The Summer Olympics 2021 will be held in Tokyo, Japan. Although visitors from abroad will not be allowed to attend due to coronavirus restrictions, the whole world will be watching the games on TV. So, even if you cannot travel to beautiful Japan yourself, now is the perfect time to learn about the country’s rich culture and unique language. Here are some of the unique features of the Japanese language that will amaze non-speakers.
The Japanese language uses three sets of characters that have their own grammatical uses – kanji, hiragana and katakana. Of these, kanji is originally borrowed from Chinese writing characters, but over time Japanese and Chinese kanji have evolved in their own ways. Hiragana and katakana are native sets of syllable characters developed from certain kanji characters and are used only in Japanese.
Kanji characters are the foundation of the written Japanese language – they are used as the stem for nouns, adjectives and verbs. They are logograms, that is, one character represents one word. For example, the word kanji consists of the characters 漢 (China) and 字 (character, letter), which refers to the Chinese origin of the character set.
It is difficult to estimate the exact total number of kanji characters, but Dai Kanwa Jiten (大漢和辞典, “The Great Kanji–Japanese Dictionary”), for example, contains about 50,000 characters. Fortunately, not all of these need to be memorised. Learning the most common kanji characters as defined by the Japanese Ministry of Education (常用漢字; jōyō kanji) is a prerequisite for basic literacy. However, the more you know, the better. The jōyō kanji list has 2,136 characters, which sounds like a lot. Japanese children learn these most common characters at school gradually.
Kanji characters have several different reading methods, which makes learning them even more difficult. The reading methods are divided into two categories. On’yomi (音読み) means Chinese-origin reading method, and kun’yomi (訓読み) means Japanese-origin reading method. Most kanji characters have at least two reading methods, at least one of which is on-origin and one is kun-origin. For example, the character 東 (east) can be pronounced as either higashi (kun’yomi) or tō (on’yomi). The on’yomi reading method is usually used with compound words containing several characters and, like the Chinese, they are mostly monosyllabic in their pronunciation. Kun’yomi phonemes (speech segments) usually contain two or three syllables (such as in the example hi-ga-shi), but there are exceptions in both directions.
Hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな)
Hiragana is one of the two Japanese kana syllable character sets alongside katakana. Unlike kanji characters, one hiragana character indicates one Japanese syllable, not an entire word. Syllables include the vocal sounds a i u e o, consonant-vowel sounds ha hi fu he ho, ka ki ku ke ko, etc., and the only single consonant sound n. Hiragana is used for the inflection of words (送り仮名; okurigana) where they are attached to the end of the kanji stem, as well as in particles. In addition, some words can be written with hiragana instead of kanji characters as a style choice or, for example, in children’s books. In order to clarify rare or otherwise unclear reading methods, the pronunciation may be marked with hiragana above or beside the word (振り仮名; furigana).
Katakana (片仮名, カタカナ)
Katakana is a syllable character set that is used to write out words and names of foreign origin, onomatopoietic expressions and the official names of animals and plants. In addition, it can express emphasis in pronunciation.
Degrees of politeness
Hierarchy is one of the foundations of Japanese culture, and this also extends to language. It is important to be aware of your social status in relation to the person with whom you are speaking, so that you do not accidentally offend them with too common or familiar speech. The different degrees of politeness in Japanese require their own sentence structure. The polite forms – collectively referred to as keigo (敬語) – can be divided into three main categories.
Teineigo is a common form of politeness that is suitable in most situations. The characteristics of teineigo are the verb suffixes desu (です) and masu (ます) and the prefixes o (お) and go (ご). For example, the basic form of the word water is mizu (水) and the teineigo form is omizu (お水). Some words are almost exclusively used in the teineigo form, regardless of the situation, such as ocha (お茶, tea) or okane (お金, money).
Sonkeigo is a form that designates respect. It is used when the speaker is addressing people who are in a higher social position than themselves, such as a boss, customers or older people. The speaker does not use it to refer to themself or their immediate family.
Kenjougo is a form that designates humility. The speaker uses it to refer to themself and their immediate family in a humble way, especially when talking to people in high social positions. Under no circumstances should it be used to refer to other people.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Japanese language is that nothing can be counted in numerals alone, but certain counter words must be added to them. In English, we can say that in the yard there are “two dogs”; however, in Japanese, the same idea is expressed as literally “dog two small-animal-count” (犬二匹; inu nihiki), where the word dog is defined by hiki. Such measure words are called counter words (助数詞; josūshi). In principle, all things that can be counted have their own counter word: the previously mentioned hiki (匹) for small animals, tō (頭) for large animals, nin (人) for people, hon (本) for long and thin objects, dai (台) for mechanical equipment and vehicles, and many others. The generic counter word tsu (つ) may be used if the thing to be counted is not known or is not relevant. In practice, it means “thing” in general.
In addition to the Gregorian calendar, Japan has its own calendar system based on imperial rule. According to current practice, the name of the era (年号; nengō) changes with the accession of a new emperor, typically due to the death of the previous incumbent. In the case of Emperor Akihito, an exception was made in 2019, for the first time since 1817, when he abdicated the throne for health reasons and his son Naruhito acceded him. At the same time, the name of the era also changed from the Heisei era (平成) to the Reiwa era (令和), which began on 1 May 2019. Therefore, the year 2021 is now the third year of the Reiwa era.
Author: Makke Amé, graduate of Helsinki Upper Secondary School of Languages