Few people who set out to learn a new language give any thought to their endeavour being a lifelong undertaking. In fact, as a native speaker of English, you might not even believe that you too are perpetually learning new things about the language you use every day.

Seen in that light, anyone learning a language as radically different from English as Japanese deserves plenty of kudos.

Your Superprof is always there to support you, either with Japanese lessons or to give you a pat on the back and a helping hand. This article qualifies as help; it lays out some of the basics of Japanese language learning.

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The Japanese Alphabet

To the uninitiated, Japanese writing cannot be said to have an alphabet because it consists of characters. Or, more specifically, it's hard to connect the concept of an alphabet with so many ideograms, considering that the very word 'alphabet' derives from the Greek 'alpha+beta'.

In other words, A and B.

In a sense, the Old English word 'stæfræw', meaning 'row of letters' is a better definition of 'alphabet'. And it better represents the concept of Japan's alphabet, even if the rows in question are not letters as we know them.

Even traditionally Japanese concepts are represented in kanji
Authentically Japanese words such as kimono and geisha are written in kanji. Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Japan's alphabet consists of three separate writing systems: kanji, hiragana and katakana, and each one fulfils a specific function in Japanese writing.

  • kanji is used to write names - given names and surnames; as well as places, numbers and to indicate the start of a new (hiragana) word.
  • hiragana is reserved for authentically Japanese words
  • katakana represents words imported from other languages, including English

Now, a note of caution. Words we consider authentically Japanese, such as samurai, sake and kimono may be wholly written in kanji - 武士, (bu shi - samurai), 酒 (sake, usually preceded by お - o),  着物 (kimono). That's because of China's historic influence on ancient Japanese culture.

By that explanation, you likely have deduced that kanji consists of Chinese characters. They are easy to recognise even if you don't know any Mandarin because they are fairly regimented; there are no loops, whorls or random strokes. Indeed, they are rather boxy-looking.

Fun fat: Mandarin has a name for each brushstroke. They can 'spell' characters by invoking each stroke's name: han, pie, shu, na... This little titbit will be relevant when we talk about how parents choose names for their children.

Back to the Japanese alphabet, now.

When studying Japanese, you cannot learn first one writing system and then the next. They must be learned all at the same time because they are all integrated. Besides, while (technically) you could write an entire paragraph using only hiragana, it would be very hard to understand.

Japanese syntax - word order and the spacing between words are vastly different from English syntax. For one, there are no spaces between words. Learn more about how just that would make reading Japanese difficult...

Numbers in Japanese

If the Japanese alphabet seems complicated, you might feel assured that learning and using numbers in Japanese is a straightforward process. Indeed, once you master the first 10 numbers, it could hardly be easier.

Have you ever wondered why our numbers' names don't follow any particular pattern? How is it that we go from 'ten' to 'eleven', and where did 'twelve' come from? Why do our numbers finally find a form to follow only at thirteen?

The numbers we know and use today reflect their German origins. Today's German number system has the same oddity as in English, including finding its rhythm at thirteen - dreizehn (literally 'three-ten').

By contrast, the Japanese number system is logical in the extreme. It too includes numbers 1-10 and includes zero... but there's no change in form or pattern no matter what number you count to.

Counting boards were often used in 18th Century Japan
This depiction of an ancient counting board gives a hint at Japan's orderly number system. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Seijutsu Sangaku Zue

Another major difference between the Japanese and our more familiar numbers system is grouping.

Like so many other societies, we group our numbers like so: by units (single digits), by 10s, by 100s, by 1000s and so on. By contrast, there are four major numbers groups in Japanese: 10 (十- jū), 100 (百 - hyaku), 1,000 (千 - sen) and 10,000 (万 - man).

Here's how Japanese numbers work, in a nutshell:

  • any number from 10 to 99 features 十
  • any number from 100 to 999 features 百
  • any number from 1,000 to 9,999 features 千
  • any number from 10,000 on features 万

The remaining demarcations are 100 million (億 - oku), 1 trillion (北 - chō) and 1 quadrillion (京 - kei) .

