Five Things That Define the Japanese Language
One thing you hear a lot is how the Japanese language is supposedly one of the most difficult languages you can learn. I always scratch my head about this, because I honestly never thought that Japanese was all that difficult, when approached in the correct way. While getting used to a strange writing system — actually there are three different ones in use, hiragana, katakana and kanji — was a challenge, learning how to put sentences together and build communication skills was, to me, kind of like putting LEGO blocks together, although they were all differently shaped, and I was putting them together in the dark over the course of several years.
All languages are unique, of course, and are going to be easier or harder for people coming from other language groups. I thought I’d write a longer post including some of the details of what was challenging or interesting while I was learning the Japanese language. If you want to know more, keep reading!
1. Vague Sentences, Missing Subjects
One of the building blocks of romantic comedy anime is the adorable confusion that comes about from the vagueness of the Japanese language, because subjects are often left off sentences. In the above example, Takagi-san uses her skills as a teaser to troll Nishikata once again, asking if he likes “this sort of thing” — having a girl in his room when his parents aren’t home — but we learn in the end she’s really talking about the manga he likes, 100% Unrequited Love. (Or is she?) This kind of joke is part of every romantic anime and manga since the beginning of time.
Getting used to speech without subjects or even objects can be hard, though it’s just something to familiarize yourself with over time. When my wife asks if I’m ready to go to lunch with her, she’ll generally say 行く？ iku? which literally means “go?” But of course it’s clear to both of us who was about to go (the two of us) and where (to lunch, because it’s lunchtime). Every once in a while, a foreigner will think the conversation happening around them is about A, when it’s switched to B while we weren’t paying attention.
2. Vertical Verbs
Everyone knows the trope about senpai noticing you. Basically, there are three levels of relationships in Japanese organizations: senpai, a senior in a school or company, who you show respect to; kouhai, a junior, who shows respect to you; and people who are on the same level as you, called doukyusei ( same level student) for a school, or douki (same period of entry) for a company. If you pay attention to the character Iijima Yun from the New Game anime, she seems obsessive about explaining everyone’s relationship so new employees can understand the hierarchy. She goes out of her way to tell Aoba that she and Hajime joined the company at the same time, so they are close, and Koh and Rin also joined at the same time, part of their special relationship. Note that the “senpai system” goes by number of years in the organization, not your age. You could be a 30-year-old and have a 20-year-old “senpai.”
Speaking proper Japanese means using informal language — specifically verbs in their informal form, like 食べる taberu (to eat) or 行く iku (to go) — when speaking to someone at your level or lower, but formal language when talking to your superiors (食べます tabemasu、行きます ikimasu). In my own home life, I speak with slightly formal Japanese to my wife’s parents, though I don’t really have to. Once my daughter asked why I was speaking with formal language and everyone else wasn’t, but it was because I was an “outsider” — a muko, or son-in-law who’d come from somewhere else, unrelated to me being a gaijin.
In the classic 1986 anime Maison Ikkoku, there’s a scene when Godai forces himself to stop using polite Japanese with Kyoko, who he’s just married, because he’s her husband now. She’s older than him and was in higher position over him in the past, but now that they’re married, they’re finally equals.
3. Passive Voice.
In English we’re told to avoid the passive voice when speaking and writing, writing “I took the action” instead of “the action was taken [by me].” In nuanced Japanese, though, you tend to encounter passive voice a bit more than you would in English. One reason is to be able to express an opinion without necessarily pointing a finger at the person responsible. It’s very Japanese to say “it was decided that [some new policy will take effect]” rather than saying “Section Chief Yamada decided it, it’s his fault of everything goes to hell…”
Some passive voice sentences that we don’t use in English are okay in Japanese. We certainly wouldn’t say “I was died on by my father” but the sentence would be fine in Japanese. You get used to things like that when working with other languages.
4. Seeking Agreement: Desho
One of the first words of Japanese we all learn is です desu, which is the formal copula, which is so named because it makes the subject and object copulate, or something like that. Whereas desu corresponds to [it] is [something] or [I] am [something], a similar word でしょう deshou means [it] probably is [something]. It’s used for everything from the weather report telling you that will probably rain tomorrow afternoon to people discussing future stock moves.
The word deshou sounds pretty run-of-the-mill, and it is on the surface. But it’s also used as a tool for affirming that everyone in the group is in agreement on a certain point, basically a linguistic way of influencing others to agree with you in subtle ways. Sometimes in restaurants I like to watch other groups and see what kinds of discussions they’re having. Everyone might be avidly discussing the boyfriend of a friend, voicing their disapproval, and the word deshou? will get thrown around a lot.
5. Reinforcing Group Dynamics
Finally, one of the simplest and most useful bits of the Japanese language to learn is the –mashou ending for verbs, which turns 飲みます nomimasu “[I will] drink” into the much more socially useful 飲みましょう nomimashou “let’s drink!” However it’s a bit deeper than that. The –mashou verb ending essentially places an expectation on you to do what is suggested, or risk being viewed as not a member of the wider group. It’s often the case that, where a rule or requirement would be stated overtly in English, the Japanese version of this will be “let’s all [do whatever]” with the unstated implication that if you don’t, you won’t meet with the approval of the group.
One of the best applications for this language is around tax time, when the Japanese version of the IRS shows TV commercials in which well-known actors say, “Let’s all declare our income and pay the appropriate taxes, honestly and accurately!” Rather than state the requirement to pay taxes or list of penalties for not doing so, using this powerful group-based language probably yields better results for the Japanese government.
I hope everyone enjoyed this brief overview of some features of the Japanese language. Got any questions or comments? Please hit us up on Twitter, or leave a comment below. Want to study Japanese? We’ve got textbooks, flashcards and JLPT study materials in stock!