Our guide to Japanese
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to Japanese

First published date November 15 2013 Amended date January 29 2015

Want to get out of your comfort zone? Flex those mental muscles? Learn Japanese. It’s a language that isn’t routinely taught in UK schools, so you’ll be making an original as well as a bold choice. A language that uses a completely different alphabet to English – in fact, it has three! A language that comes from a country where everyday life mixes advanced technological wizardry with sacred, ancient traditions.

If you work, or plan to work in business, being able to speak Japanese will add an extraordinary new arrow to your quiver of skills. Not only the official language of Japan (and its population of over 125 million people), there are large communities of Japanese expats in all major Western cities, including London. Japanese terms such as manga, kamikaze and tsunami are all included in English dictionaries. But if you want to do more than scratch the surface of this remarkable culture, give Japanese itself a go.


Reasons to learn Japanese

Japan might not be the most accessible holiday destination for Brits, but Japanese culture can be found all around us. If you’re the crafty sort, take an origami class. If you’re looking for something more active, sign up for some  Japanese martial arts. There’s a variety of disciplines, from judo to aikido to kendo (Japanese sword-fighting).

And let’s not forget the food. Japan is renowned for having one of the healthiest diets in the world, so developing a penchant for Japanese restaurants (think beyond sushi) could be positively good for you! Staff at many traditional Japanese restaurants will be native speakers. They’ll be more than happy to help you decipher the menu and introduce you to more obscure, authentic dishes.


More reasons to learn Japanese

Japan has much to offer any visitor: metropolises like Tokyo where skyscrapers, shopping malls and shrines sit side-by-side, beautiful countryside and mountains (especially stunning when the cherry blossoms are out in bloom) and a haul of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

If you speak Japanese you’ll be able to experience the country like no monoglot tourist ever could. You could stay in a ryokan, for example – a traditional Japanese hotel where you’ll sleep in a futon, be served proper Japanese cooking and relax in a traditional communal bath. The owners do not generally speak English, so you’ll have to do all the linguistic legwork. But you’ll get a wonderful and intriguing insight into Japanese lifestyle, manners and customs.


Careers using Japanese

Aside from translating and interpreting (where Japanese speakers can usually command higher rates than speakers of other languages), knowing Japanese could lead to greater opportunities in business. The UK, US and Australia have economic ties to Japan and companies appreciate someone who can straddle the subtleties of two business cultures (to non-Japanese, Japan’s hierarchical business culture can seem idiosyncratic). The automotive, electronics, chemical and software industries are all areas where your language skills could be useful. Japanese can also come in handy for journalism and the video game industry.

If you live in or near a university town and want to practise your Japanese, consider offering your services as a mentor, volunteer or welcome partner for the Japanese students who come year on year to study in the UK.


What to expect

Absolute beginners as well as intermediate and advanced learners are catered for in terms of classes. In some classes, there may be the opportunity to work towards the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and progress through the various test levels.


Health warning

When it comes to learning Japanese, the aspect that English speakers usually find the most challenging is the written language. This requires mastering Japanese characters, called kanji: there are about 2000 in use. (It could be worse – Chinese uses 6000!) Of these 2000, 214 are known as ‘radicals’ and can be used to form other characters. Then there are hiragana, symbols that represent the 46 syllables used in the spoken language. Kanji characters convey the meaning in Japanese sentences, while hiragana convey the grammar.

If this sounds fiendishly difficult, don’t despair – many classes will start learners on the rōmanji alphabet, where Japanese words are written using Roman letters (like all the examples in this article). If you’re visiting Japan, you’ll be able to navigate by reading rōmanji, since place names are often written in this alphabet.

When you’re pronouncing words written in the Roman alphabet, give the same weight to every syllable – interestingly, there is hardly any stress in Japanese words.


Did you know?

To Western eyes, Japanese names are written backward. So a certain famous Hollywood actor would call himself ‘Watanabe Ken’, where ‘Ken’ is his given name.

Japanese newspapers and magazines are usually read in columns that run from left to right. The columns themselves are read from top to bottom.


10 things Japan gave the world

·         anime: cartoons, Japanese-style

·         bonsai: the art of growing miniature trees

·         purikura: photo sticker booths 

·         Ran, a film by acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa. Think King Lear meets Japanese warlord.

·         samurai: military nobility of early-modern Japan and skilled warriors

·         sake: traditional alcoholic rice drink, served warm.

·         kaitenzushi: sushi on a conveyer belt.

·         karaoke: enough said!

·         mochi: sweet rice cake

·         Multiflavoured Kit-Kats. Cinnamon, sweet potato, green tea, strawberry, passionfruit…the list is endless.


By Kate Wilkins

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