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Introduction to Japanese Language


  Before Japanese adopted Chinese characters, called 'Kanji', Japanese had their own language, although
  they did not have a written language then. Ancient Japanese started to use Chinese characters as a
  mean for writing down Japanese pronun-ciation. Hence Chinese characters were adopted as phonetic
  signs, which is the origin of 'kana's (Japanese alphabets) of Japanese now. Since endless series of
  phonetic signs ('kana's) is hard to read even with punctuation marks, Chinese characters are mixed
  (retaining their own meanings) with the 'kana's in present-day Japanese. Note that it does not mean
  that the meaning of a Chinese character in Japanese is the same as that in China. Japanese also
  adopted a method to write down Japanese pronunciation using Roman letters (called 'he-bon' style or
  'ro-ma-ji' style writing) following the dictionary written by an American priest, James Hepburn in 1866
  after a small modification to it. Throughout this Guide, a word between ' and ' indicates a 'romaji' style
  writing of a Japanese word while " and " are used just like in English.
  'Romaji' expression is added to Japanese writing on major road signs, street names etc. Note that the
  'romaji' style writing should not be pronounced like you do in English, because this could lead you to
  incorrect pronunciation in some cases.
  Japanese writing is either from left to right or from top to bottom.
Old writing sometimes show going from right to left, but this practice does not exist now.

There is Free Japanese learning web-site (Copyright Japan Foundation) ya Let's try it.

 Japanese alphabets - 'kana'
 There are two types of 'kana's : 'hiragana'pdf and 'katakana'pdf. You can consider a 'hiragana' as the
 standard phonetic alphabets and 'katakana' as an alphabet to emphasize that this is something foreign.
 Using Italics in English writing emphasizing a word or a phrase is similar to this. ('katakana' is used only
 for words and not for phrases). One should keep in mind that Japanese 'kana's were created when
 brushes were the only proper writing instruments and it was not too long ago when brushes were
 replaced by ball-point pens.
 Letters written with brushes clearly indicate the direction of each stroke in the letter. Hence there are
 several 'kana' letter pairs both having the same shape, differing only in the direction of the brush
 strokes. It is essential to indicate the direction of each stroke when one writes a Japanese 'kana' so that
 it can be correctly recognized, even when one uses a ballpoint pen.
  Appendix Apdf shows the 'hiragana's and 'katakana's. Appendix Bpdf shows several sets of similar looking
 'kana's that are often get confused when improperly written. Appendix Cpdf lists 'kana' in alphabetical
 order of its pronunciation. This table would be convenient for you when you want to find how you
 should write your name with 'kana's.
 Keep in mind that there is no perfect way to write down your name (or whatever) in 'kana' which would
 correctly reflect the original sounds as pronounced in your country.        
          a i u e o

 Vocalizing Japanese words 

 There are only five vowels in Japanese. 'Romaji' writing 'a' should be pronounced as in "out" (first
 sound), 'i' as in "chief", but shorter, 'u' as in "put" , 'e' as in "pet" and 'o' as in "shore" but shorter.
 Please note that "a" in "pat" is a sound Japanese are not familiar with so that they can not distinguish
 "fax" and "fucks" . (Sorry for the choice of words, but this way you would remember better. )
 Sometimes, a bar over a vowel is used in 'romaji' writing, indicating that the sound should be
 mainta-ined twice as long as for a single vowel without the bar on top. However, I shall use a different
 convention here.
 When a colon follows a vowel (like ' a : , i : , u : e : , o : ' ) in 'romaji' writing, maintain the sound twice
 as long.
 When I put a hyphen in 'romaji' writing, it should be recognized as a clear-cut point in pronouncing the
 word. Note that these conventions are NOT the standard 'romaji' writing style in Japan. 

 All Japanese words end with vowels ( 'n' is treated like a vowel in 'kana' system). In 'romaji'style always
 consider a set of a consonant(s) and a following vowel as one unit sound. (If no con-sonant(s) is
 preceded by a vowel, take the vowel to represent a unit sound. ) The sound of the consonant(s) and
 vowel combination should also be maintained for one unit time length.  

