Japanese is the official language of Japan. It is primarily spoken in Japan and in Japanese expatriot communities. Since the fall of the Japanese empire, the spread of the language has been minimal. It still holds significant weight in the business world since Japan commands a large amount of influence in world commerce.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the Japanese language is its written system. It is composed of three different scripts including hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana make up the basic systems and are used to spell words. Hiragana is used to convey native Japanese words, and katakana is primarily used to transliterate foreign words. Kanji is the script that calls to mind Japan in the minds of Westerners. This set of characters was imported from China thousands of years ago, becoming the basis for the written form of Japanese. Kanji is typically used to write out the nouns, adjectives, and verbs. This requires the memorization of a specific symbol to represent a word. Students thus learn thousands of different kanji for everyday use. In the case where a symbol falls out of usage, then hiragana is often used to spell out the word.
Japanese is spoken by more than 120 million people around the world, making it nine out ten on the most spoken language. It is only officially spoken in Japan, though, mainly because expansionist policies of the Japanese empire were strongly put down after World War Two. A large number of business and government professionals around the world do find significant value in learning it, though.
Japanese feels like a rather foreign language to Westerners. The use of a syllabary instead of an alphabet creates unique word sounds that are largely unused in English and Romance languages. The kanji script is a necessity because the use of syllables creates a huge amount of homophones which cannot be easily distinguished. The word for bridge in Japanese sounds almost identical to the word for chopsticks! Therefore, a unique symbol for each is useful.
Another foreign concept to Westerners is the similarities between Japanese in Chinese. English speakers are used to finding cognates in European languages. These words have similar sounds for the same meaning. The relationship between Chinese and Japanese is nearly polar opposite. Because kanji was imported from China and was subsequently adopted for the spoken language, Chinese tourists in Japan cannot understand a word spoken to them. Likewise, Japanese speakers would find it impossible to converse with Chinese speakers. Interestingly, however, both languages can explore the country and gain basic directions because the written script shares so much in common.
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