Introduction to Japanese Language and Culture – Part I

You might be reading this article because you already have a vast interest in Japanese culture. Perhaps you a fan of Japanese animation or comics. Or you could be an avid video game player with an affinity for Japanese games. Or perhaps you just stumbled here for another reason. Whatever your interest, it’s likely you have at one point or another wished you knew more about the Japanese language or their society.

Prehistory and Written Language

For starters, I should give you a quick background on the country behind the people. Japan, known as ‘Nihon’ or ‘Nippon’ by the Japanese people, is an island nation of the coast of East Asia. The actual meaning of its Japanese name is “sun-origin”, aptly named because its eastern location. The English name ‘Japan’ evolved from Marco Polo’s dubbing of ‘Cipangu’ likely stemming from the pronunciation of ‘Zeppen’ in the dialect of the then native Chinese he encountered.

The prehistoric people themselves probably moved from the Korean or Chinese mainland to what is now Japan somewhere between 100,000 and 30,000 BC. The Japanese people have the longest known recorded history, going back almost 2600 years! The lineage of their emperors supposedly traces back to the very first emperor, Jimmu. According to Shinto belief, he was the direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Japan has been historically isolated for most of its existence, only receiving its first verified visitor from China around 499 A.D.

In fact, Japan had no formal writing system until it borrowed from existing Chinese characters. Even modern Hiragana and Katakana are evolved, simplified forms of what was originally Chinese ‘hanji’. However, it should be noted that the actual spoken language evolved completely independent of other languages, and is unique in that linguists are still debating what, if any connection Japanese has to languages of other nations.

As for the written language, Japanese is composed of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic and have set pronunciations (more or less), whereas Kanji are Chinese characters that represent an idea or image and can have different meanings and pronunciations depending on how it’s used and contextual factors. The difference between Hiragana and Katakana is a little tricky to explain, but as a general rule, native Japanese words are written in Hiragana (or Kanji), and loan words as well as names of some locations, people, animals, plants, etc may be written in Katakana. There are always exceptions though, for example some Japanese people may write their name in Katakana to seem trendy or unique, or a word that might have been a loan word originally, like “tobacco”, would be written in Hiragana. It may help to think of Hiragana as a smooth, ‘cursive’ style used for most common writing, and Katakana as a sort of ‘block’ print used to show distinction. Kanji is used when a Japanese word has a Kanji counterpart that can replace the Hiragana (or in some rare instances, the Katakana). This is done in adult Japanese writing as much as possible. Kanji usage shows an increase in articulation, if everything was written in Hiragana/Katakana, it might seem like it was written for a child to read, or that the writer was unintelligent. Kanji also is said to improve the flow of the sentence, making it easier to understand and read quickly. Traditional Japanese is written vertically, top to bottom, although it is no longer uncommon to see Japanese written horizontally, left to right. In either case though, books, pamphlets, etc are written with the content leading right to left, opposite of how western books are written.

This concludes the first part of my introduction into the various aspects of the Japanese language and culture, please make sure to check back for future installments.