Introduction to Japanese

The Basics

Japanese, or 日本語  (nihongo) is the national language of Japan. It’s not spoken natively anywhere else. The use of the language is becoming more widespread however, due to the penetration of popular Japanese culture. As a result, more and more people have become interested in learning Japanese.

The Pronunciation

If you are not an Asian, Japanese can sound pretty strange and hard to catch at first. But there’s good news! Although it’s been classified as being the hardest language to learn together with Chinese and Korean, it’s certainly not the hardest of those three. Unlike Chinese which has four tones for every word, tones play a way less important role in Japanese. There are certainly similarities in the sounds of these three languages though.

For those from Asian countries, Japanese might be easier for you. In particular, those who know mandarin hanyu pinyin would find that the Japanese pronunciation system is very similar.

The Writing System

There are a total of three writing systems in Japanese. Hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

Kanji characters came from the Chinese writing system. The kanji might be identical to its traditional or simplified Chinese counterpart, or it may be neither.

Hiragana is the most ‘basic’ of the three writing systems. It’s used for words without kanji, or words that are no longer written in kanji.

Katakana is used primarily for words of foreign origin. Words are also purposely written in katakana at times in order to create emphasis, in a somewhat similar way to when bolds are typed in ALL CAPS in English, but for creating a different effect.

So, which is which? Kanji characters (e.g. 日本語学) are generally more complex, with way more strokes then hiragana (e.g. なにぬねの) and katakana (e.g. ナニヌネノ). Among the two, hiragana is the more curly script, while katakana is more angular and blocky (and generally looks more simplified).

The Grammar

Of course, the grammar of an entire language is far too complicated to be explained in a single paragraph. I’ll just highlight some key features here.

Sentence structure

Japanese sentence structure is classified as a subject-object-verb. Meaning that verbs are typically placed at the end of a sentence. In contrast, English has a subject-verb-object order.

However, in Japanese, the subject AND object can be dropped as long as the context is clear. That means that a single verb can be a grammatically correct, complete, sentence.

The word order is flexible too, so long as the verb stays at the end, you can rearrange the subject and object without affecting the meaning of the sentence.


Particles rather than word order is used to indicate which is the subject, and which is the object. This explains why the sentence order is so flexible.


Like in English, past and present tenses are used.


Unlike English, there’s no indication of singular or plural in Japanese nouns.


There are no articles in Japanese. No ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘the’.

Conjugation of Verbs

There are various ways a single verb can be conjugated. The conjugation is used to indicate various concepts, including tenses, and negative (or positive).

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