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Japanese Language Profile
Home > Languages > Japanese

Popularity: Difficulty: 
Fascinating language of one of the world's largest economy and the best path into an utterly refined an complex culture. Japanese is a very difficult language to read and write, but it is very rewarding and can be put to many cultural and professional uses.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links

UsefulnessMany Japanese do not speak English at all, and those who do are often not all that fluent. This gives the foreigner who speaks Japanese immense advantage when dealing with the Japanese, both for business and tourism in Japan. The entry it provides in the sophisticated Japanese culture can be its own reward. All who visited Japan report a highly interesting country whose main default is high costs of travelling. Those who with to practice Japanese in the confort of their home can rely on a wealth of movies, books, mangas and websites (see below for more). Finally, if you work in the tourism industry, a command of Japanese is an invaluable asset when dealing with the large flow of Japanese tourists.
Chic factorVery high. Japanese is known as a complex and difficult language and if you master it - people will assume you are are smart. Furthermore, Japan is widely perceived as a highly refined civilization with some incredibly sophisticated cultural institutions. Speaking Japanese gives you extra patina from the mere association with this world of tea ceremonies, philosophical martial arts and refined foods.
CountriesSpoken throughout the islands of Japan as well as small communities of expatriates in the US, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan and Hawaii.
Speakers125 million
Economic importanceJapan is the world's second largest economy and ships millions of high quality products all over the world, such as cars and electronics. The Japanese roam the world as investors and tourists. They are generally pleasant people to deal with and speaking their language is definitely a big asset if you deal with them in your job.
TravelJapan is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet and you could spend a lifetime exploring it. Japan has everything from snow covered mountains to sparkling beaches, heaving metropolises to quaint villages, all enjoyed with a unique alienness like nothing else on earth, and unbelievable hospitality from the locals.
VariationsQuite pronounced throughout Japan due to the mountainous terrain of the country. Japanese people from opposite ends of the islands may not be able to converse with each other using their local dialects. All Japanese do know a standard language that is taught in schools and used in the media so whatever Japanese you learn, you will be understood throughout Japan. Comprehending a local dialect response however, will be altogether more difficult.

Mastering Japanese will open you the doors to a rich and rewarding culture.

The Japanese make tons of high quality movies in various genres.

  • Yakusa movies usually features Japanese gangster working in mafia organization and waging bloody gang wars with edged weapons.
  • Chambarra movies revolve around sword-wielding characters, usually masterless samurais ("Ronins") who roam the countryside like Western characters to redress wrondoings. There are many subgenres, some of which quite famous such as the "Baby Cart" and "Zatoichi" series.
  • Fantastic Japanese cinema produce many, many ghosts stories, some of which like "The Ring" or "The Grudge" where remade in Hollywood. If you like fear, there is no shortage of those for you to watch and practice your Japanese.
  • Mangas put off many Western adults but they are a serious thing in Japan and definitely worth of attention.

    Japan is famous for highly original cultural institution such as fine cooking undertaken with religious precision, martial arts with a philosophical background such as Aikido, playing the game of Go or arranging stones, plants or cut flowers in arrangements that recall natural landscapes.

    Don't instantly dismiss Japanese animation, comics and computer games, which are entirely different from their western counterparts and provide great insights into Japanese life as well as language practice. Japan's two national daily newspapers have the highest number of readers of any newspapers in the world. Japanese literature, particularly poetry, is well worth reading, though older texts can be difficult due to written language reforms. Japanese filmography is terrible in the extreme, music very hit and miss, and television usually incomprehensible.

    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
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    DifficultyI rate this language as - very difficult, mostly because of the writing system. Japanese is difficult to learn, but perhaps not as difficult as you would think. Whilst it may take a while to come to terms with the huge differences between Japanese and English, the spoken language is actually pretty simple, and the written language can be learned very successfully with a little hard work and logical planning. Obviously more difficult than most European languages, but probably easier than other exotic languages, the lack of tones is a blessing for westerners.
    PronunciationJapanese pronunciation is dead easy, all the sounds are perfectly natural for the native English speaker, the only new sound is the Japanese R which is nothing like an English R and involves tapping your tongue just behind your teeth, similar to the English L.
    GrammarDifferent, rather than difficult, Japanese grammar is not particularly complicated, but the sheer differences of the language compared to English can cause problems. An agglutinative language, you will need some time to organize your thought "backward" unless you already speak Turkish or Korean who are organized similarly. Japanese verbs always go at the end of the sentence, hence the language sounds back to front to the English speaker. Japanese is very well structured and once you know the speech patterns, irregularities are rare. Japanese has only three irregular verbs!
    VocabularyQuite difficult because the majority of Japanese words are completely alien for a westerner. There is a group of English loan words, modified slightly for Japanese pronunciation, which will be easily recognized. The rest of the vocabulary, either Japanese in origin or Chinese derived, will have to be learned the hard way.
    TransparencyJapanese, like Korean, borrowed most of its Kanjis (characters) from Chinese. This is good news if you already speak Chinese since the vast majority of characters are very similar or exactly the same in both languages. Furthermore, they are often pronounced in not totally different ways, which considerably helps when learning new vocabulary.
    Click for a list of languages related to Japanese with percentage of lexical similarity and relative grammatical difficulty.

