The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it’s decidedly complex. But how hard is it to learn Japanese? Keep reading to find out what makes the Japanese language so difficult.
First off, there are the three writing systems: katakana, hiragana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets. Unlike English, which treats vowels and consonants separately (and has multiple pronunciations for many of the letters), phonetic alphabets are always written and pronounced in one specific way.
With hiragana and katakana, the vowels a, i, u, e, and o are best visualized in five rows, and the consonants are added across the top to create a grid (the table below presents the corresponding vowels on the far right side, as Japanese is read vertically right to left).
Hiragana is the first Japanese writing system that children learn—it’s the most basic writing system in Japan. In the table above, it’s easy to identify hiragana because of the alphabet’s more rounded shapes (presented on the left side of each square). Katakana, on the other hand, is sharper in appearance (presented on the right side of each square).
Unlike hiragana and katakana, kanji is pictographic. Each symbol, or moji, stands for a concept rather than a sound. For example, in the table above, you can see the kanji 一、二、三 (1, 2, 3). There can be several pronunciations or readings for these symbols. The kanji 一 can be pronounced ichi or hito, but the meaning (one) stays the same.
Japanese grammar, as a whole, is one of the most difficult things for English speakers to get their heads around. In Japanese, the verb goes at the end of the sentence, something that feels instinctually wrong for English speakers.
English uses a Subject-Verb-Object word order.
Example: I went to the store.
Japanese, however, uses a Subject-Object-Verb word order.
Example: I store (to) went.
The Japanese form is actually much easier to conjugate, and there are also no pluralizers. However, changing forms between animate and inanimate objects takes some getting used to.
Japanese only has a past and a present tense. While there are multiple forms of each tense, it’s much quicker and more efficient than English. Japanese also relies heavily on context, so many things are considered obvious that must be spelled out in English.
While Japan used to have very marked differences between genders in speech, much of that has been on the decline. Nowadays, many linguists refer to the differences as gentle “female” and rough “male”. These differences in speech are categorized by endings and politeness: for example, the rough form might end in ~っぜ (ze), a crude ending, rather than ~わ (wa), a more refined sound.
In truth, gender-neutral Japanese is what’s taught in most language schools (and is essential to keigo discussed below), so this is far less relevant; but it’s important to understand when dealing with day-to-day communication.
In Japan, politeness rules supreme—to be impolite is to transgress not only personally but culturally. While most foreigners and expats are forgiven on the exactness of keigo, being intentional with your honorifics can go a long way in impressing your coworkers and managers as well as building bridges within your community.
Integrated in this politeness is a system that values humility over directness, purposefully elevating the listener while putting yourself in a lower rank. Endings become longer, from ~です (desu) to ~でございます (degozaimasu). Still not quite sure what that means?
If you live in Japan, take a moment to listen to department store clerks, and their Japanese might sound quite confusing. That’s because the ultimate example of everyday keigo is the relationship between customer and employee, where the customer is highly honored. While difficult to learn at first, there are a few stock phrases that will become second nature in time with practice.
There are many regional dialects, though you’ll likely be taught the most standard version spoken in Tokyo. The most famous dialect is called Kansai-ben, or Kansai dialect. Kansai is the region that encompasses the other two major hubs of Japan: Kyoto and Osaka. Kansai-ben is known for being more casual, and the dialect has turned into a major part of comedy routines as Osaka is one of the country’s most famous entertainment capitals.
Often, prefectures (and sometimes even cities) have drastic differences in dialects, so even the most adept Japanese-speaking foreigner will still feel out of place when traveling outside of Tokyo. Some dialects, like in Okinawa and Hokkaido, even include vocabulary holdovers from the Ryukyu and Ainu indigenous peoples, respectively, that were the original inhabitants of Japan.
With complicated rules of hierarchy in keigo, it’s no wonder that business Japanese takes a lot of getting used to. In this area, we can break down keigo as it pertains to other adults in business settings.
There are three areas of keigo: teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo.
Teineigo is the easiest. It’s the kind of keigo you learn in class, where every verb is tidily conjugated and those you are speaking to are equal /to or above you. This is the standard type of Japanese you use in work settings (and yes, that includes nomikai business parties).
Sonkeigo is the politest form. It’s used by the lowest ranking employees when talking about the CEO, or where there is a large gap in status. It’s never used to talk about anything pertaining to you or your group, however, as using such honorifics to talk about yourself will backfire and be considered arrogant.
Kenjougo is the most complex, and—if you get it right—the most impressive. This is a very specific way of talking about yourself and your accomplishments that purposefully puts yourself lower than other people around you. This doesn’t need to be used around people you come in to contact with every day but should be used to talk about your listener if they’re a customer, client, or otherwise outside your circle.
The good news is, you can get close enough for daily keigo use by simply memorizing a few stock phrases. If you find yourself talking in Japanese on the phone, we have a handy list of business Japanese phone phrases.
Typically, the best way to learn Japanese is through language immersion. While it’s possible to get by with little or no Japanese language skills in metropolitan areas, you will miss out on a lot that Japan has to offer as well as frequently find yourself in a tight spot when dealing with day-to-day living situations like filling out documents at city hall, going to the post office, or trying to effectively communicate with Japanese coworkers.
If you live in Tokyo, we highly recommend taking some type of Japanese language course to help kickstart or refine your fluency. Check out our comprehensive list of Japanese language schools in Tokyo to help you find the best learning option for you.
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