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  • Writer's pictureThomas Nelan

Japan and the Japanese Language

Updated: Jan 30

Japanese Language- The Basics:

The official language of Japan is Japanese. It is not related to and has no similarities with any other language. The Japanese language differs from most other languages spoken in Asia. Because of such dissimilarities, it is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.

The People of Japan:

Japan has a population of 127 million people, about 27 million of whom live in or around the Tokyo area. Japan has the 3rd largest economy in the world, which helps explain the stellar literacy rate of 99% among the Japanese.

Japanese Geography:

Japan is famous for the amount of earthquakes which happen at a rate of about 1,500 annually. Japan is divided into eight separate regions, which make up the 47 prefectures in Japan. The 8 regions are:

1- Tohoku;

2- Chubu;

3- Hokkaido;

4- Chugoku;

5- Kanto

6- Kansai;

7- Kyushu

8- Shikoku.

Close-Up of the Japanese Writing Systems:

1- Katakana:

Japanese Buddhist monks (and translators!) of the 9th century had a challenge. They wanted to learn about Buddhism but were unable to read many of the Buddhist texts coming into the country, because they were filtering in from China and were written in Chinese. To overcome this challenge, they created the katakana so as to be able to read and pronounce the Buddhist texts properly. While a large number of katakana were created at first, by the 14th century these were reduced down to the 46 we know today.

"Did you know? As ever increasing numbers of scholars were beginning to make use of katakana, court officials also took up the study of katakana, to the extent that by the time the Meiji Restoration took place in 1868 it had become the default script to use".

2- Hiragana:

Hiragana was developed in 8th – 10th century Japan and is the most used of the 4 writing systems, again with each symbol representing one particular sound. Hiragana is made up of 46 basic characters, but outside of these, there are additional characters which are used to describe other sounds not covered by the original 46.

Similarities between hiragana and katakana:

The katakana writing system closely resembles the hiragana writing system. For example, the "ki" symbol (キ) used in katakana closely resembles "ki" symbol (き) used in hiragana. Also, both have a number of extra sounds outside of the basic 46.

3- Romaji:

By far the easiest Japanese writing script for non-native Japanese to understand, because it simply is the use of western script in Japanese daily life.

4- Kanji:

Recognized as the most difficult of the Japanese writing scripts to learn. Nobody knows the exact number in existence, but there are thought to be around 5,000 kanji. Japanese students are expected to learn 2,136 kanji during their years in compulsory education.

It can be said that each kanji symbol represents a concept or meaning rather than a sound. Two or more kanji can group together to create an altogether different meaning, while at other times the pronunciation of a kanji will change depending on the context it is used in or the other kanji close to it.

Tom Nelan- B.C.L., B.B.S. (M.K.T.), (New York Qualified Lawyer).

Mitsuko Miyake Nelan- B.A. Japanese Literature: Chofu University, Tokyo.

Katakana and hiragana chart


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