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Japanese (jăpˌənēzˈ), language of uncertain origin that is spoken by more than 125 million people, most of whom live in Japan. There are also many speakers of Japanese in the Ryukyu Islands, Korea, Taiwan, parts of the United States, and Brazil. Japanese appears to be unrelated to any other language; however, some scholars see a kinship with the Korean tongue because the grammars of the two are very similar. Some linguists also link both Japanese and Korean to the Altaic languages. Japanese exhibits a degree of agglutination. In an agglutinative language, different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. Japanese lacks tones, but has a musical accent and usually stresses all syllables equally. There is no declension for nouns and pronouns, whose grammatical relationships are shown by particles that follow them. Verbs are inflected and generally are placed at the end of a sentence. Extensive use of honorific forms is especially characteristic of Japanese; varying constructions are used to indicate differences in the social status among the individual speaking, the individual addressed, and the individual spoken about.

In the 3d and 4th cent. A.D., the Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing system of ideographic characters. Since Chinese is not inflected and since Chinese writing is ideographic rather than phonetic, the Chinese characters do not completely fill the needs of the inflected Japanese language in the sphere of writing. In the 8th cent. A.D., two phonetic syllabaries, or kana, were therefore devised for the recording of the Japanese language. They are used along with the ideographic characters (or kanji characters) to indicate the syllables that form suffixes and particles. The direction of writing is usually from top to bottom in vertical columns and from right to left. In scientific texts horizontal writing from left to right is sometimes employed. The Roman alphabet has also been used increasingly to transcribe Japanese. Since several thousand characters and two sets of kana are necessary for reading Japanese literature and periodicals, a need for simplification was felt when universal literacy became a national goal. Thus, after World War II, many kanji characters were simplified, and the number generally used was limited to about 2,000. Through another reform, phonetic kana characters are now used to correspond more closely to modern pronunciation than previously was the case. The large number of its speakers and the high level of cultural, economic, and political development of the Japanese people make Japanese one of the leading languages of the world.


See P. G. O'Neill and S. Yanada, An Introduction to Written Japanese (1963); R. A. Miller, The Japanese Language (1967); S. Ono, The Origins of the Japanese Language (1970); H. A. Okamoto, Rule for Conversational Rituals in Japanese (1988).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a nation (natsiia, nation in the historical sense) whose members account for more than 99 percent of the population of Japan. In 1975 the Japanese numbered 110 million. According to data for 1970, they inhabit—besides Japan—the USA (more than 590,000, mainly in Hawaii), Brazil (about 600,000) and other countries of Latin America, and Canada. Their language is Japanese.

The most common religion in Japan is Mahay ana Buddhism, which is represented by numerous sects. Believers often embrace its teachings but at the same time adhere to Shinto. The new syncretic religions are less widespread, and Christianity least of all. In modern Japan, nearly half the population is essentially nonbelieving. Local differences among the Japanese that have been preserved since the Middle Ages are disappearing at an increasing rate; only the inhabitants of certain small islands and the Ryukyu Islands have retained their distinctive ethnographic characteristics.

The Japanese were formed as a group of tribes in the mid-first millennium B.C., when bearers of the Aeneolithic Yayoi culture resettled from the southern Korean Peninsula to the islands of Japan, which had previously been inhabited only by Ainu and certain Malayo-Polynesian tribes. As the newcomers intermingled with the indigenous population, the language of the former became dominant; in the process, however, their language took on elements of the Malayo-Polynesian substratum.

The creation of the first Japanese state—the Yamato state—in the fourth century of the Common Era completed the consolidation of the ancient Japanese tribes into a single nationality that thenceforth underwent the influence of the older and more developed civilizations of the Asian mainland—those of China, Korea, and India. By virtue of its geographic isolation, the Japanese nationality subsequently followed an original path of development, different from that of the peoples of mainland Asia and similar to the development characteristic of feudal Europe.

In the early 19th century, elements of bourgeois relations emerged in Japan. Soon after the bourgeois revolution of 1867–68, the Japanese entered upon the world stage as a bourgeois nation. Since World War II, the way of life and the social culture of the Japanese have come to resemble more closely those of modern Europe.


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the language of the Japanese and the official language of Japan. According to a 1976 estimate, there are 112 million speakers of Japanese.

The grammatical structure and sound system of Japanese are similar to those of the Altaic languages: the predicate stands at the end of the sentence, and the attribute is prepositive; in addition, the initial sounds [1] and [ŋ−] do not exist, nor did [r] until the eighth century. The dialects of Japanese are divided into the Western branch, which formed the basis of the Old Japanese literary language, and the Eastern branch, on which the present literary language is based.

In Japanese, every consonant is followed by a vowel. Compare Turkic qaz and Japanese kári (“goose”); Korean čilgop- and Japanese yorókób-u (“to be happy”); and Turkic and Mongolian tag (“mountain”), Malay daki (“to go up”), and Japanese take (“mountain”). Medieval Chinese luk gives Japanese rokú (‘“six”), and English “New York” gives Japanese N’u:yo:ku. In correspondences that date from the language’s early period of development, syllable endings were often dropped. Compare Vietnamese mat and Japanese mélma (“eye”), the Turkic plural suffix -lar and Japanese plural suffix -ra, and Mongolian dargil and Japanese taki (“swift current”) and tagir-u (“to boil”); Nanai namo-kta gives Japanese námida (the noun “tears”). The loss of final consonants was compensated by a pitch accent, which varies among the different dialects; compare hand (“flower”) and hana (“nose”).

Japanese is a synthetic language with a nominative structure. It lacks the categories of gender, person, and number, and requires no articles. Also, there are no possessive suffixes. The 12 cases are agglutinative, and inflectional verbs have three voices, ten moods, three relative tenses (retrospective, nonretrospective, and pluperfect), and an analytic durative aspect. Roots are for the most part polysyllabic—for example, atámá (“head”) and mushi (“insects”). Roots that are similar in sound are also similar in meaning—for example, mi-ru (“to look at”) and móri (“nanny”), nami (“waves”) and nurnd (“swamp”), and shiró-shira (“white”) and shimó (“frost” or “lower part”).

Japanese shares ancient roots with the Altaic languages and with the substratum of the Malayo-Polynesian languages. It contains loanwords from these languages and from Chinese, which accounts for about half the vocabulary of Japanese, and the Indo-European languages, which account for 6 percent of the vocabulary. Written texts in Japanese date from the sixth and seventh centuries (see also).


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Wenck, G. Systematische Syntax des Japanischen, vols. 1–3. Wiesbaden, 1974.
Martin. S. E. A Reference Grammar of Japanese. New Haven-London, 1975.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the official language of Japan: the native language of approximately 100 million people: considered by some scholars to be part of the Altaic family of languages
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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