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If you prefer to first learn more about the Japanese language and its various dialects, keep reading.

Japanese Language

Japanese ranks as one of the world’s most important languages with over 126 million speakers. Of these, the vast majority, about 124 million, reside within Japan and the island group of Okinawa. Another two million or so live in the United States, Canada and Australia, areas where Japanese have immigrated or moved temporarily for business purposes. Millions of additional near-native or otherwise fluent speakers of Japanese reside within Korea, China, or other parts of Asia. Many of these people acquired Japanese during Japan’s military operations both before and after World War II. There has been a great surge of interest in the study of Japanese as a second language throughout the past 30 years, due to the Western world’s fascination with Japanese culture, as well as to Japan’s status as a world economic power.

History of Japanese Language

The origin of Japanese is in considerable dispute among scholars. Evidence has been offered for a number of sources: Ural-Altaic, Polynesian, and Chinese among others. Of these, Japanese is most widely believed to be connected to the Ural-Altaic family, which includes Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, and Korean within its domain. Among these languages, Korean is most frequently compared to Japanese, as both languages share significant key features such as general structure, vowel harmony, lack of conjunctions, and the extensive use of honorific speech, in which the hierarchical rank of the listener heavily affects the discourse. However, pronunciation of Japanese is significantly different from Korean, and the languages are mutually unintelligible. Japanese also shares considerable similarities with the languages of the Ryukyu Islands, within which Okinawa is located, although the Ryukyu languages and Japanese are also mutually unintelligible.

In the same way that the origin of the Japanese language is ambiguous, there is also considerable uncertainty relative to the precise origins of the Japanese people themselves. Significant influences from the horse cultures of Mongolia and Northern Asia, the rice cultures of Korea, China, and Southeast Asia, and Polynesia have all been identified. Consequently, it is difficult to establish a date for the origin of Japanese peoples, but a proto-Japanese must have existed from at least the 3rd century AD, when the various clan-tribes of Japan were consolidated to become a nation by the Yamato Clan, and possibly from a much earlier time, based on Chinese records which indicate the unification of Japan as a nation of tribal communities from several hundred years BC.

During the 6th century, AD, elements of Chinese culture flooded into Japan, a result of diplomatic and religious intercourse between the Chinese Han Dynasty, Korea, and the Japanese Yamato rulers. Along with the introduction of Chinese governmental systems, art styles, manufacturing methods, and Buddhism, the Chinese writing system was also adopted, providing the Japanese with the ability to write for the first time. The Kojiki, (Records of Ancient Matters), and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), Japan’s first books, both historical anthologies containing a large number of legends, were written in Chinese characters during this time. Numerous Chinese vocabulary words were also added to Japanese. The influence of the Chinese language on Japanese remains apparent today-approximately 40% of the vocabulary of modern Japanese consists of words adapted from Chinese.

The serendipity of borrowed vocabulary did not, however, carry over to the borrowed Chinese written system. The Chinese writing system posed problems in terms of accent, syllabic structure and overall divergence of structure of the languages themselves. The Japanese desired the ability to express themselves freely in written form. By the 7th century writers were inserting Chinese characters into the written format of their own language, word order and participle structure. Soon thereafter, Buddhist priests developed a simplified phonetic system for writing shorthand, the foundation for the present-day katakana phonetic script. In the 8th century, women of the Heian Court in Kyoto developed the second phonetic script of Japanese, hiragana, in order to write poetry, novels, and diaries. Still today, both of these phonetic scripts are used in a modernized form, along with Chinese characters, or kanji, to render written Japanese. In general, katakana is used with loan words, onomatopoetic words, terms for flora and fauna, and for italicized words; hiragana is used in children’s writing and to represent function words. With the writing of the Heike Monogatari (Tales of the Heike) in the 12th century, the use of Chinese characters, kana phonetic script, and Japanese language structure had become completely intertwined.

Spoken Japanese evolved in four stages: Old Japanese (to the 8th century), Late Old Japanese (9th-11th centuries), Middle Japanese (12th-16th centuries), and Modern Japanese (from the 17th century to the present). Significant changes from ancient to modern times have been the gradual reduction of eight vowel sounds to five as well as phonological, morphological, and vocabulary changes. The Japanese syntax has largely remained intact.

Several distinct regional dialects have existed within Japan since ancient times. During the past 700 years, the primary, or most important dialect, has shifted from the Capital, Heian Kyo (Kyoto) to Kamakura (near present-day Tokyo) in 1292. This coincides with the rise to power of a warrior class which established its power base in the Kanto Region of Eastern Japan. Today the primary dialect of Japanese remains the Tokyo dialect.

In the Sengoku (Warring States) Period of the 16th century, Portuguese and other Western nations came into contact with Japan, bringing technology, the Christian religion, and their own languages. The Portuguese compiled a Japanese dictionary, and the Japanese borrowed a number of words from Portuguese. One Japanese warrior, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also brought wooden moveable type from Korea into Japan at the very end this period; during the Tokugawa Period which followed, the printing that was made possible by means of this moveable type greatly expanded the literacy rate of the populace, and increased the stature of the Edo (Tokyo) Dialect as the primary dialect of Japanese.

