Languages of the Far East

I studied Japanese at higher further level at university and plan to start a Japanese language club in the next school that I teach in. I’ve been studying Japanese on and off for about 10 years now, so I’d like to give readers a bit of background on the languages of the far east. It is a common misconception that Chinese and Japanese are very similar languages. Many ignorant people confuse the two countries even though they are very dissimilar in many ways.

The reason why Japanese bears little resemblance to Chinese dialects (including Mandarin, Cantonese and Wu), is because Japanese is not in the Sino-Tibetan language-family but in the Japonic family which includes Japanese and its sister languages all confined to the Japanese islands. Although most Westerners believe the two languages to be related, ancient Chinese and ancient Japanese could not have been further apart from each other linguistically.

Many factors cause people to believe the two languages are related. First of all, in the 5th Century, during the Chinese Han dynasty, Buddhist monks brought Chinese texts back to Japan. They began to use a writing system called “man’yogana” in which 48 Chinese characters (kaisho) were stripped of their ancient meaning and used only for their sound. The first Japanese writing system of 48 (now 46) syllabically phonetic letters called “hiragana” was devised from writing these “kaisho” in the cursive Chinese “sôsho” method of calligraphy. In the following table, the complex Chinese kaisho are on the top, the intermediate forms in the middle, and the simple Japanese hiragana on the bottom.



Because of the influence of the “Central Kingdom” (China), using the original “kaisho” letters was viewed as intellectual, educated and masculine… whereas most poetry done by women in that period, was written in the cursive “hiragana”. Soon however, male authors also came to write literature using hiragana.

Unfortunately, the beautifully phonetic hiragana “alphabet” (or more accurately “syllabary”) never conquered the whole of the Japanese writing system. Today, the Japanese use a mixture of the 46 hiragana and 2136 “kanji“, which are Chinese characters used for meaning with limited pronunciation value. Hence, a simple phrase like “watashi-no namae-ha aiko desu” (meaning “my name is Aiko”) would normally be written like this (with a mixture of meaning-carrying Chinese characters in red and phonetic Japanese hiragana in blue):


instead of uni-phonetically (hiragana-only) like this.


wa-ta-shi no na-ma-e ha a-i-ko de-su (my name is Aiko)

I have often thought of petitioning the Japanese government to do away with the 2136 kanji and to start writing in hiragana-only (in fact, in the last government review of educational kanji in 2010, more kanji were added than were taken away increasing the number from 1944 to the current 2136). However, they would probably call me a “baka-yarou gaijin” (stupid bastard foreigner) and tell me that if i’m too lazy to learn 2136 characters, i’m luck i don’t have to learn the 6,500 characters in Chinese instead (or 13,500 traditional Chinese characters). 2135 doesn’t seem so many to learn after all.

The advantages of the hiragana-only approach are that instead of learning the 2136 meaning-bearing kanji that Japanese borrowed from the Chinese, you only have to remember 46 simple, cursive, phonetic letters to be able to write anything in Japanese… not much different from learning our 26 simple Roman letters of the alphabet.

But on the other hand, there is an advantage to the kanji-hiragana mixture. A Japanese person can see straight away that the meaning of “Aiko”, is “love-child”, even if you don’t know how to pronounce it. Also the multitude of homonyms (words with different meanings but he same pronunciation such as “eight / ate” or “bye / by / buy“… or the dreaded “their /they’re / there“) can be very simply differentiated from each other because they are written with different characters.

Japanese learners often have difficulty reading kanji-hiragana texts, but surprisingly, Japanese often have slight trouble understanding hiragana-only texts, due to the absence of spaces between words in Japanese writing and the fact that they’re used to reading with the meaning of the kanji jumping out at them…

I have already passively learnt about 1500 of the 2136 Chinese characters in Japanese (meaning I can read them and recognise them, but not write them), but for about 600 of them, i know only what they mean, not how to pronounce them. If I see them in a book or a newspaper, I may still be able to understand the passage, but would not be able to read it out loud. In addition to the difficulty that foreign learners experience, many children of high-school age have not yet learnt all of the kanji. For this reason, in many children’s school books, there are often mini-hiragana (called “furigana“) above words written in kanji, that explain how to pronounce them.

Here is the same sentence written in the kanji-hiragana mixture, with furigana over the kanji for ease of pronunciation (as you can see Aiko is one of my favourite names:


wa-ta-shi no na-ma-e ha a-i-ko de-su (my name is Aiko)

Many kanji have two or more readings. For example the character for the word water, has a native Japanese pronunciation “mizu” and a Sino-Japanese pronunciation “sui” which was modeled on “shui” the pronunciation in the ancient Han dynasty when the character was first borrowed. There are many like this:

Japanese Sino-Japanese Han Chinese Meaning
mizu sui shui water
okane kin chin money
yama san shan mountain
kuru rai lai to come
ookii tai ta big
katana to tao sword
kuchi ko k’ou mouth
kotoba gen yen word
toki ji shih time
kuruma sha ch’e wagon, car
hayashi rin lin woods
kodomo shi, su szu child
toshi nen nien year
kokoro shin hsin heart
hanasu wa hua to speak
otoko dan nan man

Further differences between Chinese and Japanese is that Japanese has no tones. The bane of the Chinese-learners existence is that the meaning often completely changes if you say “” (to scold) in a falling tone, as opposed to ““(hemp) in a rising tone , (horse) in a rising then falling tone, or “” (mother) in a level tone… (This Chinese idiosyncracy has produced the famous Mandarin phrase “māma mà mă de má ma?” which means, “Is Mother scolding the horse’s hemp?”)


māma mà mă de má ma?

Thankfully, Japanese has no tones.

Another difference between the two is that the Chinese dialects are also very monosyllabic and each character/syllable usually represents only one word, one idea. The Sino-Japanese roots follow suit in monosyllability. Pure Japanese roots on the other hand, contain many polysyllabic morphemes.

Notice though, that the Sino-Japanese readings in the table above are in this case very similar to the Han Chinese readings. As China was at one point the dominant power in the Orient, many technical words (of the time) borrow from the lexis of this ancient form of Chinese. Very similar to how we have looked back to Latin and Greek roots, in order to formulate words like “television“, or “microscope“. The word for “telephone” in Japanese is “den-wa” meaning “lightning-speech” and is *quite* similar to the Chinese “diàn-huà“, which uses the same characters.

However, since the 1940s, with the popularity of English in the present day technological field, many many words for technical objects are borrowed from English, “terebi” (television), “konpyuuta” (computer), “paso-kon” (PC, “personal computer“), “rabo” (laboratory), kurejitto kaado (credit card) and even “kounfreikusu” (cornflakes)… Japanese has even borrowed from French, Portuguese and German: “randebuu” (rendez-vous – appointment), pan (pão – bread) and arubaito (arbeit – work).

As if Japanese didn’t have enough alphabets, these foreign words are written either in “romaji” an adaptation of our roman letters and spelled as they are written above… or in a jazzy and sharp script called “katakana“, which mirrors hiragana in its 46 letters.

Because my screen name “Dorayakii“, is a jazzy, flashy, made-up name to Japanese people (from “dorayaki”, my favourite Japanese dessert), if i wanted to say “my name is Dorayakii” i would have to write the name in katakana like this (with the katakana in green):


wa-ta-shi no na-ma-e ha do-ra-ya-ki-i de-su (my name is Dorayakii)

Japanese has shown just as much willingness as English has to adapt to changes, to incorporate new vocabulary and to innovate with both grammar and lexis. It is a beautifully written, poetically spoken language that deserves to be kept alive.


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