What is “Japanese?”


第0課: Introduction to Japanese 日本語学習入門

Japanese is studied by thousands of people around the globe, but only a few ever become fluent. Here at いまび, you can elevate your studies and be on the path to being that select few! 

Japanese: A Japonic Language 日琉語族の言語・日本語

The U.S Department of State rates Japanese as a Category IV (scale of I to IV) language of difficulty for English natives to study, recommending that a student needs 2,200+ hours of study to become proficient. If one were to study at least 1 hour per day, that is approximately 6 years of study. 

The vast differences in grammar, pronunciation, and writing are reasons for why it takes so much time. Another factor for why it is so difficult is because English and Japanese are not in the same language family.

■What Language Family is Japanese in? 日本語って何語族に分類されるの?

English is an Indo-European language family, the family which comprises most languages in Europe, the Middle East, and India. When a speaker of English tries learning any of these other Indo-European languages, they will generally spend far less time to become fluent than with Japanese. 

Japanese is in its own language family called “Japonic,” which is comprised of Japanese and other minority languages spoken in the Japanese archipelago. In principle, any native speaker of these other languages will find Japanese or another Japonic language to be far easier to learn than English. In fact, all speakers of these minority Japonic languages happen to be fluent in Japanese. These languages are not thought to be related to other languages in the region, but they have been heavily influenced by Chinese in vocabulary. 

For English speakers, there is no shared culture to make learning any easier as is the case for Chinese and Korean learners. Even with the saving grace of there being loanwords from English, these words only account for about 10% of the most commonly used words.

■The Diversity of Dialects 方言の多様性

There are dozens of dialects in Japanese due to centuries of isolation, but the form that almost all speakers share is known as Standard Japanese (Hyōjungo 標準語). This is the language of instruction and it is mostly based on the speech of Tokyo. Japanese speakers are familiar with a pretty decent amount of dialect diversity as particular dialects are heavily used in media (Ex. Kansai Dialect in comedy). 

Japanese Pronunciation 日本語の発音

Words follow a simple “consonant+vowel” format with little exception. There are only 5 vowels–/a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, /o/ and a small number of consonants. Specifics will be left for Lesson 1 and Lesson 2, but it is worth noting that instead of having syllables, Japanese has a more-based system. A mora is a unit of sound that is equivalent to a single beat. Each “beat” is equal in length and assigned a high or low pitch. In turn, Japanese distinguishes between short and long vowels as well as single (short) and double (long) consonants. 

Koko ここ (here)Kōkō 高校 (high school)Kōko 公庫 (finance corporation)
 Kokō 孤高 (solitary)Kokko 国庫 (treasury)Kokkō 国交 (diplomatic relations)

Japanese Grammar 日本語の文法について

Japanese grammar is vastly different, so learning how it works will aid a lot in understanding phrases. 

Word Order 語順

The general principle of Japanese word order is moving “important” information to the front of a sentence with its basic word order being SOV (subject-object-verb). 

  • SubjectThe item of discussion in a sentence.
  • ObjectWhat an action is directed at.
  • VerbAn action or state of being. 

Although SOV is the basic word order, the subject and object may flip if the object is deemed more significant, and a sentence may even lack either or both yet still be grammatical if they are deemed obvious through context. This means that Japanese exhibits five possible word orders: SOV, OSV, SV, OV, and V. 

Kuma-ga ryōshi-no sakana-wo totta.Gloss: Bear-subject marker fisherman-possessive marker fish-object marker took.Translation: (A) bear took (a/the) fisherman’s fish.
漁師の魚をクマが盗った。Ryōshi-no sakana-wo kuma-ga totta.Gloss: Fisherman-possessive marker fish-object marker bear-subject marker took.Translation: (The/a) bear took (a/the) fisherman’s fish.
クマが盗った。Kuma-ga totta.Gloss: Bear-subject marker took. Kuma-ga totta.Translation: (A/the) bear took (it/them). 漁師の魚を盗った。 Ryōshi-no sakana-wo totta.Gloss: Fisherman-possessive marker fish-object marker took.  Ryōshi-no sakana-wo totta.Translation: (subject in context) took (a/the) fisherman’s fish.
 盗った。Totta.Gloss: Took.Translation: (subject in context) took (it/them). 

Other notes that can be gleamed from these examples include: 

・Japanese lacks articles (a, an, the). 
・Japanese lacks grammatical number, which is the distinction between singular and plural forms. 
・Japanese lacks grammatical gender, meaning they don’t have masculine or feminine forms.

