Japanese is an East Asian language spoken by about 127 million speakers, which represents nearly the entire population of Japan. Some 1.5 million Japanese have migrated abroad, mainly to Hawaii and other parts of the US (nearly half a million), Brazil (380,000) and Peru (80,000).  As the population is decreasing at a rate of 0.1 % annually, the number of Japanese speakers tends to diminish slightly with time.

Japanese is the national language of Japan and is spoken almost exclusively in the Japanese chain of islands and had been physically cut off from other tongues for a very long time. As a result of this isolation, the Japanese language has never been clearly linked to any language family. There is no proven evidence that a native Japanese writing system existed before Chinese characters were introduced to them in the fourth century. Although Japanese is structurally very different from Chinese, it has, however, been deeply influenced at the lexical level and in its writing system which is partly logographic, i.e., a written character representing a word or phrase, and partly syllabic.

Japanese Linguistic Features

Japanese has an unusually large number of grammatical structures dedicated to conveying or acknowledging social status. This is known as “polite” or “honorific” speech, and it is crucially important to grasp it in order to learn the language. Different pronouns, vocabulary, and modifications of verbs are used depending on the relationship that the speaker and the listener have to one another. Generally, polite speech is used between individuals who have just met, while common speech denotes a more intimate relationship.

Many of the language structures in Japanese are designed with respect to uchi-soto, or the difference between “inside” groups and “outside” groups. For example, when one Japanese person is speaking to someone from an “outside” group (not a part of their family or business organization), the outsider is generally honored and the insider speaks in a humble fashion.

a) Dialects

Due to the mountainous terrain of the country and the consequent difficulty of communications, Japanese is very rich in dialects that are often mutually unintelligible. The dialect of the Ryukyu Islands is the most divergent and until recently was considered a separate language. Besides this, there are three main groups of dialects: Eastern, Western, and Kyushu.

The standard speech is based on the Tokyo dialect, promoted in the mass media in detriment of the regional varieties. As a result of this, of modern mobility, and of the existence of a standardized written language, a considerable degree of linguistic unification has been achieved.

b) Phonology

Syllables:  Most Japanese syllables have a simple consonant-vowel structure. There are also syllables consisting of just of just one vowel and sequences of vowels may occur.
Vowels: Standard Japanese has just five vowels which can be short or long. The difference in vowel length is phonemic. Some dialects have additional vowels and others less than these five, their vowel systems ranging from three to eight members.
Consonants: The consonantal system is straightforward, having fifteen sounds. Dental consonants are often affricated or palatalized.

c) Morphology

Japanese is an agglutinative language with primarily suffixing morphology. Both verbs and adjectives inflect for tense, but they are distinguished by different tense suffixes.
Nominal: Nouns are invariable, they are not marked for person, gender or number, and case is indicated by separate particles (similar to postpositions) that indicate the relationship between a preceding nominal phrase and the rest of the sentence.  Personal pronouns are different for male and female speakers and have formal and familiar forms.
Verbal: In the Japanese verb, person, gender and number are not indicated.  Voice and tense are marked by suffixes placed after the verbal stem.

d) Syntax

A typical Japanese sentence has a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structure. For emphasis a non-subject element may be moved to the first position but the verb is always final.

e) Accent

Japanese has a word-pitch accentual pattern based on the mora.  A mora is a unit of duration which may coincide or not with a syllable.  A Japanese mora may consist of: a single vowel, a semivowel + vowel, a consonant + vowel, a consonant + semivowel + vowel, a nasal alone, or the first consonant of a geminated cluster. Long vowels count as two morae. For example, mizu (‘water’) has two syllables and two morae (mi-zu), hōryūji (‘Hōryūji’) has three syllables but five morae (ho-o-ryu-u-ji), onīsan (‘older brother’) has three syllables but five morae (o-ni-i-sa-n), kitte (‘postage stamp’) has two syllables and three morae (ki-t-te).

A mora may also have a high (H) or a low (L) tone. Accent results from the contrast between a high-pitched and low-pitched mora.

Script, Orthography and Lexicon

The Japanese script is made up of four different writing systems:
1) Chinese characters or kanji.
2) Two kinds of syllabary or kana: hiragana (rounded) and katakana (angular).
3) Roman alphabet or rōmaji, introduced in the late 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries.
Kanji are used for content words, hiragana mainly for particles and inflectional endings,  katakana to write foreign loanwords and some onomatopoeic expressions, rōmaji in writing foreign acronyms and in advertising. The number of Chinese characters recommended for daily use is restricted to about 2,000.

A Few Little Known Facts About Japanese Language & Culture

The literacy rate (people who can read and write) of Japan is one of the highest in the world, at almost 100%.
Japan’s unemployment rate is less than 4%.
Japan has the second lowest homicide rate in the world, behind only Iceland. The homicide rate there is .50 per 100,000 people.
The concept of losing face, or being embarrassed, is a very important concept in Japan. Someone may lose face if they are insulted, criticized, or otherwise put on the spot, and only through praise and thanks can honor be regained.
Japan has the highest proportion of elderly people in the world, about 23% of Japanese people are over the age of 65. Older people are revered and honored in Japan and are the first to be served food and drinks at a meal.
There are many subtleties involved in meeting someone for the first time in Japan. One usually waits to be introduced, as it’s seen as impolite to introduce yourself. For foreigners, it’s acceptable to simply shake hands upon meeting, but the traditional form of greeting is a bow, with how far you bow being relative to the respect shown to the recipient.
Melons are very expensive in Japan. One can go for up to $400. 85% of the coffee produced in Jamaica is exported to Japan.
One of the most interesting facts about Japan is that it has one of the highest literacy levels in the world with 99% literacy in children over 15 years old.
When you slurp your noodles loudly in Japan, it is considered a sign that you are enjoying the meal.

A Touch of Japanese Literature

Ribbons of May 五月のリボン
the air laughed loud outside my window
in the shadows of the multi-coloured tongues
the leaves blow about in clumps
I am unable to understand
is there anyone out there?
I stretch out my hand into the darkness
it was only the long hair of the wind

Sagawa Chika

Angel of the Sea 海の天使
again and again the cradle crashes
sea spray dances high
like severed feathers
waiting for the one who sleeps
music heralds the coming of the bright hour
I scream aloud trying to make myself heard
the waves follow after and wash my cries away
I was abandoned into the sea

Sagawa Chika (1911–1936) was a pioneering Japanese woman poet who made an important contribution to the developmental stage of Japanese poetic modernism in the 1920s and 30s.