Common Misconceptions of The Japanese Language

Even today, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding the Japanese language. Things like “It’s insanely complex” and “You have to know tens of thousands of characters” get tossed around all the time, by people who basically have no understanding of the language at all. As a student of Japanese Linguistics, it kind of gets to you after a while, especially since every attempt at educating the people around you basically feels like running into a brick wall repeatedly (“But it looks so complicated so it's gotta be hard!”). But nonetheless, I will go ahead and try to convey some basic principles of the Japanese language, and hopefully clean up some of the misconceptions surrounding it at the same time. I won’t go into too much detail and I won’t teach you to actually speak Japanese or anything like that (not now at least), I’d just like to give you a very basic overview about the language itself.

"Japanese is the same as Chinese"

Yes, I know it looks like it. And while it is true that the characters were adopted from the Chinese script several hundred years ago, the languages themselves are actually nothing alike. In fact, Japanese is pretty much unlike any other language in the world, with the exception of the Ryukyuan languages, which are spoken on the Ryukyu islands in southwestern Japan. While there are a lot of theories trying to find relations to other languages, none of them have proved to be 100% conclusive, leading to the creation of a new language family, the Japonic languages. And while the Japanese and Chinese script may look alike for westerners, it is actually pretty easy to distinguish between the two.

"You have to learn thousands of characters"

Well...yes and no. Japanese uses 3 different scripts (scripts, not alphabets)  for writing: HiraganaKatakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana (collectively called Kana) are pretty simple and not too numerous – there are 48 of each, with 2 characters being obsolete in modern Japanese. Now, the Kanji are a different beast altogether and they are what everybody is so afraid of. The Kanji were directly adapted from the Chinese script, and hence are quite numerous and can look pretty fearsome at times. The total number is disputed; estimations range from 50.000 to as much as 100.000. And while some of you may have thought “See? There ARE ridiculously many characters!” just now, let me assure you: No one knows all of them, and nobody is expected to, either. In fact, all you need are about 2000 characters, which are defined as the so-called Jôyô-Kanji (literally “regularly used Chinese characters”) by the Japanese Ministry of Education. And while 2000 may still sound like a lot, it sure is a hell of a lot more manageable than 50.000.

"Japanese is overly complicated"

You’re probably not going to believe me, but: In terms of grammar, Japanese is WAY easier than English. Seriously, if you take away the fancy characters and concentrate on how a sentence is constructed, Japanese is almost ridiculously simple. Let’s look at an example, so I can show you what I’m talking about. Take the sentence I eat cake. In Japanese, this would be

Keeki o tabemasu.

Now let’s say we wanted to put the sentence into the past tense using the perfect form. This would give us I have eaten cake. We introduce the auxiliary verb have and change the form of eat to the past participle. Now, what about Japanese? In Japanese, the sentence would be

Keeki o tabemasita.

See what happened? All we did was change the ending of the main verb, from -u to -ita. That’s it. And trust me when I say that it’s always that simple. Another example: Let’s say we wanted to turn the sentences into a question now: Do you eat cake? While not too overly complicated, we still added another auxiliary verb, in this case do. Now let’s take a look at the Japanese counterpart:

Keeki o tabemasu ka.

All you need to do is add -ka to the end of the verb, and you got yourself a question. No change in syntax, no auxiliary verbs, just -ka. And if you wanted to ask Have you eaten cake? you'd say

Keeki o tabemasita ka.

We can simply combine the -ita and -ka suffixes to create a question in the past tense. Of course these are only a few examples, so it may not convince you. But trust me when I tell you that Japanese really is that simple almost all the time. This is due to the fact of it being a so-called agglutinative language, which basically means that you construct words and phrases by “gluing” stuff together. This makes it very systematic and easy to understand.

"Japanese has no cuss words"

The Japanese are just people like anyone else, so of course they do. While they are very polite people in general, they do have their share of nasty language. You’ll probably have a hard time encountering any though, since it’s used a lot more conservatively than in English.

