The Languages spoken in Japan

Japan, often referred to as the State of Japan, is an island nation in the Eastern portion of the Asian continental waters.  Located in the expansive Pacific Ocean, the country is situated to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south. The Japanese characters that make up Japan's name mean "sun-origin", which is why Japan is often referred to as the "Land of the Rising Sun."[i]

Japan is an archipelago consisting of 6,852 islands. The four largest of these islands, Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, comprise about ninety-seven percent of Japan's total land area.  Japan is home to the world's tenth-largest population, with over 126 million permanent inhabitants.  The Greater Tokyo Region, located on Honshu Island, includes Japan’s de facto capital city of Tokyo and several surrounding prefectures. It is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 30 million residents.[ii]

Considered one of the world’s major economical powers, Japan has the world's third-largest economy by nominal GDP and the world's fourth-largest economy by purchasing power parity. It is also the world's fourth-largest exporter and fourth-largest importer. Although Japan has officially renounced its right to declare war, it maintains a modern military with the world's eighth largest military budget, used for self-defense and peacekeeping roles. Japan ranks high in metrics of prosperity such as the Human Development Index, with Japanese women enjoying the highest life expectancy of any country in the world and the infant mortality rate being the third lowest globally.  Japan is significantly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, having the highest natural disaster risk in the developed world.[iii]

The Languages of Japan

Ethnically, culturally and linguistically, Japan is a very homogenous nation, a place where nearly 99 percent of the population speaks Japanese as their first language.[iv]  According to the latest statistics compiled by the website Ethnologue, Japanese is by far the most popular language on the island.  Other languages spoken on the island include Korean, a “dispersed” language spoken by approximately 900,000 residents; Japanese Sign Language, a “vigorous” language used by approximately 317,000 people; and the “shifting” languages known as Miyako, Yaeyema and Amami, which together account for less than one half of one percent of the population.[v]

History of the Japanese Language

Because the overwhelming majority of Japan’s population speaks Japanese as their first language, here we will take some time to explore the history of that language in some detail.

The origin of the Japanese language is a topic of considerable dispute among scholars.  Evidence has been offered for a number of source languages, including Ural-Altaic, Polynesian, and Chinese among others.  Of these, Japanese is most widely believed to be connected to the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, and Korean within its domain.[vi]  

Among the Ural-Altaic family of languages, Korean is most frequently compared to Japanese, as both languages share significant key features such as general structure, vowel harmony, lack of conjunctions, and the extensive use of honorific speech, in which the hierarchical rank of the listener heavily affects the discourse.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that pronunciation of Japanese is significantly different from Korean, and the languages are mutually unintelligible.  The Japanese language also shares considerable similarities with the languages of the Ryukyu Islands, within which Okinawa is located, although the Ryukyu languages and Japanese are also mutually unintelligible.[vii]

In the same way that the origin of the Japanese language is a bit vague and ambiguous, there is also a substantial amount of uncertainty with regards to the precise origins of the Japanese people themselves.  Noteworthy influences from the horse cultures of Mongolia and Northern Asia, the rice cultures of Korea, China, and Southeast Asia, and Polynesia have all been identified. Consequently, it is difficult to establish a date for the origin of Japanese peoples, but a proto-Japanese must have existed from at least the 3rd century AD, when the various clan-tribes of Japan were consolidated to become a nation by the Yamato Clan, and possibly from a much earlier time, based on Chinese records which indicate the unification of Japan as a nation of tribal communities from several hundred years BCE.[viii]

Throughout the 6th century AD, elements of Chinese culture flooded into Japan, a result of diplomatic and religious intercourse between the Chinese Han Dynasty, Korea, and the Japanese Yamato rulers.  Along with the introduction of Chinese governmental systems, art styles, manufacturing methods, and Buddhism, the Chinese writing system was also adopted, providing the Japanese with the ability to write for the first time.[ix] The Kojiki, (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), Japan’s first recorded books, were written in Chinese characters during this time.

