Before I start talking a whole lot about Japan itself, here’s a quick primer on the Japanese language. While I won’t be using this blog to try and teach anyone Japanese, you’ll find some elements of Japan easier to understand if you have a basic grasp of how the language is formed. Plus, knowing proper pronunciation and a few basic words and phrases will make things much easier if you ever visit Japan.
While those without any knowledge of Asian languages tend to think that they all sound the same, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and the like all have very different and unique sounds to them. Unfortunately, Japanese is usually spoken quickly and fairly quietly (which can make it hard for non-native speakers to follow). It’s a very polite language with hardly any swear words, an emphasis on indirect non-confrontational speech, many different levels of respect (depending on the relationship between the speaker and person being spoken to), and a rather poetic feel it.
Japanese has three separate written languages. The first is hiragana, which is used when writing words of Japanese origin. Unlike English, each letter represents an entire syllable rather than a single sound. There are 46 basic hiragana characters plus some minor variations formed by adding small marks to some of them. The second written language is katakana, which is an alternate version of hiragana. It represents the same syllables but uses a different set of characters and is primarily used when writing words of foreign origin. Finally, there’s kanji. Kanji are Chinese characters that can be used in place of anywhere from one to several hiragana. There are around 2000 officially recognized kanji characters in Japanese and a number of unofficial ones as well. To make things even more complicated, every kanji can have anywhere from two to ten or so different meanings and pronunciations. Unsurprisingly, kanji are considered the bane of Japanese language students everywhere (myself included) and even Japanese school children require years of study to master them all.
It should also be noted that written Japanese doesn’t put spaces between words (just between sentences and sections of certain sentences).
Thanks to the versatility of the English language, it’s actually very easy for English speakers to learn proper Japanese pronunciation. Much easier, in fact, than it is for Japanese speakers, whose native language is much more limited, to learn proper English pronunciation. As a rule, all Japanese letters (except for the double n) are followed by a vowel (or occasionally a y then a vowel). Japanese letters are almost always pronounced in the same way each time (though the inflection might change) and there’s no such thing as silent letters. Other than that, the main things to remember are as follows:
1. a = ah (as in mah)
2. i = ee (as in meek)
3. u = ew (as in sue)
4. e = eh (as in meh)
5. o = oh (as in so)
6. Double vowels (aa, ii, ee, uu, oo, ou) indicate that the vowel sound should be held longer.
7. Double consonants (except for n) indicate an emphasis on that sound
8. Double nn or an n not followed by a vowel indicates an nnnnn sound.
9. tsu = t’sue
10. The Japanese r sound is half r and half l. Try touching the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth (as if you were making an l sound) when you say the Japanese r.
See, it’s not that hard. With a little practice you shouldn’t have to worry about Japanese people misunderstanding you, at least as long as you’re saying the correct word to begin with.