Order of Recognition 認知の順序

Japanese word order isn’t necessarily free. In fact, most sentences follow a predictable ordering of information, which is as follows: 


  • The topic is what the sentence/discussion is about. 
  • Time phrases refer to expressions such as “today,” “tomorrow,” etc.
  • Location phrases refer to expressions such as “at Tokyo,” “in China,” etc.
  • An indirect object is a phrase referring to something/someone that is a recipient of some action
  • direct object is a phrase that is primarily being affected by the verb

The topic sets the discussion, and then time sets the overall stage. From there, the speaker may discuss the doers (subject) or what’s being acted upon via objects (indirect/direct).

How does this compare with English?

Suzuki-sensei-wa mainichi seito-ni Nihongo-wo oshiete-i-masu.

Gloss: Suzuki-teacher-topic.marker every.day student(s)-indirect.object.marker Japanese-direct.object.marker teach-ing-politeness.marker.

Translation: Sensei Suzuki teaches Japanese to (his/her) student(s) every day.

Notice how the same bits of information are in very different locations in the English translation. Also notice how the Japanese sentence overtly lacks a subject because the topic and subject are the same. 

Of course, you can make sentences without having every piece of information. For example, the following sentence is perfectly grammatical with just a time phrase, subject, and a verb.

Kesa jishin-ga okimashita.
Literally: This.morning earthquake-subject.marker occurred.
Translation: An earthquake occurred this morning.

A Topic-Prominent Language 主題優勢言語

Japanese is said to be a “topic-prominent” language because it prioritizes what is being talked about in its word order, but the topic doesn’t have to be stated over and over again. In fact, it is often omitted after the first (few instances). It is also possible for more than one topic to exist simultaneously for various grammatical effects. 

The topic need not always be the same entity as the subject, but if they are the same, the subject cannot be stated to prevent redundancy. In its place lies an unspoken understanding that it is there.


Watashi-wa kyō, eki-de (ø-ga) tomodachi-ni hon-wo agemashita.
Gloss: I-topic.marker today train.station-at (unspoken subject) friend-indirect.object.marker book-object.marker gave. 
Translation: I gave a book to a friend at the train station today. 

As for when the topic and subject are not the same entity, such sentences can be translated roughly as “as for X, Y…” This, though, often greatly differs with the most natural way to translate the overall sentence.

Zō-wa hana-ga nagai.
Gloss: Elephant(s)-topic.marker nose-subject.marker long.
Translation: Elephants have long noses. 

Left-Branching 主要部終端型(左枝分かれ構造)

In any language, there are several kinds of phrases. Each one has a “head” and the possibility of a “modifier.” The “head” of a phrase is the element that determines the syntactic function of the whole phrase. In “the smart cat,” the head is “cat” because “cat” is the word that determines what the phrase means. The “modifier” of a phrase, then, is a word that gives information about the head. In this case, “the” and “smart” are both modifying “cat.” 

The head of a phrase in Japanese is said to always follow its modifier(s), meaning that the modifier(s) are to the left of the head. The same is not true in English (ex. “the Japanese book” vs. “the book in Japanese”). In Japanese, this is, “Nihongo-no hon 日本語の本.” Nihongo-no means “Japanese” and hon means “book.” 

When a language places the head of a phrase in the final position and places complexity before it, it is said to be left-branching. A good example of this in English would be “my husband’s friend’s adorable puppy.” When translating this into Japanese, the word order will stay the same.

Watashi-no shujin-no tomodachi-no kawaii koinu
Gloss: I-possessive.marker husband-possessive.marker friend-possessive.marker cute puppy
Translation: My husband’s friend’s adorable puppy

Japanese takes left-branching to the extreme when creating complex sentences. When modifying nouns with other sentences (participle phrases), Japanese still places them to the left of the head constituent of the sentence, and the word order within the modifying constituent too must follow the same left-branching principle. 

Gakkō-kara kaetta kodomo-ga soto-de asonde-iru.
Literally: School-from returned kid-subject marker outside-at play-ing.
Translation: (The) children who came back from school are playing outside.

Agglutination 膠着性

Agglutination is the process of creating complex words by stringing morphemes (units of meaning) together into chains that are not inseparable. Japanese is known to be highly agglutinative language (kōchakugo 膠着語 ). In Japanese, agglutination is governed by a system of bases and endings. For every base that exists, several endings exist to attach to it, and each ending has its own set of bases to potentially keep the chain going. 

Consequently, “I did not want to be forced to eat” is expressed as one word made up of multiple morphemes. As for what order endings must follow in a chain, this phrase actually demonstrates this perfectly.

