The origins of the Japanese language are unclear. There appear to be links to the Altaic family of languages which includes Turkish, Mongolian and Korean but there is also evidence linking it to the Austronesian family which includes Polynesian. Whatever the origins, it is true that until the introduction of Chinese characters around 1,500 years ago there does not appear to have been a system for writing or recording the Japanese language. The transition from this ‘Old Japanese’ language to modern Japanese began around 800 years ago.
Japanese is written in a number of ways. The Chinese characters, or Kanji, are the more complex. There are thousands of characters, each associated with a meaning, but around 2,000 have been drawn up into an official list for daily use called the Joyo Kanji List. These characters are taught in schools and are used in everyday life, for example in newspapers.
The other system of writing, or Kana, has two separate smaller sets of characters representing sounds rather than meaning. These are called Hiragana and Katakana. Hiragana is often used in conjunction with Chinese characters while Katakana is used to write words borrowed from other languages such as English. The modern Japanese language uses large numbers of word borrowed from other languages.
Usually Japanese is written in vertical lines, starting from the right side of the page. However, it can also be written in a more western way, in horizontal lines, starting from the top left corner of the page.
There are a large number of regional dialects within Japan, with varying degrees of incomprehensibility to those not resident in the relevant districts. However, the dialect spoken in Tokyo and its surrounding area is used as a common basis for communication and is used in radio and television.
As well as the actual language itself, speaking Japanese requires the use of politeness and terms of respect. Context is everything and the exact terms used will depend on the social status, age or relationship of the person speaking in relation to the person they are speaking to or speaking about. For example, there are a number of variations for the word “I” depending on context. In general, being restrained in your body language, not being too familiar or standing too close to another person and speaking softly are regarded as showing respect.