Both of these books offer historical anthologies containing a large number of legends. Numerous Chinese vocabulary words were also added to Japanese. The influence of the Chinese language on Japanese remains apparent today, as approximately 40% of the vocabulary of modern Japanese consists of words adapted from the Chinese language.[x]

The providence of borrowed vocabulary did not, however, carry over to the borrowed Chinese written system. The Chinese writing system posed problems in terms of accent, syllabic structure and overall divergence of structure of the languages themselves.  The Japanese desired the ability to express themselves freely in written form, and by the 7th century writers were inserting Chinese characters into the written format of their own language, word order and participle structure.  Not long after this time, Buddhist priests invented a simplified phonetic system for writing shorthand, the foundation for the present-day katakana phonetic script.[xi]  

In the 8th century, women of the Heian Court in Kyoto developed the second phonetic script of Japanese, known as hiragana, as a way to write poetry, novels, and diaries.  Still today, both of these phonetic scripts (katakana and hiragana) are used in a modernized form, along with Chinese characters, or kanji, to render written Japanese. In general, katakana is used with loan words, onomatopoetic words, terms for flora and fauna, and for italicized words.  Hiragana is also used in children’s writing and to represent function words. With the writing of the Heike Monogatari (Tales of the Heike) in the 12th century, the use of Chinese characters, kana phonetic script, and Japanese language structure had become completely intertwined.[xii]

Spoken Japanese evolved in four stages: Old Japanese (to the 8th century), Late Old Japanese (9th-11th centuries), Middle Japanese (12th-16th centuries), and Modern Japanese (from the 17th century to the present).[xiii] Significant changes from ancient to modern times have seen the gradual reduction of eight vowel sounds to five as well as phonological, morphological, and vocabulary changes. The Japanese syntax has largely remained intact.

Several distinct regional dialects have existed within Japan since ancient times.  During the past 700 years, the principal, or most important dialect, has shifted from the Capital, Heian Kyo (Kyoto) to Kamakura (near present-day Tokyo) in 1292. This coincides with the rise to power of a warrior class which established its power base in the Kanto Region of Eastern Japan. Today the primary dialect of Japanese remains the Tokyo dialect.[xiv]

In the Sengoku (Warring States) Period of the 1500s, Portuguese and other Western nations came into contact with Japan, bringing technology, Christianity, and, naturally, their own languages. The Portuguese compiled a Japanese dictionary, and the Japanese borrowed a number of words from Portuguese. One Japanese warrior by the name of Toyotomi Hideyoshi also brought wooden moveable type from Korea into Japan at the very end of this period.  Later, during the Tokugawa Period which followed, the printing that was made achievable by means of this moveable type greatly expanded and enhanced the literacy rate of the growing populations, and increased the standing/importance of the Edo (Tokyo) Dialect as the primary dialect of Japanese.[xv]

In 1603, with the rise of the Shogun or military leader, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan became almost completely closed off from outside influences. Christianity, along with western styles of learning and western linguistic influence, was abandoned (save for very limited contact with Dutch traders in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki).[xvi] For the next two hundred and fifty years, Japan remained closed to the outside world.

In the year 1868, following the uproar and chaos that resulted within Japan from the visit of the American Admiral Perry, Japan’s new Meiji leaders determined to Westernize Japan and to adopt Western technology for the sake of survival and competition.  Soon after, the vocabulary of English, German, and other western languages was introduced into Japanese.

As with the introduction of Chinese some centuries before, these western words were soon adapted to the pronunciation and writing systems of the Japanese; adapted in a way that would make them more easily used and understood.  Many novel Japanese vocabulary terms were also created as a way to express new concepts adopted from the West.  Another major language development of the Meiji Period was the bridging of the gap between spoken and written Japanese—a gap that had existed for centuries. New developments within literature and media both broke conventional barriers, so that for the first time in history everyday spoken Japanese could be expressed in written form.

As Japan became a military force and its economy began to grow, the country began expanding by conquest into other parts of Asia, including China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines.  During this period millions within Asia acquired skills in the Japanese language; some people were forced to learn it by means of compulsory Japanese language education, while others picked up language cues through their contact with Japanese troops, businessmen, and their families.[xvii]  Even today, there are many elderly people in these regions that still retain their Japanese language abilities.  Even more, the remnants of the linguistic influence of Japanese may still be seen through the continued use of Japanese vocabulary words in other Asian languages—especially in Korean.