 For example, a Japanese word written as 'mate' (meaning "wait" ) is pronounced as "ma" followed by
 "te"(in "ten" ) and NOT like an English pronunciation for "mate" (meaning friend). There are no silent
 letters in 'romaji' writing and the last 'e' is vocalized. Hence 'g', 'h'and 'j' are also pronounced as in
 "give" , in "hat" and in "jet" in English. This poses a potential difficulty for Americans and European
 inclu- ding Czech, Dutch and so forth, because some pronounce 'j' like "y" in the English words
 "yet" and some (for example French) pronounce it like the "s" in the English word "pleasure" .
 This explains the spelling "Japan" for 'nippon' (meaning "Japan" in Japanese) which was initiated by the
 Portuguese many centuries ago.  

 There are two extra 'kana's some people have hard time to handle. One of them is a sign to append the
 sound of preceding vowel for one time unit. The other means NO SOUND for one unit time length. It is
 like a "rest" symbol in music score. You will find a bit more in Appendix C.  

 In general, (in contrast with e. g. Chinese), Japanese intonation is not used to convey meaning except
 that a sharply raising final sound of a phrase indicates that the phrase is a question for you. However,
 there are special cases where differences in intonation do make the meaning of a phrase (or a word)

 Japanese Numerals 

 There are two sets of Japanese characters for numerals that are both nearly identical to Chinese
 The more complex set of the two is rarely used now (so that I am not showing them here) and simpler
 set is used mostly when the numbers are written vertically (from top to bottom) instead of horizontally
 (from left to right). Appendix Dpdf shows Japanese numerals.  

 Since writing horizontally is the overwhelming majority, numbers you would see are mostly of Arabic
 (Western) numerals, such as 1,2,3,...  

 Major difficulty is experienced during verbal communication about quantities since there are more than
 one pronunciation for the same number.  

 Here is the list of frequently used pronunciation for numbers. You will notice that most are pronounced
 in the order as each number (followed by the expression of order of magnitude such as hundred,
 thousand, million etc. ) appears. Note that ten to the fourth is the fundamental pitch for Japanese,
 ('man', 'oku', 'cho : ') while Westerns use ten to the third as the fundamental pitch (thousand, million,
 billion, trillion... ).

 In reality, pronouncing some numbers in a standard orderly way is practically a bit difficult so that real
 pronunciation is modified to make it easier. Such numbers are indicated with * at each end.

 0 : 'zero' / 'rei' 1 : ' ichi' 2 : 'ni' 3 : 'san' 4 : 'shi' / 'yon' 5 : 'go'
 6 : 'roku' 7 : 'nana' / 'hichi' 8 : 'hachi' 9 : 'kyu' / 'ku' 10 : 'jyu'
 20 : 'ni-jyu' 30 : 'san-jyu' 40 : 'shi-jyu' /'yon-jyu' 50 : 'go-jyu'
 11 : 'jyu-ichi' 12 : 'jyu-ni' 13 : 'jyu-san' 24 : 'nijyu-shi'
 31 : 'sanjyu-ichi' 53 : 'gojyu-san' 69 : 'rokujyu-kyu' 73 : 'nanajyu-san'
 100 : 'hy aku' 200 : 'ni-hyaku' 234 : 'nihyaku-sanjyu-yon'
 300 : 'san-byaku' * 400 : 'yon-hyaku' 500 : 'go-hyaku'
 600 : 'roppyaku' * 700 : 'nana-hyaku' 800 : 'happyaku' * 900 : 'kyu-hyaku'
 1000 : 'sen' * (note : not 'ichi-sen') 2000 : 'ni-sen' 3000 : 'san-zen' *
 3456 : 'sanzen-yonhyaku-gojyu-roku'
 10000 : 'ichi-man' 20000 : 'ni-man' 210000 : 'nijyu-ichiman' 1000000 : 'hyaku-man'
 45678910 : 'yonsen-gohyaku-rokujyu-nana-man, hassen-kyuhyaku-jyu' *
 Note that ten to the fourth is the fundamental pitch for Japanese, while Westerns use ten to he third as
 the fundamental pitch (thousand, million, billion, trillion... ).  

 Ordinal numbers (first, second, fifteenth,... )  

 Add 'ban-me' at the end of each number indicates that it is an ordinal number. (Other way exists, but I
 do not want to go that far now).

