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A Cultural Guide To Learning Japanese

From Jon, published on 10/05/2018 Blog > Languages > Japanese > Everything You Need to Know About the Japanese Language

You might be considering taking Japanese lessons in order to communicate in the 10th most spoken language in the world. It would be a wise choice. Not only are the language and culture rich and diverse, but the Japanese economy ranks 3rd worldwide meaning that the country holds significant power financially, and subsequently politically.

However, as a beginner, people often say that studying Japanese is extremely difficult. Not only is the Japanese writing system made up of kanji characters which are completely different to our Latin alphabet, making reading and writing particularly challenging, but certain aspects of the grammar are also difficult to grasp.

How can one learn the language, which, according to almost everyone, is complicated or even deemed unapproachable?

There are many ways to learn Japanese. You can find language classes is most cities across the world, you can learn Japanese online, you can hire a private Japanese teacher, or you could even opt for the immersion approach by moving to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, or any other Japanese city.

The latter is a great option. Not only will your proficiency in Japanese improve rapidly, but your cultural awareness will as well. This is important because Japanese culture plays an important role in the Japanese language, and vice-versa.

Therefore, before embarking on a Japanese course learning odyssey, let’s focus on Japan, its traditions, its history, and its impact on the world.

Looking at manga, video games, economy, literature, and calligraphy, we will show you that the Japanese language is as majestic as the white peaks of Mount Fuji…

The Great History of the Japanese Language

Japanese culture is interlinked with the language There are so many layers to Japan!

 

With around 126 million speakers,  Japanese is the 10th most spoken in the world today.

The story of the Japanese language is both long and interesting, and it has always played a very important role in Japanese society.

According to some sources, the birth of the Mishima language dates back to the very ancient date of 40,000 BC, when the Japanese archipelago was occupied by people who spoke Japanese.

Like many languages, Japanese was first transmitted orally. It was not until the 4th century AD that Japanese was finally written down.

Its writing was inspired by Chinese characters. The contribution of writing in the Japanese language was made possible by Chinese Buddhist monks.

It was not until the Nara period (8th century) that the Japanese people found a new way of using Chinese characters: they borrowed the sound of the Chinese character and removed its meaning.

This is the creation of the character called “manyogana.” It allows us to write the text in the order of the spoken Japanese words and ensures correct pronunciation.

The Origin of katakana and hiragana

At the time of Heain, men of the upper classes wrote two kinds of texts: Chinese texts and Japanese texts, using Chinese characters.

At first it was a method to facilitate the reading of texts in Chinese. These men begin to add manyogana notes between the lines.

From time to time the characters of the manyogana are abbreviated and only one part is written down. This is the origin of katakana, one of the two Japanese syllabic alphabets.

The second alphabet is called hiragana. The words transcribed in hiragana are of Japanese origin.

The Origins of the Graphic System in Japanese Writing

The history of the Japanese writing system dates back almost 2000 years, and as we have seen previously, it has several different components.

But this is not the only quirk of this extraordinary language.

For example, there are as many signs in Japanese as there are in Chinese. They are divided into 4 parts:

  • 2000 kanji identified by the Japanese government and taught to children at school, of which 99% of newspaper articles, for example, are written with,
  • Then hiragana (50 signs),
  • The katakana (also 50), phonetic alphabets (a, i, or, è, o, ka, ki, kou…),
  • And finally romaji, which represents the Japanese language written using the Latin alphabet.

You would be excused for being completely lost at this point. But each part will be of the utmost importance during your Japanese learning.

So what are the kanji, the hiragana, the katakana?

Kanji

Etymologically, the word kanji, comes from classical Chinese and means “character of the Han dynasty.

In their first year of primary school, Japanese children learn kanji. Kanji are generally used to write the root words.

All kanji is characterized by a set of pronunciations and meanings, as well as a form, also called “frames” in Japanese.

The study of kanji requires a lot of work.

Indeed, for each kanji, you have to memorize:

  • The drawing of the features of the kanji: the order and the manner of drawing these features are important,
  • The number of strokes,
  • How to use and combine this kanji with other kanji.

