from one's own company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group".

Honorifics are not used exclusively with the adressee or those outside one's group, either. Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made honorific by the addition of お (o-) or ご (go-); as a prefix. Such a construction usually 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. On the other hand, a female speaker may sometimes refer to mizu (water) as o-mizu merely to show her cultural refinement, compared to more abrupt male speech patterns.

Many researchers report that since the 1990s, the use of polite forms has become rarer, particularly among the young, who employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but as a relationship becomes more intimate, they speak more frankly. This often occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.


Historically, Japanese has a large number of words that are borrowed from Chinese. See further discussion below in the section on the Japanese writing system. Japan borrowed many words from European languages starting in the 19th century, including Portuguese, German, French, and especially English.

Writing system

Early Writing System

The Japanese writing system can be traced back to the 4th century AD, when Chinese characters (
kanji) came into use in Japan. No definitive evidence of any native Japanese writing system that predates kanji is known to exist. Around the 8th century AD, hiragana and katakana were developed from kanji by Buddhist monks, who used them as pronunciation guides when reading scrolls from China.

Due to the large number of words and concepts entering Japan from China which had no native equivalent, many kanji words entered Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original Chinese. This Chinese-derived reading is known as 音読み (on-yomi). At the same time, native Japanese already had words corresponding to many borrowed kanji. Authors increasingly used Kanji to represent these words. This Japanese-derived reading is known as 訓読み (kun-yomi). A kanji may have both multiple on-yomi and kun-yomi.

Linguists have sometimes compared Japan's borrowing and adaptation of Chinese words into Japanese as similar to the effect of the Norman conquest of the British Isles had on the English language. Like English, Japanese has many synonyms of differing origin: words from both Chinese and native Japanese. In another similarity, words of Chinese origin are often sound more formal or intellectual to a Japanese speaker, just as the latinate words in English often sound to an English speaker.

Written language reforms and Western influence

The Japanese writing system remained largely unchanged up until the 19th century Meiji era educational reforms. These reforms included:

Western influences during the Meiji Era, and continued influences during the American occupation after World War II, also had important effects on the Japanese written language. One effect was on the use of foreign words (外来語 gairaigo) in Japanese, as well as the increased use of romaji. Another effect was to change the writing direction of Japanese.

Until the Meiji era, Japanese text was written top to bottom, right to left. The Meiji era saw the first use of horizontally written Japanese. Before World War II, this horizontal text was written from right to left, so as to be consistent with traditional Japanese writing. After the end of World War II, text started to be written from left to right, in the common western style. Both kinds of writing are still in use today. Occasionally, horizontal writing from right to left can still be seen, when the reader is likely to encounter the text in in that direction (as in on the sides of vehicles).

Modern Japanese writing system

Modern Japanese uses four different scripts: Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, and Romaji.

Native Japanese text is typically written in a combination of the first three: Kanji, which is an adaptation of Chinese ideograms, and Hiragana and Katakana, which are syllabaries derived from simplified kanji. Kanji\ are used for most words in written Japanese, including verb bases, most nouns, and adjectives. Hiragana is used for inflectional endings (送りがな okurigana) and grammatical particles (助詞 joshi), for words which have no associated kanji, and also for indicating the reading of obscure or unknown kanji words. Katakana is mainly employed for writing foreign loanwords, though it is also sometimes used to convey extra emphasis when writing a Japanese word, not unlike italics in Western languages. Texts written for children and foreigners who are still learning Japanese will frequently feature the hiragana reading (ふりがな furigana) in small print next to the kanji.

Although Romaji (Roman letters) are not typically used to write Japanese, borrowing of English and other western language loanwords can include their foreign spelling. Also, important acronyms, such as 'NATO' and 'WTO' are written alphabetically in Romaji. Because the Japanese can absorb words from English, French or other phonogram language easily though katakana, it is considered a highly adaptable language.

Since all Japanese learn English in middle school and high school, most Japanese can read romaji. As a result, the amount of romaji in Japanese has increased considerably in recent decades. Japanese popular music lyrics in particular increasingly contain English words and phrases. Foreign loanword (外来語 gairaigo) usage has both proponents and opponents in and out of Japan.

For an example of a word (watashi, meaning "I") written in each of the four scripts, see below.

Kanji(漢字) Hiragana(ひらがな) Katakana(カタカナ) Romaji(ローマ字)
わたし ワタシ watashi

See also

External links

A large and sophisticated collection of resources, including dynamic dictionaries and translators