 How Japanese 'kanji' writing came about 

 As mentioned earlier, Chinese characters (called 'kanji') were combined with 'kana's when writing
 Since each 'kanji' can represent a complex meaning which would require a long chain of 'kana's to say
 the same, it is more efficient this way to write/recognize the meaning of a Japanese sentence. 'Kanji'
 means letters of Han Dynasty (2nd century B. C. - 3rd century A. D. ) of China. Although some Japanese
 were aware of the written language much earlier, it probably was as early as in the 6th century when
 learned Japanese could use Chinese characters as means of communication. The relationship between
 Japan and China was historically alternating between closely communicating and complete cut-off
 depending upon the political situation. When they were communicating, new concepts had been arriving
 from China with the Chinese pronunciation of the time (or of the region of China the information came
 from). Old obsolete pronunciation of the same character was not replaced by the current pronunciation.
 This resulted more than one(Chinese-like) pronunciations assigned to one Chinese character and are
 called 'on'-yomi' pronunciation. If a concept had been existed in Japan before corresponding Chinese
 character reached Japan, Japanese pronunciation(s) for the concept was also attached to the same
 Chinese character and are called 'kun yomi' pronunciation. As a result, there is no rule to find a correct
 pronunciation for a particular character. You have to memorize the correct pronunciation, unfortunately.

 Present day Japanese 'kanji' 
 Japanese 'kanji's looks almost the same as that in China except that most of them are associated with
 more than one pronunciation for each, not necessarily similar to the pronunciation in China as
 mentioned earlier.
 'Kanji's started as pictographs. However, majority of concepts 'kanji' had to express are abstract which
 would be hard to make a drawing for, as life got more and more complicated. Appendix Epdf will give you
 visual idea on this. Except for the simplest form, 'kanji' is made of more than one element. Key element
 of 'kanji' (radical) is called 'tsukuri' or 'hen', which can be considered as an indicator for the character.

 For example, radicals that indicate "water" is placed on the left side of a 'kanji' and right side element
 can be all sorts of things. If right side radical indicate an eye, the character means "tears" .

 If the right side element has the same pronunciation for a lake, it means a lake. Note that to express a
 concept (corres-ponding to one word in English) often takes more than one 'kanji'. Appendix Fpdf shows
 more detail on the structure of 'kanji'.
 Appendix Gpdf shows 42 key words and phrases you should be able to recognize in daily life right after
 your arrival.

 In Japan, there are two 'kanji' sets government defines. The first set, 'kyo-iku-kanji', contains 1,006
 'kanji's which should be learnt before graduating from junior high school. (at age 15) The second set,
 called to : yo : kanji', is a larger set containing all the 'kyo-iku-kanji' and has 1,945 'kanji's. Any legal
 document or public announcement should never use any character that is not contained in the 'to : yo :
 kanji' set.

 Please note that it is not a scope of this write up to be a complete textbook on Japanese language. You
 should consult with books that suit you best.

 Many 'kanji' dictionaries are available in Japan, but all except one we know of are hard to use because
 they assume that the readers are already familiar with Japanese language (at the level of having gone
 through elementary school education in Japan - a typical Japanese attitude). The exception is "New
 Japanese-English Character Dictionary" Editor Chief Jack Halpern. ISBN4-7674-9040-5, published by
 Kenkyusha Limited. (1990)  

 I have great respect to Mr. Halpern for his 17 years of work to get this done from a scratch.  

 People who are fluent in Chinese should be aware that there are some Japanese 'kanji's that have
 different meaning (and/or sound) from the Chinese counterparts, although the shape of the character
 may be identical. Appendix Hpdf shows some of such examples.

 You may find the following book a nice introduction for 'kanji's. Note that this book is only an example
 and we do not mean that this would be the best book available.  

 Author Tae MORIYAMA, Translated by Bob and Reiko Gavey ISBN 4-07-976592-4
 Published by Shufunotomo Co. Ltd. (主婦の友)

 Phrases you should know 

 Appendix I pdf is a list of Japanese phrases you should be familiar with. All of them are for the
 emergency use.
 As a music lover, we used music score to describe them. This way, you can use any musical instrument
 to get the feel of the intonation.
 Note that I am a tenor and you should readjust them to the key you are comfortable with.

 Appendix J is a list of phrases you would encounter daily. I should warn you that the chances of your
 successfully communi-cating with an average Japanese in English is as par as in Paris when you are in a
 large city. When you are visiting a small village,....

 All I can say here is that you should not be overly confident about the power of English as an
 International language.
 updated: 2019-12-02