Japanese At A Glance

  • The world’s fifth most-spoken language, with 125+ million native speakers
  • Official language of Japan, with speakers throughout Hawaii, Brazil, and Australia
  • Non-verbal cues and etiquette are critical parts of the language

If you’ve ever dreamt of the sapphire glow of the firefly squids that engulf Japan’s Toyama Bay in the spring, or trained for months to scale the towering Mount Fuji, or planned a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial to pay your respects, you know that to make the most of your journey, an understanding of the nuances of Japanese culture and language is a must.

Studying Japanese is a great idea for English speakers because the two languages are so different, English translations can’t completely capture the Japanese originals. To truly appreciate Japanese, you should understand all three of its aspects: vocabulary, writing, and “politeness.” The first—vocabulary—is the most straightforward: pronunciation is easy, and many English “loan words” with identifiable phonetic patterns, such as “hoteru” (“hotel”), are used.

Learning the Japanese writing system requires patience, but knowing a few basics will simplify the task. Most Japanese words are written with characters called kanji. More than 13,000 kanji exist, but only 2,000 are commonly used. Two scripts, hiragana and katakana, are used less often and have specific applications, such as naming an animal or a plant. Digital devices can type kanji, but familiarity with the writing system is still important: you must know which kanji to type for which meaning. And for that, you’ll need to identify a kanji’s roots, or “radicals,” in its written form.

The third aspect of Japanese—politeness—is just as essential as writing and vocabulary. The Japanese use language as a way to show respect for a person’s age, social status, and more, and subtext is an integral part of well-mannered communications. For example, when the Japanese disagree with someone, they’re more likely to say “I’ll think about it” than a definitive “no.”


When you think of Japan, the bustle, outlandish fashions, and vivid hues of the Harajuku District in its capital, Tokyo, might come to mind, even if you’ve never travelled there. But Japan is much more than its capital: comprised of 6,852 islands, the country is blanketed by forests or mountains that envelop almost three-quarters of the region in an almost otherworldly beauty between, through, and around its cities and villages.

Japan’s gifts to the world include 1,000 years of poetry, fiction, and drama—and the first novel written by a woman (The Tale of Genji). Japanese literature ranges from The Complete Haiku, by revered poet, Matsuo Basho, to Osamu Tezuka’s multi-volume Phoenix, which is widely recognized as a national treasure and uses manga—an art form similar to cartoons—to tell a series of stories. Novelists Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe won Nobel Prizes in Literature, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day received a Booker Prize. Japanese creativity also extends beyond literature to cuisine: in 2015, more Michelin stars were awarded to restaurants in Tokyo than to restaurants in Paris.

Japan is an economic powerhouse with the world’s third highest GDP and 10th largest population. Innovative electronic products from companies like Sony and Panasonic have made enormous global impacts. Toyota and Honda are two of the world’s best-selling brands. Many forms of design also have Japanese influence, from the streamlined iPhone to the architectural minimalism of the Mishima House in Tokyo. And with 26+ million Twitter users, the Japanese are highly connected.

If you’re looking for work, English teachers are in high demand in Japan, and the government-run Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) can help. There are ongoing job openings in the IT and financial sectors, and a constant search for editors to translate technical manuals into English. Are you a ski instructor? Resorts such as Hakuba are looking for you. Wherever you work in Japan, your skills in Japanese will come in handy, as all employees are encouraged to learn the language if they don’t already know it.


What can you do with Japanese?


Boren Awards

Critical Language Scholarship Program