The hardest things to learn
- The writing system: The three writing systems—katakana, hiragana, and kanji—come first. The phonetic alphabets hiragana and katakana are used. Phonetic alphabets are always written and spoken in a single way, unlike English, which treats vowels and consonants independently (and has numerous pronunciations for many of the letters).
- Gender Differences: While Japan used to have very marked differences between genders in speech, much of that has been on the decline. Nowadays, many linguists refer to the differences as gentle “female” and rough “male”. These differences in speech are categorized by endings and politeness: for example, the rough form might end in ~っぜ (ze), a crude ending, rather than ~わ (wa), a more refined sound. In truth, gender-neutral Japanese is what’s taught in most language schools (and is essential to keigo discussed below), so this is far less relevant; but it’s important to understand when dealing with day-to-day communication.
- Politeness: In Japan, politeness rules supreme—to be impolite is to transgress not only personally but culturally. While most foreigners and expats are forgiven on the exactness of keigo, being intentional with your honorifics can go a long way in impressing your coworkers and managers as well as building bridges within your community.
Integrated in this politeness is a system that values humility over directness, purposefully elevating the listener while putting yourself in a lower rank. Endings become longer, from ~です (desu) to ~でございます (degozaimasu). Still not quite sure what that means?
If you live in Japan, take a moment to listen to department store clerks, and their Japanese might sound quite confusing. That’s because the ultimate example of everyday keigo is the relationship between customer and employee, where the customer is highly honored. While difficult to learn at first, there are a few stock phrases that will become second nature in time with practice.
- Dialects: There are many regional dialects, though you’ll likely be taught the most standard version spoken in Tokyo. The most famous dialect is called Kansai-ben, or Kansai dialect. Kansai is the region that encompasses the other two major hubs of Japan: Kyoto and Osaka. Kansai-ben is known for being more casual, and the dialect has turned into a major part of comedy routines as Osaka is one of the country’s most famous entertainment capitals.
Often, prefectures (and sometimes even cities) have drastic differences in dialects, so even the most adept Japanese-speaking foreigner will still feel out of place when traveling outside of Tokyo. Some dialects, like in Okinawa and Hokkaido, even include vocabulary holdovers from the Ryukyu and Ainu indigenous peoples, respectively, that were the original inhabitants of Japan.
Make the Most of Japan by Learning the Language
The most effective way to learn Japanese is typically through immersion. While it is possible to get by in major cities with little to no Japanese language proficiency, you will miss out on a lot of what Japan has to offer and frequently find yourself in a difficult situation when attempting to communicate with Japanese coworkers or filling out paperwork at the city hall. Use Japanese learning apps or take a free course to learn the language. We strongly advise enrolling in a Japanese language course if you reside in Tokyo in order to improve your fluency.
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