Following the massive devastation of World War II, the military forces which occupied Japan set out to simplify the written Japanese language—a language they considered cumbersome. To accomplish this, they considered abolishing the ancient Chinese characters, or Kanji, in favor of Romanized symbols, or romaji—symbols based on the alphabet of Western languages.  This change never occurred, although Japan’s Education Ministry in 1946 completed a major revision of Chinese characters, bringing their numbers to a more manageable sum of 1850 characters (now revised to slightly under 2,000).[xviii] Since that time, the Japanese government has maintained strict centralized control of the language and how it is taught within the Japanese educational system.

Today, the expanding influence of English and of Western culture is having a grand impact on the Japanese language, an impact that is expected to continue.  Another influence of current note is the generation gap that exists with regard to the manner in which the Japanese language is used.  For example, today’s younger generation is tending to favor the utilization of more neutral and informal speech, ignoring the importance of the role of honorific and gender-specific speech regarded important in traditional Japanese. Other developments, such as the development of new slang terms and youth-specific grammar usage, are also being observed.[xix]

Today there are three major regional dialects within Japan:  the Kansai Dialect of the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe region of Western Japan; the Kyushu Dialect of Japan’s southernmost main island; and the Tokyo Dialect of the Kanto Region (considered the standard dialect), along with numerous smaller dialects found throughout the country.[xx]  What is sometimes referred to as the "Okinawan Dialect" is actually one of the languages of the Ryukyu Island language family, closely related to, but not actually a form of the Japanese language. The ever-strengthening role of the media, through television, radio, and the internet, continues to work to homogenize the Japanese language, further reducing the influence of the local dialects in favor of the omnipresent Tokyo Dialect.

The Japanese Language and How It is Used

Japanese ranks as one of the world’s most important languages with over 126 million speakers.  Of these, the vast majority, about 124 million, reside within Japan and the island group of Okinawa.  Another two million or so live in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Brazil, areas where Japanese have immigrated or moved temporarily for business purposes.

Millions of additional fluent or nearly-fluent speakers of Japanese reside within Korea, China, and other parts of Asia.  Many of these people acquired Japanese during Japan’s military operations both before and after World War II. There has been a great surge of interest in the study of Japanese as a second language throughout the past 30 years, due to the Western world’s fascination with Japanese culture, as well as to Japan’s status as a world economic power.[xxi]


The short vowels in the Japanese language are spoken similarly to those of the Spanish and Italian languages, whereas the long vowel sounds are usually comprised of doubling the short vowel sounds.  As with many other languages, the pronunciation of these vowel sounds is important because each sound changes the meaning of a word.

Comparing Japanese and English, there is a striking difference, as unlike the English language, Japanese gives equal stress to each syllable (therefore, no stress accent).  One similarity though is that Japanese has a system of pitch accents varying from high to low.[xxii]

Written Japanese

The phonetic script in the Japanese language is known as Kana, a script which also incorporates Chinese characters.  These Chinese characters, known as Kanji, are used to symbolize an idea or thing.  This is sometimes called an ideogram and it's not uncommon for Kanji to have more than one pronunciation or sound.  They are used in Japan to write Chinese words or native Japanese words.[xxiii]

Sometimes it is necessary to include roman letters (for newer words, "Xerox", etc), as well as acronyms and foreign words, thus increasing the total number of scripts used in Japanese to four.

There are two primary forms of the kana script.  One is called Hiragana, used mainly by women in earlier days, and consisting of 48 characters.  This form is used to write native Japanese words, particles, verb endings, etc.  Katakana, the other kana script, is composed of 48 characters as well.  It is used mainly for emphasis, for flora and fauna scientific names, and when writing loan words.  These forms of writing are by far easier to write than the Chinese form from which they derive.

Japan has started printing books in the Western fashion of horizontal lines in recent times, left to right - front to back.  However, it is still customary for Japanese books to be printed or written vertically.  This means the book is to be opened to the back and read from top to bottom starting on the right side.[xxiv]

Loan Words

Loan words are words that are "borrowed" from another language and incorporated into Japanese everyday language.  These words are often from the Chinese language, but there are also several words that have been borrowed from English and other European languages.  Over the years, many Chinese characters have been adapted to better fit the Japanese language, a process by characters are changed somewhat to make a new combination, one that is distinctly unique and characteristically Japanese.[xxv]  In addition to the evolution of Chinese characters, English words have been combined to make a "new" word, such as the word "nighter" for “night games.”  The tendency to combine or borrow words has become increasingly evident in recent years.