    Difficult, but not as difficult as you may fear. Japanese has a limited number of kanji (Chinese characters) that you need to know. The official 1945 Joyo Kanji set out by the government for use in everyday life will suffice. You will also need to know two syllabaries, called the kana, of 46 characters each that are used for grammatical functions and foreign loan words, of which there are many. Learning all of this is a bit of a memory feat but once accomplished, written Japanese is very accessible. You don’t need to know that vast numbers of characters required to read Chinese. Many characters, however, are pronounced differently depending on the context and function.

    Traditional methods for the foreigner learning written Japanese involved painful rote memorisation of small numbers of characters starting with those most commonly used, much the same way Japanese school children learn, and it takes them 13 years to learn them all! For those lacking the time, James Heisig developed a brilliant method aimed at learning all the kanji in one go using functional memory techniques. With major deviation from normal kanji learning, Heisig was subjected to absurd criticism from some quarters, but his method is inspirational. Heisig's books aim at learning all the 1945 Joyo kanji in one go, rearranging common order so that later characters are built up from components of early characters and memorization is much more efficient. Heisig also supports learning the writing and meaning of all the characters before their Japanese pronunciation and compound words are introduced, once again a far more efficient memorization method.

    One way to think of the 1945 Joyo kanji is as a very complex alphabet. Japanese words are rarely made up of single kanji, but of two, three, or more kanji forming a compound word which has to be learned. For this reason it is logical to tackle the 1945 kanji as an alphabet which you first learn, and then apply, rather than stuttering through Japanese texts with limited knowledge of the 500 most basic kanji. A method which could prove advantageous is to learn the 1945 critical kanji before you start anything else in Japanese. Heisig's books can achieve this in mere months.

    All people who learned Japanese I have spoken to mention that unless you practice reading the language constantly, you will gradually forget characters. This problem must be taken into account in your learning plan so that you accept from the start the need to read regulary in Japanese all your life.

    Time neededOne year of hard study should see you speaking the language well in most situations. The written language will inevitably take longer but it is genuinely possible to learn the 1945 characters you need in less than six months, and be relatively fluent within two years.
    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
     Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles
    BooksPimsleur Comprehensive Japanese - 3 Volumes, 90 lessons There is nothing better than Pimsleur to get your spoken skills up to a passable standard in super quick time. James Heisig - Remembering The Kanji Vol. 1 James Heisig - Remembering The Kanji Vol. 2 The bible for those learning written Japanese. Heisig's controversial method throws away all common conceptions about learning written Japanese and maps out a far more productive method. If you are serious about reading Japanese fluently, ignore the critics, this is the only way to go. There are also books in the series for learning the kana syllabaries which are also of a high standard. Susume Nagara - Japanese For Everyone A mediocre learning tool due to lack of audio material, Nagara's book is however an unbelievably comprehensive guide to all aspects of Japanese grammar. Well worth owning. Stefan Kaiser - Kodansha’s Essential Kanji Dictionary Every Japanese learner needs a high quality kanji dictionary so don’t sacrifice quality for cost. Kodansha’s texts are the best on the market. Jay Rubin - Making Sense of Japanese Brilliant little book for intermediate students that should be on every Japanese learner’s bookshelf.
    SchoolsThe link below is to a language school that you can enrol in from outside of Japan which is rare. I used this school in Fukuoka and the experience is highly recommended. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding Japanese classes or private tuition in any major Japanese city. The consistent problem is money. Travelling in Japan in prohibitively expensive. Studying there is even more costly but well worthwhile.
    LinksPlenty of personal websites on the internet describe the kanji writing system in more detail. Google search ‘kanji’ to look around. You will need to download Japanese language support to view the kanji characters. Online flashcard system for English speaking students of Japanese and Japanese students of English Very useful site that ties in with Heisig’s books and allows you to practice the kanji online. Kanji Gold software. This is the best of the hundreds of kanji learning software programs on the net. Entirely free as well.

    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
     Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles

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