If you bought a car that cost £20,603, in Japanese, that number would be written out as 二万六百三 - 'two ten-thousands, six hundreds, three'. There's no need for placeholders (noughts); the denomination is understood thanks to it's place in the sequence and its character.

Another interesting divergence from numbers as we know them: we tend to mark off large numbers by the hundreds - 5,678,532, for instance. In Japan, 'thousand' is the demarcation value: 567,8532.

This practice seems dissonant at first but, once you get used to it, counting by the thousands instead of the hundreds makes very good sense.

And none of this is to say that lesser numbers are less used in Japan so you will have to spend time learning all about the Japanese numbering system.

Japanese Names

You might never have heard the hoopla surrounding a couple who named their firstborn Hashtag. This was at the dawn of Twitter; apparently those new parents have a passion for 128 characters.

If you've never heard of Hashtag, who is now nearly 10 years old, then you've surely heard of Prince, haven't you? At the height of his fame, he changed his name to a symbol. that was supposed to be read 'The artist (formerly known as Prince)', parentheses and all.

Even though most countries have guidelines for acceptable names, it's clear to see that western societies enjoy quite a bit of latitude when it comes to naming their kids.

By contrast, if you're naming a child in Japan, you'd better have a good reason for deviating from their lists of approved names. And even if you do, you will not be allowed to name your child Satan, Devil or any other blasphemous or derogatory concept.

Yes, concept. Because Japanese names, while on the surface perfectly ordinary, generally reflect deeper cultural values.

Take the girl's name Umiko, as an example. It translates to Plum Blossom Child - evocative, meaningful... lovely. But that's not all there is to Umiko's story. Plum trees tend to blossom in adverse conditions - in snow and the chill of early spring, so assigning your daughter the Umiko name endows her with resilience and strength.

Men looking to marry favour women named Umiko; it is considered a good, wifely name.

Another popular method of choosing a name is by counting the number of pen strokes it takes to write it. Just like most other cultures, Japan has lucky and unlucky numbers; one way to shower luck on your newborn's life is to choose a name that takes a certain set of strokes to write.

Beware of choosing an unlucky name, though; those that take a certain number of strokes to write could imbue your child with a lifetime of misfortune.

Now, read more about Japan's unique naming practices...

Choose a lucky name by the number of strokes to write it
A Japanese name is fortunate or unfortunate depending on the number of brushstrokes it takes to write it. Photo by Marco Zuppone on Unsplash

Japanese Words and Phrases

こんにちは! Kon ni chiwa! Hello to you - yes, that is exactly what that says. It also means 'good afternoon' - as opposed to 'good morning' (おはようございます -ohayou gozaimasu) or 'good evening' (こんばんは - konbanwa).

Sometimes, people will practise an commonly-known word or phrase and spout it to support their claim of speaking a foreign language. Friends' Monica Geller is famous for a French line that... well, let's just say that, by using this trick, she possibly bit off more than she might have wanted to chew.

That doesn't mean you should never greet your Japanese language teacher with a sincere こんにちは... or does it?

In Japan, politeness and formality are hallmarks of the culture, thus, you should only greet your teacher - a person of authority and senior to you in that manner only if it is, in fact, after noon. Otherwise, you should greet them by the appropriate time-of-day greeting.

As politeness is paramount, it should come as no surprise that is more than one way to say 'please' in Japanese, and they each apply to a different situation or condition.

  • use kudasai (下さい, or simplyさい) when you want your mum to hand you something from the far end of the table, or if you're giving the waitstaff your order in a restaurant. You can also use it to ask someone to sit down, or if you can borrow something.
  • use chōdai (頂戴 - or, as it is more often seen: ちょうだい) if you want a sip from a mate's drink. This 'please' is very informal
  • o negai shimasu (お願いします) is the default please, suitable for all situations
  • use dōzo (どうぞ) when giving permission - say, if your friend wants to borrow your book; it's the same as 'please do' in English
  • puriizu (プリーズ), this is please in katakana; a very informal 'please'; it's best to use it as sparingly as possible.

Of course, there is so much more to Japanese than saying please the right way. But ending this article this way invites you to a deeper dive into Japanese words and phrases...

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Krishna

Writer with an enthusiasm to learn more about SEO.