Honorific Language

As is the case in some other (mostly Asian) cultures, the Japanese have a slightly different language when it comes to showing honor or respect; this is called Keigo.[xxvi]  Keigo is simply a method of speaking that shows the speaker's respect to the person he is speaking to.  There are many different levels of Keigo—words or expressions that may be selected depending on how polite the speaker wants or needs to be.  Depending on the status of the speaker/recipient, a simple sentence can often be stated over 20 different ways!

There are many different factors to take into account when determining what degree of politeness or honor is necessary.  Some of the factors include age, social status, gender and the position of the recipient.  Keigo may also be used when a certain type of favor is owed.  There is also a level of language that is considered neutral, typically used when the speaker is unaware of the recipient’s status.  Generally, women speak more politely than men and are more prone to use the honorific language.


Japan is no different from other Asian countries when it comes to name order.  Unlike Westerners, who use first or given name, followed by the last or family name, the Japanese use their family name first, followed by their given name.[xxvii]  Given names are chosen (and the Chinese character equivalent given) based on their meanings in the hope of bringing good luck to the child.

There are titles in the Japanese language that must be used, depending on the person you are addressing.  For example, san is the Japanese equivalent for "Mr." and “Mrs.”, which is said after the family name. If the person you are speaking to is a teacher, doctor or other professional, there are other honorific titles that must be added after the family name. If it's a child or a close friend you are addressing, then the suffix chan is used after the family name.[xxviii]

Japanese Language and the World

Outside of Japan and the Okinawan islands, Japanese is spoken as a first language by approximately two million people.  Many of these are immigrants who have settled in places such Canada, the United States, Brazil and other South American countries.

An additional 800,000 native Japanese speakers reside outside of Japan due to temporary moves for business or educational purposes.  Moreover, Japanese is spoken at a near-native or fluent level by millions within Asia who lived under the occupation of the Japanese military prior to Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II.

Today, due mainly to major interest in Japan’s unique culture and its stature as a global economic power (Japan was ranked, for a time, as the world’s second most powerful industrial nation)[xxix], the push for learning and teaching Japanese as a second language has become greatly intensified.  Japanese is currently taught as a second language in many primary, secondary and tertiary institutions throughout the world, and is ranked as one of the world’s more intensely-studied languages.

Roughly 800,000 descendants of Japanese ancestry reside in Brazil; a great many of whom speak Japanese as their native language. These settlers immigrated to Brazil from the early 20th century, and have largely retained their linguistic and cultural identity. Additionally, there are thousands of native Japanese who have settled and now reside in other parts of South America especially Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay.[xxx]

Approximately 180,000 native Japanese immigrants now call the U.S. state of Hawaii home, and thousands of other immigrant Japanese speakers can be found in other portions of the United States, Canada and Australia.

Hundreds of thousands of additional temporary workers, students, and family members now live in the United States and Canada, particularly on the West Coast of the United States and in other areas where major Japanese businesses are located.

Minority Languages in Japan

As we mentioned in the introduction, there are several other languages that can be heard throughout Japan, although collectively these languages only constitute one percent or less of the total population.[xxxi]  Below we will take a brief look at some of the more “popular” minority languages in Japan.

Korean Language

There are approximately 900,000 Japanese residents that speak Korean as their first language; most of these people are also fluent in Japanese.[xxxii]

Korean is the official language for both South Korea and North Korea. It is also one of the two official languages (along with Mandarin) of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture located in northeastern China.  Korean has historically had a significant amount of interaction with the Chinese and Japanese languages, and so there are many cognates and other similar characteristics shared among them.

Korean is usually considered to be an example of a “language isolate,” which means that its roots have not been definitively traced to an older tongue that is also the basis for other major languages. It has a great deal of crossover with the Chinese and Japanese language groups, as well as borrowings from Indian and European languages, but its older forms do not appear to be closely tied to the roots of any of these languages.[xxxiii]

The true classification of the Korean language is a matter of some debate among linguists. Some have claimed that it belongs in the so-called Altaic language family, which is a theoretical root language that spread across central and northern Asia in ancient times and gave rise to many of the native languages of those regions. Others reject this hypothesis and propose instead that Korean belongs to the Buyeo language family, which would cover the root languages of Korea, Japan, and Southern Manchuria.[xxxiv]  However, experts are currently at an impasse with regard to the true and correct theory.