Conclusion

There we go. There is of course a lot more to say about the Japanese language, but I hope I have cleared up some of the most common misconceptions. While it does look strange and intimidating, Japanese is not nearly as hard or weird as most people make it out to be. If you have any specific questions or found any of the topics discussed especially interesting, just let me know in the comments.

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Comments 10 comments

DTR0005 profile image

DTR0005 5 years ago from Midwest

Your hub was very informative. There are so many who mistakenly believe Chinese and Japanese are related. Chinese is an analytical language while Japanese is considered an agglutinating language. Nice work.


Drejification profile image

Drejification 5 years ago Author

Thank you for the comment. I actually know some people who started studying Japanese and Chinese side-by-side because "it's basically the same anyway"...led to a pretty rude awakening. :P


Hezekiah profile image

Hezekiah 5 years ago from Japan

Interesting Hub. I've lived in Japan for 10 years, work in a bi-lingual office. And I must say, it's easy to become conversational after around 6-12months, however the business side of Japanese is quite a hurdle for a lot of foreigners. Still sometimes for me even after all this time.


Rising Caren profile image

Rising Caren 5 years ago from New York

I'm learning Japanese and, athough there are indeed 1000ish characters to learn, it's really not that hard. The key is to just take it slow and stick to books for your level until you're ready to move ahead.


Cryptnotic 5 years ago

I think that the regular past tense "I ate cake" is more similar to "keeki wo tabemashita" than "I have eaten cake". "I have eaten cake" would be something more like "keeki wo tabeta koto ga arimasu", which wouldn't help the argument that Japanese isn't that complicated.


Drejification profile image

Drejification 5 years ago Author

@Cryptnotic

Well, morphologically as well as syntactically, Japanese would still be easier.

But it's actually quite an interesting point you're making. I guess it all comes down to definition; if you define "taberu koto ga arimasu" as the Perfect form, then yeah, you're right. And I can see where you're coming from, as both the english Perfect and Japanese "koto ga arimasu" can mean something like "I have eaten (at least once)", that is, in the sense of "There was a point in time where I have eaten". But personally, I believe that "tabemasita" functions both as regular past tense as well as Perfect. In my opinion, if you wanted to emphasize that an action has already been finished and it's effects aren't felt anymore, you could say "tabecchau" or "tabete simaimasita", thus making it regular past tense. Although it doesn't always work that way either I guess...

But meh...I guess you can't shoehorn Japanese grammar into foreign categories anyway. Something'll always stick out.


Cryptnotic 5 years ago

@Drejification

I'm not much of a linguist. You're right though, at least in English an article can make a big difference. e.g., "I have eaten cake" versus "I have eaten the cake".

Japanese doesn't have articles like that, so the difference between "keeki wo tabemashita" (I have eaten cake) and "keeki wo tabemashita" (I have eaten the cake) would be delivered by context or other qualifiers.

In any case, I agree with you that Japanese isn't overly complicated. It isn't easy, but it isn't more complicated than it needs to be.


Y. Kajitaka profile image

Y. Kajitaka 5 years ago from Cartersville, GA

I've been studying Japanese as a hobby for the last five years, and I get the same feeling you were talking about. I tend to turn it on its head and tell people "You studied Spanish, right? That's way harder than Japanese." I'd know. I took Latin. It's the same family of beast. *shivers*

My only critique on this article would be the tone in which you write it- I understand it stems from a specific emotion, but informative articles do need to be a little more sterile. They way you wrote the opening paragraph or two came off as slightly self-righteous and overbearing- like you were talking down to, frustrated at or angry with the reader. It's something to keep in mind for future articles. ^^

All in all, I like. Thanks for this!


Drejification profile image

Drejification 5 years ago Author

@Y.Kajitaka

Thanks for the feedback! I'll keep it in mind. I'm still trying to strike a balance between informative/sterile and interesting/colorful, especially with articles such as this one, which can become rather dull and dry VERY quickly...

And Latin...ugh. Just ugh.


ocoonocoon profile image

ocoonocoon 5 years ago

Drejification, nice article! Yes a lot of what you say is true. It is a difficult language, but manageable if you stick to it.

I wrote an article about what sets Chinese and Japanese apart so please read some time!

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