Ex. 食べさせられたくありませんでした
Gloss: Eat-causative-passive-want-to.be-politeness.marker-negation-politeness-marker-past.tense
Translation: Didn’t want to be made to eat

There is a total of six bases in Japanese. Their names and general functions are as follows:

  1. Mizenkei 未然形 (Irrealis Form): Used to indicate actions that have yet to happen.
  2. Ren’yōkei 連用形 (Continuative Form): Used to indicate actions that are (being) carried out.
  3. Shūshikei 終止形 (Terminal Form): Used to mark the end of a complete sentence. 
  4. Rentaikei 連体形 (Attributive Form):  Used to create modifiers out of verbs/adjectives. 
  5. Kateikei 仮定形 (Hypothetical Form): Used to create hypothetical statements.
  6. Meireikei 命令形 (Imperative Form): Used to create commands.

As grammar is introduced which utilize these bases, their names will be utilized. For now, though, you need to remember them. Once we reach Advanced I, they will be discussed in much greater detail. 

Name Ordering 人の呼び方

One’s surname comes before one’s personal name. However, one’s title comes last. Sometimes, though, people may go by or be referred to by their titles alone.

Mishima Yukio
Yukio Mishima
Teacher/Sensei Hatanaka
Shū Kimpei
Xi Jinping
Ōsaka Naomi
Naomi Osaka
Company President Itoh
Rafaeru Gutieresu
Rafael Gutierrez

Japanese speakers anticipate names being constructed differently in other cultures as their goal is to respect you. So, whatever your name is, that is what it is in Japanese, albeit with a Japanese-friendly pronunciation. For those with Chinese or Korean names, the Chinese character spelling of one’s name will carry over and it is common to honor the original pronunciation over a Japanese-like pronunciation.

Inversion 倒置法

Japanese grammar is rather certain about the predicate (verb/adjective) coming at the end of a sentence. However, there are times when a speaker may wish to state the predicate first and leave the rest of the sentence as an after-statement. This known as inversion.  You may see this occasionally in music, poetry, etc.

Kanae, watashi-no negai-yo.
Gloss: Come.true I-genitive.marker wish-exclamation.marker
Translation: Come true, oh my wishes.

Omission 省略

Japanese allows for contextually obvious things to be omitted from a sentence. The most famous instance of this is the tendency to drop pronouns such as “I” and “you.” Choosing to omit something or not may cause a change in nuance, but failing to omit things when appropriate may cause your speech to sound unnatural.

O-namae-wa nan desu-ka?
Gloss: Honorific.prefix-name-as.for, what is-question.marker. 
Translation: What is your name?

New learners will constantly insert words such as watashi (I) and anata (you) into their sentences even though no actual speaker does this because they are usually deemed contextually obvious.

Speech Registers 文体の種類

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Japanese even to native speakers is speech register. “Speech register” refers to how the way one speaks changes based on the relationship one has with the listener(s). Japanese has five basic registers, and these registers do change how words are expressed. Sometimes, the change is major.

Speech Register Speaker-Listener Relationship  Forms of Ex. “To Say” 
Honorific Speech
(Sonkeigo 尊敬語)
The speaker uses this register when wishing to show utmost respect to the listener. The listener’s status is significantly higher.Osshaimasu
Honorific Polite FormIwaremasuLight Honorific Polite Form
Polite Speech
(Teineigo 丁寧語)
The speaker uses this register to establish an atmosphere of respect to those deemed equals who are not necessarily close but worth being respected. Iimasu Polite Form
 Humble Speech
(Kenjōgo 謙譲語)
The speaker uses this register to emphasize their lower status to the listener and also show utmost respect to the listener.Mōshiagemasu
Super Humble Polite FormMōshimasu 
Humble Polite Form
 Plain Speech
(Jōtaigo 常体語)
 The speaker uses this register to friends and family to express a close relationship. Plain speech forms also exist for the speech registers above for grammatical purposes. This is also viewed as the basic register of any conjugation.YūPlain Form
 Vulgar Speech
(Bubetsugo 侮蔑語)
 The speaker uses this register to degrade the listener.IiyagaruVulgar Form
Nukasu Vulgar Alternative

All verbal expressions will have a similar distribution of variability based on speech register, making the question of “how do you say this in Japanese?” impossible to answer without at least clarifying who one is talking to.

