A language often defines people and their culture, and the Japanese are no exception. Though the majority of Japan’s native population speaks one primary and standardized language, there are various languages and dozens of dialects used throughout the country.
Languages spoken in Japan include Japanese, Ryukyuan, and Okinawan. Each of these languages has different dialects. Over 98 percent of Japan’s inhabitants (125 million people) speak Japanese. There are nearly 1.5 million speakers of Ryukyuan and around a million Okinawan speakers.
This article discusses the languages of Japan and briefly touches on some of the different dialects.
We also explore some of the challenges Japanese speakers face when learning English, as well as the difficulties English speakers face when learning Japanese.
What Languages Are Spoken in Japan?
The primary language spoken in Japan is Japanese, followed by Ryukyuan and Okinawan. A smaller number of people in Japan speak other languages. The top three languages spoken in Japan are further subdivided into numerous dialects.
With a population of over 125 million, the majority speak the standard Japanese language, known to natives as “Nihongo.” Japan hosts other populations that use dialects, including Kyushu and Hachijo. Ryukyuan dialects include Amami, Miyako, and Yonaguni, among several others.
How Many Languages Does Japan Speak?
Many people believe Japan is a monolingual country, meaning it only speaks a single language. In reality, there are many languages and traditions that coexist within Japan. The country features three major distinct languages, as well as eight languages considered endangered by UNESCO (e.g., Okinawan).
The people of Japan speak over five languages, including Japanese, Ryukyuan, and Okinawan. They come from one of two language families — Japonic and Ainu. Various sub-families of languages and dialects exist within these families and are spoken in various parts of Japan.
What Are the Top 3 Languages Spoken in Japan?
The top three languages in Japan include Japanese (Nihongo), Ryukyuan, and Okinawan. Ryukyuan shares many similarities with Japanese. Most Okinawan speakers are also fluent in standard Japanese. Dialects may differ in phonetics and grammar across regions.
Let’s examine some of the differences between these Japanese languages:
Standard Japanese (Nihongo)
Most Japanese natives speak standard Japanese. Though little is known about the language’s oral history, the writing system (known as kanji) borrows heavily from the Chinese one.
To date, there are 50,000 kanji in Japanese, though the average person in Japan will likely know only 2,000 of them. Many of these characters come with kun’yomi and on’yomi readings — the former is based on the Japanese pronunciation, and the latter is based on the Chinese one.
In addition to kanji, Japanese uses the hiragana and katakana writing systems. The sounds and number of characters are identical between these two systems. The difference is that hiragana is used for native Japanese words and kanji, while katakana is used for foreign loan words (e.g. “hotel” becomes hoteru, etc.)
Nearly 1.5 million people in Japan speak Ryukyuan, primarily those who inhabit the Ryukyuan islands to the southwest of the country. This Japonic language shares some similarities with Japanese, including rhythms and syllables. However, Ryukyuan isn’t frequently used among the younger generation and is beginning to die out.
Okinawan is spoken mostly by groups of people on the Okinawa Islands. There are numerous dialects of Okinawan and over a million native speakers. Most of these speakers also speak Japanese, though they prefer Okinawan and use it in schools and media. Much of the language is derived from standard Japanese, though there are a few words borrowed from other languages.
Do People in Japan Speak English?
English proficiency is considered a sign of prestige and privilege in Japan, and students participate in English lessons as early as grade school. Classes continue throughout high school. Despite this, Japan remains staggeringly low compared to other countries in terms of English fluency.
About 30 percent of Japan’s population speaks English, with less than 8 percent speaking English fluently. Some studies indicate that fluency may be as low as two percent. Though many people in Japan can understand some English words and phrases, very few speak the language openly or publicly.
The lack of English fluency in Japan might be because English is notoriously difficult for Japanese speakers to master. For one, there are vast differences in pronunciation, grammar, and register that make the language profoundly challenging.
Further, studies show that Japanese students have a higher drive toward perfectionism than other cultures. It’s possible that the immense fear of making mistakes may also contribute to the lack of English fluency in Japan.
Is It Hard To Learn Japanese?
If you’re traveling to Japan, you may have the desire to learn a few key phrases before your trip. However, it’s important to recognize that there are several key differences between English and Japanese.
It is hard for English speakers to learn Japanese, as it utilizes differences in vocabulary, grammar, syllables, pitch, and structure. It also has three writing scripts. Culture also plays a role in speech styles in Japanese, with social status, age, gender, and other factors affecting word choice.
Japanese vs. English Vocabulary
The Japanese language is contextual, and it takes years of intense training to master the language and all of its intricacies.
Differences between Japanese and English vocabulary are only one of the things that make learning Japanese so challenging for English speakers.
For example, the English vocabulary utilizes several prefixes or nouns to denote titles, such as Mr., Mrs., and so on. On the other hand, Japanese speech incorporates suffixes but features far more honorific titles used in different contexts, including:
- -kun (くん) – Used when a superior, person in a commanding position, or individual of a higher rank speaks to a young male or child
- -chan (ちゃん) – Used when speaking to young ladies, girls, or children
- -san (さん) – Used generally, and is considered the Japanese equivalent to English prefixes Mr., Mrs., Ms. This is often the safest prefix to use if you’re unsure how to address someone, and is used after surnames (e.g., Tanaka-san, Yamada-san).
- -sama (さま) – Used in the utmost respectful, honorific way, usually in business settings, but also used to address Japanese deities.
Additionally, there are dozens of Japanese words and phrases without an English equivalent that may have multiple meanings depending on context. Japanese also adds suffixes to verbs, nouns, adjectives, and even sentences to convey different meanings.
Check out this YouTube video to learn some simple Japanese words.
Japanese vs. English Grammar
Verb tense in Japanese also differs from English in that the subject doesn’t affect the verb, and no auxiliary verbs exist in the Japanese language. There are also differences in the order of subjects, verbs, and objects, as well as variations in sentence structure. This can easily create confusion for new learners.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Japanese and English is the sound and intonation. English has a much broader range of sounds. Stress, pitch, and inflection also vastly differ across both languages, which creates extreme difficulty for those attempting to master the language.
Japan is often misunderstood and mistaken for a monolingual country due to the vast number of standard Japanese speakers. However, Japan is a multicultural, multilingual nation with various languages and multiple dialects spoken throughout its over 6,800 islands. From Japanese to Okinawan, these languages and dialects showcase Japan’s rich diversity.