Yes, it’s a bit complicated…!

Hiragana

The Japanese writing system has 4 different components There are several writing systems in Japanese. But don’t worry for a second, Superprof will explain it all.

The hiraganas, which means “smooth kanas,” are a Japanese syllabary, and one of the three Japanese scripts along with katakana and kanji.

The hiragana allows us to write:

  • Japanese words that do not match any kanji,
  • Grammatical particles,
  • The furigana (Kanji pronunciations).

Hiragana are simplified forms of Chinese characters.

Designed to be learned and traced more easily, they were once called “onnate” (women’s hand).

Katakana

Alongside hiragana, Katakana, meaning  fragmentary kana, is the second of the two syllabaries used in Japanese.

Katakana are signs corresponding to syllables (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko…).

They are used in Japanese to transcribe foreign words, foreign names, the scientific names of plants and animals …

They are therefore simplified forms of Chinese characters, as are hiragana. They were created to make Japanese writing accessible to those who can’t read and write Chinese writing.

Romaji

Romaji refers to the characters of the Roman alphabet used in the framework of Japanese writing.

They aim to:

  • Remedy technical incompatibilities when traditional characters are not available (web addresses),
  • Enter texts from a Latin keyboard,
  • Transcribe Japanese names for Westerners: road signs, the names of train stations and metro stations …

In 1591, the first Japanese book was written in romaji. It was a religious book written by the Portuguese Jesuit Alessandro Valignano.

Although there are a number of textbooks which can allow you to study Japanese on your own, you can therefore see why it would be better to go to a Japanese language school where these intricacies can be properly explained to you. Speaking Japanese relies on reading Japanese, so don’t focus too much on romaji just because it uses the Latin alphabet. It isn’t overly common in the world of the Japanese language.

From beginner, to intermediate, and all the way to more advanced levels, the Japanese writing system is important, and therefore understanding it will be crucial in your quest to speak Japanese.

The Spread of Japanese Across the World

The Land of the Rising Sun with its super-megalopolis and beautiful landscapes attracts millions of tourists every year. What’s more, Japan has given so much to the world.

The Japanese language has been exported to the world, and it is the reason why some foreigners wish to settle in the land of sushi, manga, zen attitude, and the art of politeness.

Japanese, spoken mainly by the island’s natives, is also spoken by some inhabitants of South Korea and Taiwan!

Japanese is also a vector of Japanese culture. Here are 3 examples of how the Japanese language gets exported to the world.

Reading Manga and Perfectioning Your Japanese!

Manga remains one of Japan’s most economically and socially profitable exports.

For example, North America is one of the world’s biggest manga market with an estimated value of $ 300 million in exported products.

Thanks to the export of manga, the Japanese language has spread from country to country. It also offers beginners a window into a sometimes perceived difficult language, outside of traditional Japanese classes.

Invented by the cartoonist Katsushika Hokusai, the term manga literally means “derisory image.” Because of their writing style, the Japanese have a close relationship with drawing from an early age.

When a manga is successful, it can be adapted for television. The most popular mangas have over 200 minute episodes, each lasting about 26 minutes.

Japanese Cinema: Learn Japanese Thanks to Cinema in Japanese

Currently the world’s 3rd biggest movie industry based on the number of films produced every year, Japanese cinema is also a vector of linguistic export.

To have fun while learning this foreign language, you can watch a movie made in Japan in the subtitled version or for those who have a good Japanese level, in the original version.

The first Japanese star was an actor Matsunosuke Onoe, who appeared in nearly a thousand films between 1909 and 1926. The first recognized actress was the ballet dancer Tokuko Nagai Takagi.

More recently, actors such as Hayao Miyazaki, Takeshi Kitano, and Hiroyuki Sanada have made themselves known via American series.

Japan has a respect culture which governs how they treat people Japanese politeness even transforms the grammar of the language.

It is true that we often hear that the Japanese language is inaccessible because it is too difficult to learn.

