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TYJ Introduction to Japanese

This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese

1.1.1. Preface

Thank you very much for visiting my Japanese language pages. My name is TAKASUGI Shinji (surname first is the Japanese way). I am a native Japanese speaker living in Yokohama, Japan. Please let me know when you find errors.

The purpose of this article series is to provide a way to learn Japanese by yourself. I would like to introduce you Japanese, and I will be glad if you are interested in it. I focus on the similarities and differences between Japanese and English.

If you want to master Japanese, I recommend you to buy an excellent textbook and a dictionary, because I think it is vocabulary, not grammar, that is the key to mastering a language. I do my best to make my site useful, but the number of words described here is still limited.

1.1.2. What is the Japanese language?

The Japanese language is the official language of Japan, and it is the eighth-most popular language in the world. The table below shows the principal languages of the world, according to Nationalencyklopedin (2010).

RankLanguageLanguage FamilyPopulationArea
1Mandarin ChineseSino-Tibetan995,000,000China
2SpanishIndo-European405,000,000Latin America, Spain
3EnglishIndo-European360,000,000North America, U.K., Australia
4ArabicCentral Semitic295,000,000North Africa, Middle East
6PortugueseIndo-European215,000,000Brazil, Portugal
7BengaliIndo-European205,000,000Bangladesh, India
10PunjabiIndo-European100,000,000India, Pakistan
11Standard GermanIndo-European95,000,000Germany
13Wu ChineseSino-Tibetan80,000,000China

Linguists think languages of the same language family have a common ancestor because they have similar grammar and vocabulary. That's why it is relatively easy for English speakers to learn European languages. Almost all European languages belong to the Indo-European language family. The exceptions are Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, and some minorities.

Japanese is not a member of the Indo-European language family. In fact, Japanese is virtually the only member of the Japanese language family, considering Ryukyuan languages, languages of Okinawa, are not commonly used now. Korean, which is the nearest kin to Japanese other than Ryukyuan languages, belongs to another language family. The origin of Japanese and Japanese people is unknown, but anthropologists suppose that the majority of the ancestors of the Japanese came to Japan from North Asia through the Korean Peninsula, and mixed with the native Japanese, who had a southeast Asian origin.

Most European people are probably not aware of the diversity of Asian languages. Even though Korean grammar is similar to Japanese, it has a very different vocabulary, which is why Korean and Japanese aren't considered to belong to the same language family. Chinese had influenced Japanese for many years, in particular through imported words, but its grammar has no relationship to the Japanese language. Ainu people, the other native people of Japan, speak the Ainu language, which is also different from Japanese. The table below shows how different Mandarin Chinese and Ainu are from Japanese. All the sentences mean "I drink water in my house."

JapaneseWatashi wa ie de mizu o nomu.
(I, topic) (house, in) (water, object) (drink)
MandarinWŏ zài jiā hē shŭi.
(I) (in) (house) (drink) (water)
AinuK=uni ta wakka ku=ku.
(my house) (in) (water) (I drink)

Japanese doesn't seem to English speakers to be as approachable as other European languages at first, because it is very different from English. But don't be afraid. Japanese is not as difficult as you might think. In a sense, Japanese is more logical than English; for example, it has only two irregular verbs. It's also more straightforward than European languages in a sense; it has no singular or plural, no gender, and no agreement of verbs.

Learning a non-European language is a good way for European language speakers to learn general ideas of human languages and understand the characteristics of European languages. You might think the subject-verb inversion for questions is nothing strange, but the fact is that the inversion is rarely found outside of Europe. Among thousands of languages in the world, English is the only language that uses a meaningless auxiliary verb for the inversion. When you change the sentence "He went there" to the question "Did he go there?", not to "Went he there?", you experience a unique rule of English. Have you ever imagined English is a strange language? I will explain in a later chapter the way to make questions in Japanese, which is common and easy.

If you speak a non-European language, your language may be more similar to Japanese than to English. Don't think in English in that case.

1.1.3. Japanese characters

The Japanese language has three sets of characters - hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

The Japanese language didn't have written characters two thousand years ago. After contact with the Chinese, the Japanese imported Han characters, which are called kanji in Japanese and hànzì in Mandarin. Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have been using Han characters, and Vietnamese had used them until the 19th century.

Kanji are ideograms, i.e. they stand for both meaning and pronunciation. Here is an example of kanji:

The Japanese pronunciation of this kanji is "hito", which has nothing to do with its Chinese pronunciation "rén", while it means human in both of the languages.

Kanji is an excellent writing system - they can carry meaning beyond the language barrier, and linguists also have proven that reading ideograms is faster than reading phonograms such as alphabets because ideograms and their meanings are intimately connected in the brain while phonograms are connected only to their sounds. Dyslexics can hardly read phonograms, but they can understand ideograms if they know them. The ability to read phonograms can be damaged more easily because of its complexity.

But it is also useful to have phonograms, which describe only sounds. More than a thousand years ago, Japanese people picked out about fifty kanji and simplified them to create new character sets now called hiragana and katakana. This process was the same as how Egyptian created phonograms from hieroglyphs. The difference is that kanji are alive, and hieroglyphs are dead.

Hiragana and katakana are called kana. A kana stands only for a sound, unlike a kanji, which stands for a meaning and a sound. Here is an example of hiragana:


These two hiragana represent the pronunciations "hi" and "to", which combination is "hito" (human). None of the hiragana has meaning, just pronunciation.

The two kana sets, hiragana and katakana, are mostly the same, but they have different shapes like English has capital letters and small letters. Hiragana are used for Japanese words, while katakana are used for imported words. So you can easily spot imported words.

Kanji, hiragana and katakana are used together, and you must master all of them eventually to read Japanese texts. All you have to learn first is hiragana because learning hiragana is enough for beginners to learn Japanese grammar and words. Japanese children also learn to read and write hiragana first.

Japanese characters are written vertically from top to bottom, and lines are written from right to left. Japanese can be written like European languages too, i.e. characters are written horizontally from left to right, lines from top to bottom. Newspapers and novels are almost always written vertically, and scientific books are almost always written horizontally. Computers use the latter, and they are rarely able to display characters vertically. I use the horizontal way in this site because it is easier to use with alphabets.

The two ways are shown below.


いちぎゃうめ、First line
にぎゃうめ、Second line
さんゃうめ。Third line


Third lineSecond lineFirst line

Next article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Romanization, phonemes, and morae
Previous article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Teach Yourself Japanese
About author
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

I work as a display engineer.

One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.


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