Ten facts about Japanese
Japanese is the official language of Japan, which has a population of over 125 million. There are also around 2.5 million people of Japanese origin, many of whom speak Japanese as their first language, living in the Americas, particularly the United States. You'll also find a sizeable expatriate presence in major cities such as London, New York and Paris.
What you already know about Japanese
It will be probably come as a relief that just like English, words have no gender. Japanese doesn't use articles as prolifically as English does and there's no way of showing whether a word is singular or plural. E.g. the word 友達 [tomodachi] can mean a friend, the friend, friends and so on. Sounds confusing, but once you get the hang of it, this actually makes things a lot simpler.
Since Japanese uses a vast amount of foreign loan words (外来語 [gairaigo] - literally words from outside) you’ll constantly hear familiar nouns and adjectives, and not just words borrowed from English. E.g. the word for TV is テレビ [terebi], bread is パン [pan] from the French word pain (and same sound as the word in Spanish) and part-time worker is アルバイト [arubaito], from the German Arbeit, work.
The most obvious challenge is probably learning the characters, but unfortunately, there's no getting around them! However, if you want to stick to spoken Japanese and just learn the Romanized script, then it can be a lot easier than learning many other languages. There are no pronunciations or tones to remember and each syllable is given equal emphasis.
Getting used to Japanese grammar can be a bit tricky because of the word order, which is Subject - Object - Verb. Great if you're used to other languages, such as German or Turkish which have similar word orders, but possibly a little confusing for English speakers unfamiliar with it. So, the verb is placed at the end, meaning a simple sentence like "I watch television" would be "I television watch". This also means that you have to be patient as until the speaker reaches the very last word of the sentence, you won't know whether they're coming or going, agreeing or disagreeing and so on!
The most difficult words and tonguetwisters
The Japanese are rather fond of playing tongue twister games and here's one of the most famous, which is difficult enough to say in English, let alone Japanese!:
生麦、生米、生卵 [Nama mugi, nama gome, nama tamago], raw wheat, raw rice, raw egg.
Japanese humour tends to be much more story-based, rather than the telling of simple gags. Whether it be the old style rakugo (storytelling by a comic in traditional dress) or the more modern manzai (comic double act having a rapid-fire conversation), the humour is in the, often rambling, ins and outs of the story. There is a lot of playing on words and the use of dialect for full comic effect.
Here’s a very condensed version of the very famous story, Manjū Kowai, told in the rakugo tradition and stripped of all the little side stories woven into the narrative:
A few friends are sitting around having some drinks. One of them asks the rest what they’re most scared of. One says spiders, another says slugs, the guy next to him snakes and so on... Finally, one of them admits it’s manjū cakes that scare him the most. So, as a practical joke, his friends go off to get heaps of manju cakes and lock him in a room with them. After a while, they open the door - only to see that he’s actually eaten all of them! "Hey!" shouts one of the friends, "I thought you said you were terrified of manjū! You liar! So come on, tell us the truth now! What is it that you're really frightened of?" "Well," says the man thinking for a while, "Funny you ask that, but at this very moment, I think I'm really scared of a nice cup of tea...."
A knowledge of Japanese will help immensely if you intend to learn Korean as the two languages are grammatically very similar. Chinese is very different in this respect although learning the Japanese characters would prepare you for the bigger task of learning the Chinese ones.
What not to say and do
One of the most notorious ways in which foreigners (especially Italians) embarrass themselves is when they first go to a Japanese bar and say cin cin on clinking glasses to toast. Unfortunately for them, chinchin is how Japanese children refer to the male organ!
Perhaps the best-known Japanese literary form outside Japan is the Haiku. With its simple 5-7-5 syllabic structure and origins within Zen Buddhism, it's been as popular with school teachers as with the Beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. One of the most famous Haiku poets is Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), and this is perhaps his best-known, and most evocative, work:
古池や 蛙飛びこむ 水の音
[Furu ike ya
Mizu no oto]
The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
The strange thing about Japanese is that there’s very little evidence of an indigenous writing system until the Chinese characters were brought over to Japan in the 5th century AD. Even after this, it wasn't until around the 8th century that a truly distinct form of written Japanese was developed. But it was a couple of centuries later when, what is often referred to as the world's first novel, 源氏物語 [Genji Monogatari], The Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu in 1007.
In the old days of feudal Japan, a samurai warrior would shout 身の程を知れ！[Mi no hodo o shire!], Know your place! at anyone who dared to show insufficient respect. And with that, a sword would be brought swiftly down upon the unfortunate one's head. Well, you might not have to fear a sword these days but it’s still wise to always remember your place. Even if you don't have the language skills, a softening of the voice, a discreet awareness of the other person's personal space and undemonstrative body language go a long way when it comes to courtesy and showing respect.