Japanese learners are often exposed to polite speech (teineigo 丁寧語 ) first as it is the speech register one uses to people in general who are not your close friends. The basic form of any phrase, though, come from plain speech (jōtaigo 常体語), and so how to conjugate from plain speech to polite speech will be discussed at the same time once we learn about things that conjugate. 

Terminology Note: Speech registers are generally known by their names with exception to “plain speech,” which is often colloquially referred to by kihonkei 基本形 (basic form) or futsū tai 普通体 (direct style).

Parts of Speech 品詞

There are 12 unique parts of speech in Japanese that are either independent words (jiritsugo 自立語) or ancillary words (fuzokugo 付属語). Independent words are those that can stand alone. Ancillary words, however, are those that cannot stand alone. Parts of speech can be categorized as either one or the other as well as by their ability or lack thereof to conjugate. 

  • Independent Words (Jiritsugo 自立語)


     ・Verbs (Dōshi 動詞): A word that describes an action, state, or occurrence.
     ・Adjectives (Keiyōshi 形容詞): A word that describes an attribute. 
     ・Adjectival Nouns (Keiyōdōshi 形容動詞): A word that describes an attribute while also being noun-like.

    ーNot Conjugatable

     ・Nouns (Meishi 名詞): A word that describes a person, place, state, quality, event, or thing.
     ・Pronouns (Daimeishi 代名詞): A word that indirectly describes a person, direction, or thing.
     ・Numbers (Sūshi 数詞): A word that counts or measures entities. 
     ・Adnominal Adjectives (Rentaishi 連体詞): A word that describes an attribute by directly modifying a noun.
     ・Adverbs (Fukushi 副詞): A word that qualifies an adjective, adjectival noun, or a verb. 
     ・Conjunctions (Setsuzokushi 接続詞): A word that connects sentence together.
      ・Interjections (Kandōshi 感動詞): A word that represents an abrupt remark. 
  • Ancillary Words (Fuzokugo 付属語)


     ・Auxiliary Verbs (Jodōshi 助動詞): An ending that attaches to a conjugatable part of speech. 

    ーNot Conjugatable

     ・Particles (Joshi 助詞): A word that marks some grammatical function. 

Particles 助詞

The one part of speech that is completely foreign to English learners is “particles.” Though they denote some grammatical function, some functions marked in Japanese don’t match up well with English function words.

There are six main types of particles: case, parallel, conjunctive, final, adverbial, and bound. Particles may be categorized differently depending on how they’re used, so if you see the same particle in a different part of a sentence, it will certainly have a different function. 

  • Case Particle (Kaku joshi 格助詞): Indicates the grammatical function of a noun in a sentence. 
  • Parallel Particle (Heiritsu joshi 並立助詞): Juxtaposes two or more things together. 
  • Conjunctive Particle (Setsuzoku joshi 接続助詞): Connects clauses together. 
  • Final Particle (Shū-joshi 終助詞): Placed at the end of a phrase to provide emotional context.
  • Adverbial Particle (Fuku-joshi 副助詞): Indicates degree/condition/circumstance.  
  • Bound Particle (Kakari joshi 係助詞): An emphasis marker while stimulating conjugation.

Japanese Writing 日本語の表記体系

Japanese is written with a mixed writing system composed of Chinese characters called Kanji 漢字 to represent meaning and two syllabaries called Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ to represent sound, as well as English letters which are aiding in the coining of new words.

Kana: Hiragana and Katakana 仮名(平仮名・片仮名)

Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ are both known as Kana syllabaries. The purpose of these systems is to write out sounds phonetically. They express the same sounds, but their histories and semantic roles are different (See Lesson 3 and Lesson 4). Each syllabary has a set of 48 basic characters, and from there a small number of add-ons to represent all other morae. 

Chart Note: The table to the left illustrates the origins of Hiragana ひらがな characters and the table on the right illustrates the origins of Katakana カタカナ characters. 

Kanji 漢字

It’s uncertain how many Kanji 漢字 exist. The Kanjigen 漢字源, the most realistic dictionary, has 9,990 entries. Although a small percentage of speakers might know them all, the most comprehensive proficiency test, the Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Ikkyū 漢字能力検定一級, only covers roughly 6,000 Kanji. The average reader knows over 3,000 characters, and due to the ease of typing on phones and computers, this number is steadily rising. 

The Jōyō Kanji (Jōyō Kanji 常用漢字) List, a list the Japanese Ministry of Education made to create a literary baseline. As of 2017, there are 2,136 such characters. Additional characters are designated as Jimmeiyō Kanji 人名用漢字 for name-use, of which a total of 862 exist as of 2017.  

