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Japanese is an East Asian language being mainly spoken on the Japanese archipelago. It is an agglutinative language.

Autoglottonym: Nihongo
Pronunciation: [/ni.ho.ɴ.go/, [nihõ̞ŋgo̞], [nihõ̞ŋŋo̞]]
Ethnologue name: Japanese
OLAC name: [1]
Location point:
Family: Altaic? (controversial)
Genus: Japonic
Country: Japan, USA, Brazil, Peru
Official in: Japan
Speakers: 126,000,000
Writing system: Japanese writing system (Kanji, Kana, Roomaji)
ISO 639-3: jpn


Pronunciation: [nihõ̞ŋgo̞]

The autonym 'Nihongo [nihõ̞ŋgo̞]' is the Japanese pronunciation of the compound word 日本語 which consists of two parts; 日本 (nihon; Japan) and 語 (go; language). The former part, 日本, means "sun-origin" and dates back to the Japanese missions to Imperial China in medieval time who referred to Japan in this way because of her eastward position relative to China.

The internationally acknowledged name Japanese derives from Mandarin or possibly Wu Chinese pronunciation of Japan, Cipangu, mentioned in a work of Marco Polo.


Japanese is spoken nearly exclusively inside of Japan.


The number of native speakers is estimated at 126,000,000. The most of them are concentrated in Japan (124 million).

Relatively large communities of Japanese expatriates exist in the USA (0.8 million), Brazil (0.38 million), Peru (0.1 million), Canada (43,000), Mexico (35,000), Argentine (32,000) as well as in Germany (21,000) and Singapore (20,000) et al.

The number of second language speaker of Japanese is relatively small. Its largest groups are the Korean minority in Japan (0.6 million) on the one hand, and the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago, whose native language is a Ryukyuan language on the other hand.


The standard variety of Japanese is called hyoujugen 標準語, but many distinctive dialects (hougen, 方言) can be found throughout the country. Japanese is normally split up into Eastern and Western Japanese, which can in turn be further divided into subcategories. A well-known example is the dialect of the Kansai region, the Kansai-ben 関西弁, which also includes the Oosaka-ben and the Kyouto-ben.

Loanwords and foreign influences

The Japanese vocabulary can be divided into native-Japanese words (和語, wago), Sino-Japanese words (漢語, kango) and foreign loanwords (外来語, gairaigo, words that come from outside). Sino-Japanese words were imported during the Asuka period (AD 538 - 710), when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan. Chinese loanwords started spreading while books on Buddhism gained popularity during this period. Not only were Chinese words adopted to the Japanese language, but already existing Chinese words were given a new meaning or characters were combined differently and later reimported to China (和製漢語, waseikango, Chinese words made in Japan).



Writing System

The Japanese writing system consists of four seperate systems: Chinese characters, Kanji 漢字, Kana 仮名, two syllable systems which consists of Hiragana 平仮名/ひらがな and Katakana 片仮名/カタカナ, and the Latin writing system (being called ローマ字, Roomaji). Writing was first introduced to Japan from China around the 5th century AD, which caused the Japanese writing system to be highly influenced by Chinese standards, such as characters representing meaning instead of sound.

It was not until the 7th century that the two syllable-based systems emerged from a set of Chinese characters originally used to represent grammatical inflections. In Modern Japanese each of them contains a set of 46 basic characters, while some of them can be modified via using diacritics (called dakuten 濁点, a diacritic which causes unvoiced phonemes to become voiced).


[2]An Overview of the History of the Japanese Language by Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen, Brigham Young University
[3]Kansai Ben on The Japanese Page.com

Works on the language

Hasegawa, Yoko. 2014. Japanese: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Frellesvig, Bjarke. 2011. A History of the Japanese Language. Cambridge University Press.
Loveday, Leo. 1986. Pragmatics & Beyond VII:1. Japanese Sociolinguistics. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
Tsujimura, Natsuko. 2013. An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics. Wiley & Sons: West Sussex.
Yamaguchi, Yoshiko. 2007. Japanese Linguistics. An Introduction. Continuum: London.


Archibald, John & O'Grady, William (ed.). 2001. Contemporary Linguistics. An Introduction. Fourth Edition. Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston.
Yamaguchi, Yoshiko. 2007. Japanese Linguistics. An Introduction. Continuum: London.