Some Basic Facts about the Japanese LanguageThe position of Japanese in the language landscape

(January 2, 2019; updated October 18, 2023)

General Characteristics

Although the origin of the Japanese language and its relationship to other languages remain subjects of some debate among scholars, on a practical level, the Japanese language bears little resemblance to any other language that would make it easier to understand or learn by speakers of some other specific language.

For example, aside from many words incorporated into Japanese from Western languages such as English, Dutch, and Portuguese, the total universe of cognates is tiny and is not helpful to native speakers of those Western languages attempting to learn Japanese. And many of the loanwords from those languages are used with meanings different from their meanings in their original language.

More importantly, however, the structure of the Japanese language, being radically different from most other languages, makes it particularly difficult to learn, even for Chinese speakers, who share a subset of the logogram characters (kanji) used in Japanese to write a language that is totally different from Chinese. While there is a commonality of a subset of the logograms, the Chinese language itself is not related to the Japanese language, regardless of that partial commonality of orthography.

Writing SystemWorld-class Complexity and Diversity of Writing Systems

Perhaps uniquely among written languages, Japanese is written with a mixture of three different sets of symbols, kanji characters, almost all borrowed from the Chinese written language, and two sets of phonetic characters developed in Japan, hiragana and katakana, the former used in combination with kanji characters to write Japanese, and the latter used chiefly in modern times to write borrowings from other languages phonetically. Recently, there are also occasional expressions written in Latin orthography, but movements to write Japanese totally in Latin orthography have universally failed.

Misconception Regarding KanjiWords, not meanings

Although some Westerners (particularly those who are enamored of kanji characters) enjoy asserting that the borrowed Chinese characters used to write Japanese are ideograms and represent ideas not necessarily linked to particular words in the language, this notion has long been discredited. The current understanding treats kanji characters as representing particular words (and sometimes a plurality of words of totally different pronunciation, depending upon context), making them not ideograms, but rather logograms. Additionally, most kanji have at least two readings, usually at least one of which is a reading adapted from Chinese, although that reading is almost always quite different from the reading of the character in Chinese, the others being one or more native Japanese readings, which map the logogram onto one or more native Japanese words.

Japanese and Chinese LanguagesMutually Unintelligible

Although the Japanese language uses thousands of kanji characters borrowed from Chinese, the Japanese language itself bears very little resemblance to Chinese. Chinese and Japanese differ so greatly that a Chinese reader or speaker might be able to tell approximately what a written Japanese text is about, but not actually what is says. The same applies in the reverse direction.

The Global Position of JapaneseCommercially Important, but Rarely Spoken outside of Japan

Despite its importance by virtue of the achievements of Japan in technology and commerce, the Japanese language has extremely few users outside of Japan, save for first- and some second-generation Japanese diaspora. This can be attributed to Japan's never having had success in building and maintaining an overseas empire to foster Japanese as a world language. Japan's attempts to coerce people in its occupied or annexed countries before and during WW2 to learn and use Japanese was largely unsuccessful. When the Japanese left in August of 1945, they basically took the language with them.

Measuring the Importance of Japanese

If a language-importance index were to be devised to reflect

  • the number of people using the language as their native language;
  • the importance of the language as a vehicle for commerce;
  • the importance technology expressed using the language; and
  • the opportunities, needs, and desires for natives of the language to interact with people in other language domains,

Japanese might come out at or near the top of the world's languages, and would probably be above Chinese, regardless of the large number of native speakers of Chinese. This will not spark joy in the hearts of people who were fired up about the coming expected dominance of China to the extent that they studied Chinese. As joy-free as that situation might be, it remains true, at least until the system in China opens up or falls down of its own weight, enabling and/or requiring a large volume of direct interaction with non-Chinese people.

Acquisition of Japanese LanguageA long and sometimes winding road

Even though many universities in English-speaking countries offer programs in Japanese, long-term residence in Japan is still extremely important in acquiring Japanese as a second language for use in the real world outside of academic pursuits or things such as enjoying anime. Numerous Westerners have attained capability in Japanese; almost all of them have resided for long periods in Japan, many of them are still in Japan, and the ones who are exceptionally good at Japanese, both written and spoken, appear to be mostly living in Japan.

Additionally, there is an undeniable learning synergy between reading and speaking, and attempts to learn to read Japanese exclusively from outside of Japan with little emphasis on—or opportunity to learn—spoken Japanese are not likely to be successful. But there is no formulaic path to fluency in Japanese. The founder's story is just one example.

The Chinese Disconnection

With globalization encouraging large numbers of people in places such as China and India to learn Japanese for the express purpose of becoming Japanese-to-English translators, the translation labor market was flooded in recent years with people who will, mostly for political and economic reasons, never be able to experience the Japanese language outside of a learning environment in their home country and culture. These people form a universe of “third-language” translators (TLTs) who translate from one foreign language to another and are rarely up to the task of providing high-quality Japanese-to-English translation.

We see the results of translations by TLTs on a regular basis as translations of Japanese discovery documents done in China. In demand segments in which a “good enough” translation is “good enough,” such translators (including TLTs used by translation brokers in China and indirectly used by the US translation broker-agencies subcontracting to those Chinese translation brokers) appear to have found a way to make a living. One such demand segment is represented by the need for cheap and quick (even if poorly done) translations of Japanese discovery documents produced in US litigation.

But for high-quality translations, these TLTs have not been able to and are highly unlikely to ever be able to replace translators who possess native-level reading ability in Japanese, native writing ability in English, and subject-matter expertise. Ironically, the TLTs themselves might be on the verge of losing out to machine translation systems, which are quickly achieving "mediocrity singularity" with incompetent human translators, at a price much cheaper than available from even human translators in China, even when you add the cost of rescue efforts to post-edit the poor translations they produce. We will write more about this phenomenon on a different occasion.