Japanese language

日本語 Nihongo
Nihongo (Japanese) in Japanese script
Spoken in Majority: Japan
Total speakers 130 million[1]
Ranking 9
Language family Japonic
  • Japanese
Writing system Japanese logographs and syllabaries, Chinese characters, rōmaji, Siddham script (occasionally in Buddhist temples.)
Official status
Official language in  Japan
 Palau (Angaur)[2][3]
Regulated by None
Japanese government plays major role
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ja
ISO 639-2 jpn
ISO 639-3 jpn
  The primary official language is Japanese.
  Japanese is a minority language.

Japanese (日本語 Nihongo?, ) is a language spoken by over 130 million[4] people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family. There are a number of proposed relationships with other languages, but none of them has gained unanimous acceptance (see Classification of Japanese).[5] Japanese is an agglutinative language and a mora-timed language. It has a relatively small sound inventory, and a lexically significant pitch-accent system. It is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics reflecting the nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned in conversation. Japanese vowels are pure. The Japanese language is written with a combination of three scripts: Chinese characters called kanji (漢字), and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名) and katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名). The Latin alphabet, rōmaji (ローマ字), is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when entering Japanese text into a computer. Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace (see Japanese numerals).

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and sometimes still is spoken other places. Before and during World War II, when Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, the Philippines, and various Pacific islands,[6] locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in empire-building programs. As a result, many elderly people in these countries can speak Japanese in addition to the local language.

Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazil,[7] with 1.4 million to 1.5 million Japanese immigrants and descendents, according to Brazilian IBGE data, more than the 1.2 million of the United States[8]) sometimes employ Japanese as their primary language. Approximately 5% of Hawaii residents speak Japanese, with Japanese ancestry the largest single ancestry in the state (over 24% of the population). Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia (especially Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Cairns), the United States (notably California, where 1.2% of the population has Japanese ancestry, and Hawaii), and the Philippines (particularly in Davao and Laguna). However, their descendants, known as nikkei (日系) rarely speak Japanese fluently after the second generation.

Official status

Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan. There is a form of the language considered standard: hyōjungo (標準語?), meaning "standard Japanese", or kyōtsūgo (共通語?), "common language". The meanings of the two terms are almost the same. Hyōjungo or kyōtsūgo is a conception that forms the counterpart of dialect. This normative language was born after the Meiji Restoration (明治維新 meiji ishin?, 1868) from the language spoken in the higher-class areas of Tokyo (see Yamanote) for communicating necessity. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications. It is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Formerly, standard Japanese in writing (文語 bungo?, "literary language") was different from colloquial language (口語 kōgo?). The two systems have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. Bungo was the main method of writing Japanese until about 1900; since then kōgo gradually extended its influence and the two methods were both used in writing until the 1940s. Bungo still has some relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). Kōgo is the dominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today, although bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect.


Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to many factors, including the length of time the archipelago has been inhabited, its mountainous island terrain, and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usage. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.

The main distinction in Japanese accents is between Tokyo-type (東京式 Tōkyō-shiki?) and Kyoto-Osaka-type (京阪式 Keihan-shiki?), though Kyūshū-type dialects form a third, smaller group. Within each type are several subdivisions. Kyoto-Osaka-type dialects are in the central region, with borders roughly formed by Toyama, Kyōto, Hyōgo, and Mie Prefectures; most Shikoku dialects are also that type. The final category of dialects are those that are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese; these dialects are spoken in Hachijō-jima island and a few others.

Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Kagoshima, may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country. The several dialects of Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū are famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū as well. This is probably due in part to the Kagoshima dialects' peculiarities of pronunciation, which include the existence of closed syllables (i.e., syllables that end in a consonant, such as /kob/ or /koʔ/ for Standard Japanese /kumo/ "spider"). A dialects group of Kansai is spoken and known by many Japanese, and Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy (see Kansai dialect). Dialects of Tōhoku and North Kantō are associated with typical farmers.

The Ryūkyūan languages, spoken in Okinawa and Amami Islands that are politically part of Kagoshima, are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family. However, many ordinary Japanese people tend to consider the Ryūkyūan languages as dialects of Japanese. Not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ryūkyūan languages.

Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands) due to education, mass media, and increase of mobility networks within Japan, as well as economic integration.