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With the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu as military ruler, or Shogun, in 1603, Japan was soon almost completely closed to all outside influence. Christianity, along with western learning and its linguistic influence, was abandoned (except for very limited contact with Dutch traders in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki). For the next two hundred and fifty years, Japan remained closed to the outside world.

In 1868, following the turmoil that resulted within Japan from the visit of American Admiral Perry, Japan’s new Meiji leaders determined to Westernize Japan and to adopt Western technology for the sake of survival and competition. Soon, the vocabulary of English, German, and other western languages was introduced into Japanese. As with the introduction of Chinese centuries before, these words were soon adapted to the pronunciation and writing systems of the Japanese, so that they could more easily be used. Many new Japanese vocabulary terms were also created to express new concepts adopted from the West. Another major development of the Meiji Period was the bridging of the gap that had until then existed between spoken and written Japanese; developments within literature and media both broke conventional barriers, so that for the first time everyday spoken Japanese could be expressed in written form.

As Japan’s military became more powerful and as its economy grew, Japan began expanding by conquest into other parts of Asia, including China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. During this period millions within Asia acquired skills in the Japanese language, through either being forced to learn it by means of compulsory Japanese language education, or through mere contact with Japanese troops, businessmen, and their families. Many elderly people in these regions still retain their Japanese language abilities. Moreover, the remnants of the linguistic influence of Japanese may still be seen through the continued use of Japanese vocabulary words in other Asian languages-especially in Korean.

Following the devastation of World War II, the military forces which occupied Japan, in order to simplify the written Japanese language which they considered cumbersome, considered abolishing the ancient Chinese characters, or Kanji, in favor of romanized symbols, or romaji, based on the alphabet of Western languages. This never occurred, although Japan’s Education Ministry in 1946 completed a revision of Chinese characters, bringing their numbers to a more manageable sum of 1850 characters (now revised to slightly under 2,000). Since that time, the Japanese government has maintained strict centralized control of the language and how it is taught within the Japanese educational system.

Today, the expanding influence of English and of Western culture is having an impact on Japanese language, an impact that is expected to continue. Another influence of current note is the generation gap that exists relative to Japanese language use-today’s younger generation is tending to favor the utilization of more neutral and informal speech, ignoring the importance of the role of honorific and gender-specific speech regarded important in traditional Japanese. Other developments, such as the development of new slang terms and youth-specific grammar usage, are also being observed.

There are three major regional dialects within Japan-the Kansai Dialect of the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe region of Western Japan, the Kyushu Dialect of Japan’s southernmost main island, and the Tokyo Dialect of the Kanto Region (considered the standard dialect), along with numerous smaller dialects found throughout the country. What is sometimes called the "Okinawan Dialect" is actually one of the languages of the Ryukyu Island language family, closely related to but not actually a form of the Japanese language. The ever-strengthening role of the media, through television, radio, and the internet, continues to work to homogenize the Japanese language, further reducing the influence of the local dialects in favor of the Tokyo Dialect.

Japanese Language Around the World

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Outside Japan and the Okinawan islands, Japanese is spoken as a first language by approximately two million people: immigrants to who settled in Brazil (800,000 Japanese descendants, number of native Japanese speakers unknown),other South American countries, the US state of Hawaii (180,000) and other US locations.

An additional 800,000 native Japanese speakers reside outside of Japan due to temporary moves for business or educational purposes. Moreover, Japanese is spoken at a near-native or fluent level by millions within Asia who lived under the occupation of the Japanese military prior to Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II.

Today, due to interest in Japan’s unique culture and Japan’s stature as a global economic power (Japan was ranked, for a time, as the world’s second most powerful industrial nation), the push for learning and teaching Japanese as a second language has become greatly intensified. Japanese is currently taught in many primary and secondary school programs, as well as at the college level, in a number of Asian and Western countries, and ranks as one of the world’s more intensley-studied languages.

Japanese Language in Brazil and South America

Approximately 800,000 descendants of Japanese ancestry reside in Brazil; a great many of whom speak Japanese as their native language. These settlers went to Brazil from the early 20th century, and have largely retained their linguistic and cultural identity. Additional thousands settled and reside in other parts of South America especially Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

Japanese Language in the United States, Canada & Australia

There are approximately 180,000 immigrant native Japanese speakers residing in Hawaii, as well as thousands of other immigrant Japanese speakers in portions of the United States, Canada and Australia.

Hundreds of thousands of additional temporary workers, students, and family members live throughout the three countries, more particularly on the West Coast of the United States and in other areas where major Japanese businesses have located.


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Japanese Quick Facts

Language Family: Japonic: Japanese

Official Language of: Japan

Spoken by Approximately 122,434,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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