Japanese is the official language of Japan, which has a population of over 125 million. Japan consists of over 6,800 islands, suffers 1,500 earthquakes each year and has the highest life expectancy in the world, with over 50,000 citizens over 100 years of age. There are also around 2.5 million people of Japanese origin spread across the Americas, most notably in Brazil, many of whom speak Japanese as their first language. There is also a sizeable presence of Japanese expatriates in major world cities including London, New York and Paris. Although the 9th most spoken language in the world, Japanese is not one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Japanese uses 4 distinct systems of writing: kanji, hiragana, katakana and romanji.
- Hiragana is syllabic and the most original writing system in Japan. It is used for simple words, conjugations, particles and children’s literature as it is the first set of writing which is taught.
- Katakana is used to write foreign words.
- Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and consists of about 2000 signs. Kanji was imported from Chinese in the 6th century AD. It has developed strongly ever since, often simplifying the original letters.
- Recently, romanji – a romanization of Japanese words – has developed, too.
Interpreting: We recently provided interpreters for a two-day event in London with a visiting delegation of Japanese businessmen. We arranged for three pairs of native-speaking interpreters to work in shifts to cover the conference, and also provided the necessary equipment to facilitate effective participation between all attendees. We also regularly provide Japanese interpreters to the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions and more.
History of the Japanese Language
Little is known of the early history of Japanese. Its linguistic development has been split into four stages by academics: Old Japanese, Early Middle Japanese, Late Middle Japanese and Modern Japanese.
Old Japanese is the oldest attested stage of written Japanese, and spans the period between the third and eighth centuries. The earliest texts found in Japan are written in Classical Chinese, which was brought to Japan with the spread of Buddhism. These documents show influences from Japanese grammar, chiefly by shifting the word order such that the verb is placed after the object. Old Japanese had 88 distinct syllables and may have contained up to as many as eight separate vowels, in contrast to the current five.
Early Middle Japanese designates the language as used between 794 and 1185, and sees significant Chinese influence on Japanese phonology. Old Japanese borrowed and adapted Chinese script to write Japanese, whereas Early Middle Japanese introduced two new scripts entirely: hiragana and katakana. This simplified writing and heralded a new age of literary proliferation, with the publication of classics including Genji Monogatari, Taketori Monogatari, Ise Monogatari and more.
Late Middle Japanese covers the years from 1185 to 1600, and is a period of transition in which the language sheds many of its archaic features and becomes closer to its modern form. The period spanned roughly 500 years extending from the 12th century through the 16th century and is customarily split into an Early and Late division. Politically, the first half of Late Middle Japanese consists of the end of the Heian period known as Insei and the Kamakura period; the second half of Late Middle Japanese consists of the Muromachi period. The end of the 12th century was a time of transition from the aristocratic society of the nobles in the Heian period to the feudalistic society of the warrior class. Accompanying this change, the political centre moved with establishment of various shogunates in the east.
In the middle of 16th century, Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan. While introducing western concepts and technology, they also shared their language, which led to the introduction of various Portuguese loanwords into the language. In an attempt to spread their religion, the Portuguese missionaries studied and learned Japanese. They created a number of linguistic grammars, dictionaries, and even translated some of their literature. These resources have proven extremely valuable in Late Middle Japanese studies.
Modern Japanese is considered to begin with the Edo period, which lasted between 1603 and 1868. Since Old Japanese, the de facto standard Japanese had been the Kansai dialect, especially that of Kyoto. However, during the Edo period, Edo (now Tokyo) developed into the largest city in Japan, and the Edo-area dialect became standard Japanese. Since the end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation in 1853, the flow of loanwords from European languages has increased significantly.