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The Japanese language can be a little difficult to learn but if you are planning to visit the country or even looking to gain employment with one of the big Japanese companies, the effort is more than worth it. If you are familiar with, say, the German language, you’ll already have an understanding of a confusing word order. For example, the verb always goes at the end of a sentence, as in ‘I the language learn’ instead of I learn the language. This is why it is important to listen very closely to a Japanese speaker to correctly ascertain the subject. The hardest part is learning all the characters.
There are certainly some facets of the language that make it easier – no noun gender, no definite articles, and only 48 sounds consisting of 5 vowels and 11 consonants. However, the written language can be more difficult to learn, as there are 4 methods of writing, some of which utilise Chinese characters called Kanji, and Katakana, which is used to write foreign, or ‘loan’ words.
In common with British people the Japanese adore tongue twisters, which can cause much amusement. Here is one – try to say it 3 times in quick succession:
Japanese people are renowned for their politeness and often hesitate to express their opinion in a forceful way. They have very few words of endearment as Japanese people are reluctant to express affection verbally .In addition to this, they will take twice as long to say something as an English person would.
Aside from the populations of Japan and the Okinawan Islands, the language is spoken around the world by Japanese settlers, in Brazil, the US, South America and in other Asian countries. Canada and Australia also have considerable numbers of Japanese citizens, either immigrants, students or temporary workers.
The language is estimated to date back to around the 3rd century AD and is said to have been influenced by, among others, the horse cultures of Mongolia, the rice cultures of Korea and China, and Polynesia. Japanese is moderately similar to the Korean language but differs grammatically from Chinese. The Japanese writing system is thought to have developed around the 8th century AD.
Many westerners, including the English upper classes, will sometimes say, “chin-chin” when raising a glass for a toast. Best not to say this in a Japanese bar as this (chinchin) is the word Japanese children use to describe the male appendage!
The most famous form of Japanese poetry is the Haiku in which a rigid structure of 5-7-5 syllables features. One of the most well-known Haiku poems was written by Matsuo Bashō and goes:
Furu ike ya
Mizu no oto.
The poem has hundreds of translated versions but here is a literal translation:
The ancient pond
The frog leaps in
The sound of the water
There are many different dialects spoken depending upon factors which include the location and origin of the speakers. The two main dialects are Tokyo-shiki (Tokyo type) and Keihan-shiki (Kyoto-Oska type), with a third, less spoken dialect, Kyushu-type. Traditionally it would be difficult for speakers in different parts of Japan to understand each other; such is the complexity of the various dialects. But now with the rise of the internet, mass media and the standardisation of education, a standardised dialect is now in common usage.
In Japanese there are 4 different ways to address someone: kun, chan, san and sama. San is the more universally known. Chan is used with children and close friends. Sama is deferential. Kun is a fairly condescending address.
Modern-day Japanese is constantly evolving like many languages and is heavily influenced by western cultures. Japanese youth are more likely to use a more informal, neutral language including slang and youth-oriented words and phrases. Sadly for some, the traditional usage of old Japanese is gradually being sidelined in the digital age.
The Japanese language can be complicated to get to grips with, but for those looking to do business in Japan, knowing the most important facets of the Japanese language can be of real benefit.