The Japanese Language

The Japanese language is spoken by about 130 million people around the world, with 125 million of them being native speakers. Not much is known of how and when the Japanese language came to be, and it is one of the most unique languages in the world.

Japanese consists of three writing systems: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana.

Kanji (漢字), or Chinese characters, is the most complicated of the three. There are an estimate of 50,000 characters in total, out of which only 2,000 ~ 3,000 are commonly used.

Hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名) is the simplified writing system with 46 base characters. They have various uses, and are usually written together with kanji to form phrases. They can be used as furigana, or reading aid, written above kanji to make it easier to read, or to show the way certain unusual kanji are to be read.

Katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名) is a writing system very similar to hiragana with 48 base characters. They are used to transcribe foreign words to be readable by the Japanese; to write gairaigo (loan words); for hard to read or rarely used kanji; to put an emphasis on something, as well as many other uses.

There are many Japanese dialects, such as the the Kanto and the Kansai dialect. Written and spoken Japanese has many differences, and even in spoken Japanese, there are several levels of Keigo, or politeness, depending on the person and the situation. Therefor, it can be hard for a foreigner to learn all these types of politeness and use them correctly. Even native Japanese speakers from younger generations do struggle with them, which is the reason why many companies have introduction courses to learn to speak correctly toward clients.

Select one of the pages below for more information about a specific subject.

Written Japanese

Spoken Japanese

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Honorifics

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Dialects