Know Your Languages: Japanese, a Complex Language of Context
  • Post author:
  • Post Category:General

Japan is a country shrouded in beauty and tradition and for many gaijin (non-Japanese), a bit of wonder and mystery.  Japanese culture is fascinating and its impact can be seen all over the world. Examples include ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement), tea ceremonies, sushi, and, of course manga, anime and other variants of Japanese graphic art.

Japanese culture is rooted in the deepest of traditions dating back thousands of years; yet, it is a society in a continual state of flux with shifting fads, fashions and technological development. Some would say contemporary Japanese culture is a hybrid of sorts, influenced heavily by parts of Asia, Europe and North America. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the Japanese language.

Approximately 50% of Japanese words are derived from the Chinese language – not unlike how many English words are derived from Greek. The Japanese people have also adopted many foreign words, primarily from English. These words are called gairaigo. Examples of these include: biru (beer), aisu (ice), hoteru (hotel), takushi (taxi), gurasu (glass) and teburo (table). The Japanese have also borrowed words from Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. The word pan(bread) comes from the Portuguese word pao. Merchants and missionaries visiting Japan in the 16th and 17thcenturies are believed to have influenced these language integrations.

The Japanese also create new words by way of combining or shortening English words. Examples of this are: wapuro (word processor) and masukomi (mass communications). Another interesting facet of the language is the curious distinction between male and female speech. These dissimilarities occur in vocabulary, grammar and especially in pitch. Women are inclined to speak in high-pitched voices (in public, for the most part), while men tend to speak in low, stern voices. Another intriguing fact is that Japanese vocabulary and verb conjugations differ according to who is speaking and to whom they are speaking, and in part depending on the social relationship between the two parties. Women utilize a different vocabulary than men do. For example, the male expressions for “I” are boku, ore and washi while the female expressions are watashi and watakushi – but adding to the complexity, in formal or polite contexts such as a business meeting, watashi is used by both women and men. It’s actually more complicated and subtle, much like Japan itself.

The Japanese writing system is made up of three different character sets. The first is Kanji, which is composed of several thousand Chinese ideograms. In addition to Kanji, there is Hiragana and Katakana, which are two sets of phonetic characters (there are 46 in each) that represent syllables and serve the purpose of an alphabet. Hiragana is the most original writing system in Japan and is used for native Japanese words where there are no Kanji, conjugations, particles, verb endings, as well as children’s literature. This is due to the fact that Hiragana is the first writing set taught in Japan. Katakana is used chiefly to write foreign words and names (see the chart to the right). Another method, known as Romaji (which translates to “roman letters”), has more recently been adopted in Japan as a Romanization of Japanese.

Japanese writing can be oriented in two ways. Writing can be done in the traditional Japanese style, where the characters appear in vertical columns arranged from the right to the left side of the page. Conversely, the Japanese also make use of typical Western style, where the writing appears in horizontal rows from the top to the bottom of the page. Both of these writing styles coexist in present day Japan.

Pronunciation of Japanese does not usually pose many problems for new learners of the language. This is primarily due to the limited number of individual sounds. Japanese has approximately half as many sounds (phonemes) as most Western European languages. In this respect Japanese is perhaps most similar to Spanish, in that it shares the same limited set of vowel sounds. Furthermore, there are quite a few homonyms; which can be a little tricky for new learners of the language to become familiar with. Some homonyms are differentiated by changes in tone (pitch accent) but this is very subtle, and is an advanced concept for students of Japanese.

When it comes to levels of politeness in Japanese, there are different words and expressions that are used, depending entirely on who the speaker is speaking to. For example, there are four ways of addressing people in Japanese using honorifics as a suffix to their names. They are: kun (used for a boy or a young man; can be somewhat condescending), chan (used for children and young women), san (the universal mode) and sama(deferential). There are more than a dozen different words for the English word “I”. They are used exclusively within the context of a given situation. Honorific vocabulary and conjugations are called “keigo” and are used in daily conversation by virtually all Japanese speakers.

Despite the intrigue and allure of learning and speaking Japanese, non-verbal communication is a major social indicator in Japan. The Japanese believe that context affects the tone of a conversation and the people are keen on noticing any changes in posture, tone or facial expressions. Many Japanese speak with little to no facial expressions. Because words can have more than one meaning, the Japanese look at a person’s physical reactions to determine the true meaning of their words. Conversely, Japanese people are so used to body language being important to a conversation that it is common to see a person speaking on the phone and unconciously bowing, even though the person they are talking to cannot see them.

Japanese is the ninth most widely spoken language in the world  (nearly 130 million speakers) and is worth learning because of its prevalence in both Japan and the rest of the world. Outside of Japan, close to five million people speak the language, including nearly 1.5 million speakers in Brazil alone, primarily due to a major migration in the early 20th century. Brazil now has the second largest population of Japanese speakers in the world. Speakers of Japanese can also be found across the globe in locations such as Argentina, Australia, Belize, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Mongolia, Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States.