Korean, although it uses tones to distinguish certain meanings, is not as heavily tonal as a language such as Mandarin; in that way it is very similar to Japanese. The language does not have articles, and smaller details of meaning are usually conveyed through affixing small modifiers to a whole word (with the base word generally remaining unchanged). Like in Japanese, honorifics are critically important in Korean–a person must modify their speech based on their own social status in comparison to the person on the other end of the conversation, or else risk coming off as impolite or even extremely rude.[xxxv]

Most Korean dialects are very closely related and can be easily understood by speakers from different regions. The main exception to this appears to be the small island dialect of Jeju, which some (but not all) linguists consider as a language all on its own. Jeju was not under direct control of the Korean kingdoms for much of its history and developed a dialect that was different in many respects, notably that it did not make very much use of honorific terms. The Jeju language/dialect is critically endangered today, as most Korean dialects are becoming more alike over time in a process known as “dialect leveling.”[xxxvi]

In the same way as Japan, written Korean began with the use of Chinese characters (or Hanja) in ancient times. Because classical Chinese characters were so difficult to learn, reading and writing was restricted to the societal elite for many centuries. In the fifteenth century, a Korean ruler had a team of scholars invent an alphabet that would be unique to their land, known as Hangul. The 24 letters of the Hangul alphabet are usually arranged in blocks for each syllable, superficially resembling Chinese characters, but they in fact contain individual phonetically pronounced letters in much the same way as the Latin alphabet. Hangul was looked down upon for some time, but it enabled the underprivileged to become literate more easily, and it became popular in the nineteenth century as Korea sought to shake off Chinese influences. Hangul is now the official writing system in both Korean countries.[xxxvii]

Miyako Language

According to the latest figures, there are approximately 67,000 Japanese residents who speak the Miyako language as either their first or second language.  Most of these people are also fluent in Japanese.[xxxviii]

Miyako is a language spoken in the Miyako Islands, located southwest of the island of Okinawa. The combined population of the islands is about 52,000. Miyako is a Ryukyuan language, most closely related to Yaeyama. The number of fluent native speakers is not known; as a consequence of Japanese language policy, reflected in the education system, people below the age of 60 tend to not use the language except in songs and rituals, and the younger generation mostly uses Japanese as their first language.[xxxix] Miyako is notable among the Japonic languages in that it allows non-nasal syllable-final consonants, something not found in most Japonic languages.

Yaeyema Language

Yaeyema is a language that can also be heard in small pockets of Japan, mostly used by older citizens in their songs and prayers.  Estimates suggest that there are approximately 47,000 native speakers of Yaeyema on the Japanese Islands.[xl]

Like Miyako, Yaeyama is a Ryukyuan language spoken on the Yaeyama Islands, the southernmost inhabited island group in Japan, with a combined population of about 50,000.  The Yaeyama Islands are situated to the southwest of the Miyako Islands of the Ryukyus and to the east of Taiwan. Yaeyama, locally known as Yaimamunii, is most closely related to the Miyako language. The total number of competent native speakers is not exactly known.
Yaeyama has three main dialects, named after the islands they are found on:[xli]
  • Ishigaki
  • Iriomote
  • Taketomi
The speech of the nearby island of Yonaguni, while related, is usually considered a separate language.

Amami Language

A lot of Japan’s languages emerge from the smaller island cultures that stretch down from the south of the country and are called Ryukyuan languages. First on that list is Amami, a set of about a dozen islands positioned south of Kyushu.  Like the previous two languages mentioned, it splits up even more as you move through the islands. Different islands can have drastically different dialects, so learning it on one island doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to speak the language.  Amami is most closely related to Okinawan, and because it does not have official recognition within Japan as a language, it is officially known as a dialect.[xlii]

Amami is sometimes considered two languages. The main dialects are as follows:
  • Northern Amami
    • Northern Ōshima dialect
    • Kikaijima dialect
  • Southern Amami
  • Southern Ōshima dialect
  • Tokunoshima dialect
The languages spoken on Okinoerabujima and Yoronjima, the southernmost islands of the Amami Islands, are classified into the Kunigami language, rather than the Amami language.

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