At Superprof, we don’t agree, and don’t want to be pessimistic! Yes, the Japanese language is difficult, but like all languages, it can be learned.

Any language study can be tricky. It doesn’t matter if it is Korean, French, German, or Arabic. Japanese is no different.

As a new learner to Japanese, you will more than likely learn Nihongo-the type of Japanese learnt as a second language. It doesn’t matter if you only want to learn a few phrases and expressions to hold a conversation in Japanese, or if you want to improve your language skills in order to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) so that you can live and work in Japan.

Either way you will need to get to grips with different aspects of Japanese grammar and syntax during your Japanese studies.

Here is a small list of mishima language rules:

  • There is no verb to describe a state-of-being such as the verb “to be” in English. Instead, the Japanese use a tool that expresses the nature of a thing by adding the hiragana character to a name.
  • In Japanese, there are only two tenses: the accomplished and the uncompleted.
  • There is also a precise vocabulary. For example, how do you say hello in Japanese? Like in English, the Japanese use a word of courtesy according to the time of day: morning: Ohayô gozaimasu, afternoon: Konnichiwa and evening: Konbanwa

Japanese Language and Politeness

Grammatically, politeness, also called keigo, is marked in Japanese by the verb form and the use of the honorary form of words.

The choice of vocabulary and the subject are very important elements.

Beware, the Japanese are very careful about politeness, even towards tourists.

To learn Japanese is to learn its subtleties, so that you can fit into your host country!

But don’t worry, your Japanese language classes will cover every thing you need to know.

Japanese Grammar on Video

Sites like Digischool or Kandjilink.com offer Japanese courses online.

It’s a good way to learn the language of the Land of the Rising Sun. The courses are less academic and the pedagogy is varied and adapted.

Thanks to songs, games, and little video clips, you will be able to:

  • Learn the basics of Japanese,
  • Revise Japanese vocabulary,
  • Improve your accent.

Japanese Calligraphy: An Art Form

Japanese writing is seen as an art form in some quarters Japanese calligraphy is considered an art in its own right.

The tradition of calligraphy is also called Shodô and was invented and developed in China. It was then exported to Japan around 710.

Calligraphy in Japan is an art of writing that uses Japanese characters to create aesthetically beautiful and emotionally relevant work.

Calligraphy, very popular with the elderly Japanese, allows people to relax and refocus on themselves.

Beware! You cannot make mistakes. The smallest detail can cost you to start all over.

The national shodô high school championship – the true Grail of shodô clubs in all high schools in Japan – is a big event that attracts thousands of spectators and calligraphy fans.

Learn Japanese by Immersing Yourself in its Rich Culture

The Japanese language is more than just grammar and words The Haiku is a Japanese poem that advocates a Zen attitude.

There are a number of ways that you can immerse yourself in Japanese. Below we will run through some of the most important ones, but remember, the more exposure to Japanese that you get outside of the classroom, the quicker your basic Japanese will develop into something that will allow you to participate in all aspects of Japanese culture and society.

Video Games to Learn Japanese

In 2014, the Japanese video game market amounted to 6.38 billion euros.

According to an estimate by American analyst App Annie, the gaming market in Japan has experienced about a 50% annual growth in 2015.

Japan is the home of three major manufacturers in the world of video games and games consoles:

  • Nintendo,
  • Sony
  • And Sega!

Since the 1980s and the integration of video games with the youth in the Western World, kids have been able to learn a vocabulary very specific to video games.

This has proven to be a way for them to get acquainted with some hiragana, kana, and katakana…

Haiku: The Little Poem

The haiku is a Japanese form of poetry that makes it possible to note emotions of amazement and surprise.

It is a very concise form, with seventeen syllables divided in three verses (5-7-5).

There are haiku taikai competitions on a given theme, organized by major Japanese companies or institutions.

Those who win usually see their haikus published. It is not uncommon to see more than 10,000 participants!

So why not check out the Superprof platform to find a tutor near to you who can help you start exploring this wonderful language and culture. Learning Japanese is so much more than just verbs, adjectives, and nouns.

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