Nihonjin & Nihongo: Japanese culture & language


A few days in Japan and every visitor gets the feeling that it might be a good idea to study Japanese. Of course thinking about it is always much much easier that actually starting to learn anything at all. This is especially true of something as hard as Japanese, one of the five most difficult languages in the world. On the other hand, if you think it is going to be hard, it probably will be.

Start off on the right foot by believing that you can learn a little and then from there a little more and so on. What ever you learn, even if it seems totally useless, will, in the end lead you to something new. Start at the place that interests you or that is the most interesting for you. Some people get into the kanji (Chinese ideograms), some enjoy creating grammar patterns and others take a more practical approach by memorizing verbs, nouns and adjective. No matter where you start you will find that your understanding of the Japanese and their culture will improve. In the end, you can’t lose!

Unlike nearly all languages in the world, written Japanese is a mixture of two historical realities. First of all, spoken Japanese came before written Japanese (which was developed some time in the late 8th century in Kyoto). Therefore, when they modeled their words onto the Chinese writing system everything did not exactly fit. For example raku, kyaku or koku, key Japanese sounds, do not exist in Chinese. Therefore, Japanese is a combination of kanji and hiragana. Second of all, many Japanese words (more and more every year) are borrowed from other languages, especially English and German. These words, though written using katakana, which makes them easier to identify, are usually quite different from the sound of the original word. For example, mass communication, is masukomi in Japanese. Even the words ‘situation’ and ‘all mighty’ have Japanese counterparts. To make things even worse, the meaning of the original word and the Japanese version of it may be entirely different. Consider the German word for work, ‘arbeit’; in Japanese arubeito means part-time job.

For many the biggest challenge of any new language lies in the grammar. Japanese grammar is not really difficult. It is simply quite different from most European languages, where the verb is between the subject and the object. Japanese sentences are constructed with the verb at the end, after the subject. In English and Spanish, you would say: “I went to the fish shop”. In Japanese, you would say: “I fish shop to went.”

If you are German, then you do have an advantage as German sentences also end in the verb. This explains why Japanese people learn German much more quickly than they do English. German’s strict obedience to its rules versus English’s maddening disobedience to the rules it is supposedly built on, most likely also makes German easier for the Japanese.

Some people say sentences ending in verbs are perfectly suited for a culture that is as hierarchal and deeply polite as Japanese society is. If you get the feeling, clearly or just as an intuition, that the person you are speaking with is already displeased with what you are saying, you can simply change the verb at the last minute. For example instead of saying: “I don’t want to compromise.” you can say: “I will compromise.” In this way you can avoid conflict, an core desire in Japanese social interaction.

One of the aspects of Japanese that can be the most difficult for Westerners lies in the appropriate level of politeness. There are three levels of polite language: keigo or “formal Japanese”, the polite “masu” verb form, and the straight verb form style. If you really want to be safe, then two levels are probably enough: the masu form for formal or polite situations and the straight, almost brutal, plain verb ending for informal situations. The first form is always safe but can be a bit stiff at times. The key lies in knowing when which form is truly the right one. When in doubt choose the more polite form.


If you have a good memory, then learn Japanese the super fast way: memorize words and expressions only and forget about, at least for the time being, grammar all together. The best mix is: 40% verbs, 40% nouns and 20% adjectives. A superb book for this is Japanese for Native Speakers, Hokuseido Press. It has what is considered to be the essential of all essential vocabulary lists, broken down into nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. at the back: these 20 pages are priceless for any serious Japanese student. Kyoto also has more than its share of excellent Japanese schools with courses suited to every type of person and level. See page 14 for a list and call today! Get further into Japan and Japanese culture: learn a little Japanese every day.

For a deeper look into Japan consider Your Japan Private Tours: Quality Japan travel expertise since 1992: private guided tours, itinerary design, off-the-beaten track destinations no matter where you travel in Japan:



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Your Japan Private Tours

Ian Ropke has been active in the Japanese tourism industry for nearly 30 years. His book, A Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto is available on and Google Books.

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