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People and Language of Japan

Japanese people form both a nation and an ethnic group. It comprises 98% of the population, and under this denomination, other groups like Yamato people are also included. As a nation, Japan can be seen characterized by the use of Japanese as a language, and Shinto and Buddhism as religions.

The origins of Japanese, the national language of the country, are hard to trace back and it is also difficult to group it together with other languages. One of its peculiarities is its writing system, as it uses 3 scripts: kanji, which are Chinese ideograms; and two syllabaries called hiragana and katakana.

Read more to learn about Japan and its wonderful culture!

Quick Facts

  • The vast majority of the people living in Japan is of Japanese ethnicity.
  • Initially influenced by China, Japanese people have been able to emancipate themselves and create their own peculiar culture.
  • The Japanese language is spoken by 128 million people;its origins are still unclear.
  • Polite forms deeply change the language used in everyday life.
  • Kanji, hiragana, and katakana are the 3 scripts used for the Japanese language.

Japanese People

When we talk about ethnic Japanese, we usually refer to every ethnic group living in Japan: Yamato people, the dominant ethnic group; Ainu people, who moved to Japan from Russia; and Ryukyuan people, native of the Ryukyu islands.

Origins of Japanese Ethnic Groups

Japanese people, the ethnic group native of the country, covers 98,5% of the whole population (of a total of 129 million). Historians believe that Japanese people originated from the Jōmon people, hunter-gatherers with a primitive form of agriculture. Around 300 BC, the Yayoi people intermingled with the inhabitants of Japan, bringing along advanced technology. 

Religion

The native religion of Japan is Shinto, which has always been characterized by a persistent syncretism with the other main Japanese religion, Zen Buddhism. A polytheistic religion with no scriptures, Shinto was the basisto the throne of the Imperial family. Buddhism, on the other side, originated in India and reached Japan around the 6th century.

Nowadays, the vast majority of Japanese people profess a religion that is a mixture of both Shinto and Buddhism and it is mostly seen as the basis of Japanese mythology and folklore.

Traditional Arts

The earliest example of Japanese art was heavily influenced by Chinese Confucianism and Buddhism. Calligraphy, sculpture, and painting all flourished, especially during the Nara period (8th century).

With time, Japanese art emancipated itself from Chinese influence.For example, during the Muromachi period (14th century), Zen Buddhism played an important role in the development of ink wash painting. Woodblock painting and pottery were further developed, and the noh and kabuki theatre became more and more important.

After the Meiji restoration, western art has been adopted and modified by Japan, giving it a “Japanese” feeling, thus creating a wide range of art that spans from traditional Japanese forms to more westernized works of art.

Japanese Language

The national language of Japan is spoken by almost 130 million people. It is a member of the Japonic language family, and much about it is unclear. For example, linguists have problems tracing back its origins.Its relationship with other languages, like Korean, is unclear; and we don’t really know when it first appeared in Japan.

Japanese is an agglutinative language (i.e. it forms words by “gluing” different pieces together). Its word order is usually subject-object-verb, and the sentence structure is topic-comment (the principal part of the sentence comes first, and then comes what you want to say about it).

There are no articles, and nouns have no gender nor grammatical number. Verbs are conjugated for tense and voice, but not for person. 

Pronunciation

Learning Japanese pronunciation is not difficult.Vowels are always pure (no diphthongs), and accents, even if present, are not a big problem to leaners, as they can be in Chinese. However, a problem can come from the many homonyms, words that sound the same but have different meanings.

Levels of Speech

Politeness and formality are extremely important in the Japanese language. In everyday life, differences in social position come from age, job, experience, etc. The person in the lower position will use the polite form of speech, while the other one will use the plain form. If you don’t know someone, you will speak to him/her a in a polite way.

We can distinguish three levels: teineigo (polite language), sonkeigo (respectful language), and kenjogo (humble language). Kenjogo is used mostly to talk about oneself, while teineigo is used when talking about the interlocutor. Generally speaking, teineigo is used in formal occasions, and sonkeigo when talking to someone in a higher position.

Politeness is used to indicate a lack of familiarity.The more you get to know someone, the less you will use polite forms, no matter what your age, social status or job is.

To make a noun polite, it is usually enough to ad o- or go- as a prefix. In some cases, these prefixes are now part of the word (ex: gohan “cooked rice”), to indicate deference towards the object indicated by the noun.

Kanji

Japanese uses three scripts: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji is the older one, and the two other derived from this one. Kanji (from hanzi, “Chinese characters”) are Chinese ideograms, and they were adopted in Japan around the 5th century. 2136 kanjihave been declared essential for everyday use. Each ideogram has its own meaning, so it is possible to create new words by simply putting together two kanji.

The Japanese language took the Chinese characters and changed their pronunciation, adapting it to Japanese phonology. So, many kanji can be pronounced in two ways: the Chinese way (called yomi), and the Japanese way (kunyomi).

Many kanji still retain the original Chinese meaning (and sometimes also their pronunciation is similar to that in Classical Chinese). Nevertheless, there are hundreds of kanji with a different meaning from the original Chinese characters. This happened because Japanese created its own characters or, with time, just changed the original meaning.

Hiragana and Katakana

In the beginning, Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese. With time, Chinese characters were introduced in Japan, but in a simplified version that became two different scripts: hiragana and katakana. While every kanji has its own meaning, these two scripts are syllabaries.

Hiragana is used for words that are not represented by kanji, and it can also follow kanji to show conjugations. Kanji, by themselves, would not be able to fully convey tense and mood. When hiragana is used as a suffix of kanji and has a grammatical value, it is called okurigana.

The last script, katakana, is used for foreign words brought into Japanese, and so it can be seen mainly as a transliteration tool.

Useful Communication Phrases

Knowing a word or two of Japanese can greatly improve your trip. Common phrases are easy to learn, and everyone will be able to understand you. In Japanese, there are different greetings according to age, social class, and relation.

Konnichiwa (pronunciation: “kon-nee-chee-wah”) is the most common greeting, and it can be used towards anyone (mostly in the afternoon). To ask someone “How are you doing?”, Japanese people will say:o-genkidesu ka?(“oh-gain-kee des-kah”). To reply, say genkidesu (“gain-kee des”).

Saying “yes” is quite easy: hai. With a close acquaintance, ee is also used.

“No” is iya, which becomes iie in a more formal context.

Being polite is really important in Japan, so it is worth to learn at least how to say “thank you”: arigatougozaimasu (the “u” at the end is barely pronounced). Simply saying arigatou is perfectly acceptable. To apologize or to get someone’s attention, say sumimasen (which can also be used to call a waiter in a restaurant).

Visit Japan with Asia Highlights

Whether you are fluent in Japanese, or you know little to none and you want to learn more, travelling in Japan is always easy and fascinating, and the language barrier is not truly a “barrier”. And, with our staff planning every part of your trip with great care, we are sure you and your family will have the hassle-free trip you are dreaming of!

Check out the following links and learn more about our tours now:

9-Day Japan Highlights Tour: A Stimulating Fusion of East and West

11-Day Traditional Japan Tour: Historical Monuments and Lively Modern Cities

11-Day Classic Japan Tour: Explore a Cluster of Scenic Cities and Quaint Towns in a Remote Mountain Region