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Travel Guide > Asia > Japan

Japan Languages

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The language of Japan is Japanese. Most Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years starting from junior high school, but the instruction tends to focus on formal grammar and writing rather than actual conversation.

As a result, beyond the major international hotels and main tourist attractions, it is rare to find locals who are conversant in English. Reading and writing comes much better though, and many younger Japanese are able to read and write in English despite not understanding spoken English. If lost, one practical tip is to write out a question on paper in simple words and give it to someone young, preferably the high school or college students. They may be able to point you in the right direction. It can also be helpful to carry a hotel business card or matchbook with you, to show a taxi driver or someone if you lose your way. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, and try to pick up at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.

Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese (hyojungo), which is based on the Tokyo dialect, is understood everywhere. Areas like Kyushu and the Tohoku region have dialects that are nearly incomprehensible to other Japanese. The slang-heavy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly famous in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.

Japanese is written using a convoluted mix of three different scripts: kanji or Chinese characters, together with "native" hiragana and katakana syllabaries, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than one thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters they were derived from and are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kanas have only 50 syllables each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort.

Of the two, katakana are probably more useful for the visitor as they are used to write words of foreign origin other than Chinese, and thus can be used to figure out words like basu (bus), kamera (camera) or konpy%u016Bt%u0101 (computer). However, some words like terebi (television), depato (department store), wapuro (word processor) and supa (supermarket) may be harder to figure out. Knowing Chinese will also be a great head start for tackling kanji, but not all words mean what they seem. The word 'da jia' in madarin characters means "everybody" in Chinese but "landlord" in Japan. 

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