In addition to there being thousands of Kanji, most Kanji have more than one kind of readings–known as ON and KUN readings–and can have more than one of each. This results in having to learn how to read each word on an individual basis. 

■ Character Simplification 漢字の簡略化

Kanji 漢字 were simplified after World War II. The old forms of characters are called Kyūjitai 旧字体 whereas the new forms are called Shinjitai 新字体. The old forms are still prevalent in names and older publications before the 1960s. Most speakers generally recognize them.  

MeaningTraditional  Simplified Meaning Traditional Simplified
Yen 圓 円 Learning 學

Curriculum Note: To learn more about what Kanji 漢字 have been altered in Japanese, see Lesson 362

■Japanese-Made Kanji 国字

Japanese speakers have also created their own Kanji 漢字 over the centuries. Some have even made their way back into Chinese like the character for “to work”: 働. 

Curriculum Note: To learn more about these Japanese-made Kanji 漢字, see Lesson 360

English Letters ラテン文字の使い方

The use of English letters in the formation of newer terminology is becoming ever more common. You will also see Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) used in modern writing as well. Although the pronunciations of these letters and numbers have been adapted to fit Japanese pronunciation norms, you will surely encounter them right away in your beginner texts. Below are some examples.

Example Meaning Example Meaning
PR (Piiāru) Public relations OL (Ōeru) Female office worker
 CD(Shiidii CD Tシャツ (Tiishatsu) T-shirt
 LGBT (Erujiibiitii)  LGBT PM2.5 (Piiemu nii ten go) Fine particles (PM 2.5)

The font used for English letters and Arabic numerals are somewhat different in Japanese, but there is no problem with using a more Western font to type them. 

Note: Rōmaji ローマ字  refers to writing Japanese in English letters, a process known as romanization. Here at いまび, a modified version of what is known as the Hepburn romanization system (ヘボン式) is implemented. 


Japanese was once void of any punctuation. However, due to contact with Western languages, Japanese has borrowed and adapted many punctuation marks.

The Period The Comma The Exclamation Point The Question MarkQuotation Marks 
 、 ! ? 「」

Perhaps even more bizarre is that Japanese generally lacks the use of spaces between words. Boundaries between phrases are meant to be obvious in context thanks to Japanese having a mixed script. It is not unheard of to have sentences with Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, and the ABCs all present. 

Word Etymology 単語の由来

There are three sources of words: native words, Sino-Japanese words, and loanwords from other languages. 

・Native words are at the heart of the language and make up over 60% of the words used in conversation. 
・Sino-Japanese words are words that were either directly borrowed from older forms of Chinese over the centuries or words created from those roots. They make up over 60% of the language’s vocabulary but only 20% of the words used in conversation.
・As for loanwords, the majority these days come from English, but you will also see some from other languages.

Native Sino-Japanese Loan
Yama 山 (mountain) Kazan 火山 (volcano) Doa ドア (door)
 Mizu 水 (water) Genki 元気 (lively/well) Zubon ズボン (pants)

Spoken vs Written 「口語」と「文語」との違い

Japanese is very different when written versus when spoken. As you learn more Japanese, you will learn of stuff in terms of whether it’s mostly used in the written language as opposed to the spoken language and vice versa. 

The spoken language is full of colloquialisms, filler words, and undertones that are difficult to express in the written language. The written language, on the other hand, is characterized as being formal and often void of colloquialisms and filler words. However, the use of alternative spellings thanks to the existence of Kanji enriches it. Archaic expressions and grammar are also more common in the written language. 

Although it is important to know how to speak Japanese, it is also just as important to read and write Japanese as mastery in the written language is essential to being a functionally native-like user of the language.

In Conclusion 最後に…

Now that you have learned quite a lot about Japanese, it would be remiss of us not to at least go over the most essential, everyday phrases to gain a footing. You don’t have to necessarily memorize any of these as we will learn about them more closely in later lessons, but try using them with friends to practice!

  • Good morning: O-hayō-gozaimasu おはようございます
  • Good afternoon/Hello: Kon’nichi-wa こんにちは
  • Good evening: Komban-wa 今晩は
  • Good night: O-yasumi-nasai お休みなさい
  • How are you doing?: O-genki desu-ka? お元気ですか
  • Nice to meet you: Hajimemashite 初めまして
  • Thank you: Arigatō-gozaimasu ありがとうございます
  • Yes: Hai はい
  • No: Iie いいえ
  • I’m sorry/Excuse me: Sumimasen すみません

Lastly, gambatte kudasai 頑張ってください (good luck)!