Japanese (Nihongo) is a language spoken by over 127 million people, mainly in Japan, but also by Japanese emigrant communities around the world. It is considered an agglutinative language and is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics reflecting the hierarchical nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary which indicate the relative status of speaker and listener. The sound inventory of Japanese is relatively small, and it has a lexically-distinctive pitch accent system.
Japanese vocabulary has been heavily influenced by Chinese over a period of at least 1,500 years. Japanese is written with a mix of Chinese characters (kanji) and a modified syllabary, kana, also originally based on Chinese characters. Much vocabulary has been imported from Chinese, or created on Chinese models.
Before the 5th century, the Japanese had no writing system of their own. They began to adopt the Chinese writing script along with many other aspects of Chinese culture after their introduction by Korean monks and scholars during the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, or in a mixture of Chinese, used both ideographically, phonetically, and otherwise to create Japanese meanings. An example of this mixed style is the Kojiki, which was written in 712 AD. They then started to use Chinese characters to write Japanese in a style known as man’yogana, a ten thousand syllabic script which used characters depicting their own values.
Over time, a writing system was constructed. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese, or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters were also used to write grammatical elements, were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana.
Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three main syllabaries: kanji, characters of Chinese origin used to represent both Chinese loanwords into Japanese and a number of native Japanese morphemes; and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet (romaji) is also sometimes used. Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji characters when used in counting, but the kanji is still used when in a compound (such as (toitu), “unification”).
Hiragana is the base of all texts in Japan, providing correct pronounciation and spelling. It is used for words without Kanji representation and also for when the Kanji character is not known. Katakana is the character group, with the same sounds, and similar combinations of Hiragana, which is used to create representations of foreign words in the Japanese sense. Words such as “Australia” and “Supermarket” have been shortened or changed into “Oosutoraria” and “Suupaa” respectively. “Romaji” is simply the Japanese name for Latin characters. It is used increasingly in Japanese text for especially technical abbreviations such as “CD”, “DVD”, etc.
Japanese students begin to learn kanji characters from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of kyoiku kanji, specifies the 1,006 simple characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 939 characters in junior high school, covering in total 1,945 joyo kanji (common kanji) characters, which is generally considered sufficient for everyday life, although many kanji used in everyday life are not included in the list (like the one for chopstick, ). An appendix of 290 additional characters for names was decreed in 1951.