Why is Japanese language so popular?

Hello everyone.

Thank you Nicolas san for creating a wonderful website for all learners of Japanese language. This website has the most comprehensive list of Kanji that you can use to prepare for Japanese language proficiency exam.

Since this is my first time posting here, I would like to briefly summarize my background. I am originally from Japan, and initially moved to Southern California to go to college after finishing high school. I have lived here for over 10 years (long time, I know!), have been tutoring Japanese on a part-time basis for eight years.

I’ve met many people who are truly fascinated by Japanese language, history and culture here in Southern California. Japanese is definitely one of the most popular languages as you can also find countless Japanese language websites. People in America learn Japanese for both personal enrichment and career advancement. There are two reasons my student almost always give me when I ask them why they are learning Japanese.

Japan is one of the most advanced countries in the world. Companies such as Panasonics, Honda, Toyota, Toshiba are all from Japan, and their products are used by millions of people around the world. There are many other Japanese companies successfully exporting their products to the international market. As Japanese companies continue to grow in global market, you are more likely to work with Japanese people. Naturally fluency in Japanese language makes you more competitive in the job market. The US economy has been stagnant, so some of my students are looking into applying for English teacher positions in Japan.

There is another obvious reason, which makes Japanese a popular foreign language. Japanese has a long history and its fantastically rich culture has been admired worldwide. Sushi is actually very popular in where I live. I was shocked to see people eating raw fish when I first moved here. There are many Japanese restaurants and grocery stores here, so people are introduced to fascinatingly unique Japanese culture in our daily lives in Southern California.

I can come up with many other reasons that make Japanese language and culture special, but I am going to end here. I am looking forward to posting more articles about Japanese language and culture! Thanks for reading.:>

Please share with us why you are learning Japanese in the comment section below!

About the Author

Hi My name is Yumi! I am originally from Japan and have lived in Southern California for many years. I have been tutoring my native language on a part-time basis. I look forward to contributing articles about Japanese language and culture. If you have any questions, please feel free to write me. 🙂

Yumi is the owner of the Yumi to Lesson website which helps students to learn Japanese (http://www.yumitolesson.com/)

The Japanese Writing System

The Japanese written language consists of a combination of three types of characters. To a lesser extend it nowadays also uses some Latin alphabet for abbreviations and numbers.

1. Kanji (漢字)

Kanji originally came from China to Japan. The term “kanji” literally means “Han characters” or “Chinese characters” and it is identical to the characters in China to describe their writing.

Kanji are mainly used to describe names and nouns. When used in verbs and adjectives they mostly are written in combination with hiragana. Most sentences include kanji as well as hiragana.

Japanese dictionaries list around 10,000 kanji. The Japanese government limited the kanji used in official publications to the 1945 touyou kanji with about 4000 readings. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is based on these 1945 touyou kanji.

A Japanese with average education knows around 3000 kanji and it is estimated that around 4000 kanji are used in Japanese literature.

2. Hiragana (平仮名)

Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet that was developed in the ninth century to simplify writing. It nowadays is mainly used for native Japanese words. Hiragana are derived from more complex kanji and each hiragana represents a syllable. A total of 46 hiragana are used in contemporary Japanese writing.

List of the 46 hiragana and their 25 diagritics (with ゛or ゜)

あ (a) い (i) う (u) え (e) お (o)
か (ka)
が (ga)
き (ki)
ぎ (gi)
く (ku)
ぐ (gu)
け (ke)
げ (ke)
こ (ko)
ご (go)
さ (sa)
ざ (za)
し (shi)
じ (ji)
す (su)
ず (zu)
せ (se)
ぜ (ze)
そ (so)
ぞ (zo)
た (ta)
だ (da)
ち (chi)
ぢ (ji)
つ (tsu)
づ (zu)
て (te)
で (de)
と (to)
ど (do)
な (na) に (ni) ぬ (nu) ね (ne) の (no)
は (ha)
ば (ba)
ぱ (pa)
ひ (hi)
び (bi)
ぴ (pi)
ふ (fu)
ぶ (bu)
ぷ (pu)
へ (he)
べ (be)
ぺ (pe)
ほ (ho)
ぼ (bo)
ぽ (po)
ま (ma) み (mi) む (mu) め (me) も (mo)
や (ya) ゆ (yu) よ (yo)
ら (ra) り (ri) る (ru) れ (re) ろ (ro)
わ (wa) を (wo/o)
ん (n)

The combination of some of these hiragana is used to express a few additional sounds used in Japanese. The first character is written in normal size whereas the second character is written a little bit smaller. These combinations are called digraphs.

List of 21 hiragana digraphs and their 15 diagritics

きゃ (kya)
ぎゃ (gya)
きゅ (kyu)
ぎゅ (gyu)
きょ (kyo)
ぎょ (gyo)
しゃ (sha)
じゃ (ja)
しゅ (shu)
じゅ (ju)
しょ (sho)
じょ (jo)
ちゃ (cha)
ぢゃ (ja)
ちゅ (chu)
ぢゅ (ju)
ちょ (cho)
ぢょ (jo)
にゃ (nya) にゅ (nyu) にょ (nyo)
ひゃ (hya)
びゃ (bya)
ぴょ (pyo)
ひゅ (hyu)
びゅ (byu)
ぴゅ (pyu)
ひょ (hyo)
びょ (byo)
ぴょ (pyo)
みゃ (mya) みゅ (myu) みょ (myo)
りゃ (rya) りゅ (ryu) りょ (ryo)

3. Katakana (片仮名)

Katakana also is a phonetic alphabet covering the same syllable as hiragana and therefore also has 46 different characters. It is mainly used for foreign loanwords and sometimes to replace kanji or hiragana for emphasis. Katakana were developed in the ninth century and are also derived from more complex kanji.

List of the 46 basic katakana and their 25 diagritics (with ゛or ゜)

ア (a) イ (i) ウ (u) エ (e) オ (o)
カ (ka)
ガ (ga)
キ (ki)
ギ (gi)
ク (ku)
グ (gu)
ケ (ke)
ゲ (ke)
コ (ko)
ゴ (go)
サ (sa)
ザ (za)
シ (shi)
ジ (ji)
ス (su)
ズ (zu)
セ (se)
ゼ (ze)
ソ (so)
ゾ (zo)
タ (ta)
ダ (da)
チ (chi)
ヂ (ji)
ツ (tsu)
ヅ (zu)
テ (te)
デ (de)
ト (to)
ド (do)
ナ (na) 二 (ni) ヌ (nu) ネ (ne) ノ (no)
ハ (ha)
バ (ba)
パ (pa)
ヒ (hi)
ビ (bi)
ピ (pi)
フ (fu)
ブ (bu)
プ (pu)
ヘ (he)
ベ (be)
ペ (pe)
ホ (ho)
ボ (bo)
ポ (po)
マ (ma) ミ (mi) ム (mu) メ (me) モ (mo)
ヤ (ya) ユ (yu) ヨ (yo)
ラ (ra) リ (ri) ル (ru) レ (re) ロ (ro)
ワ (wa) ヲ (wo/o)
ン (n)

List of 21 katakana digraphs and their 15 diagritics
As with hiragana there also are combinations to express the other sounds required for the Japanese language.

キャ (kya)
ギャ (gya)
キュ (kyu)
ギュ (gyu)
キョ (kyo)
ギョ (gyo)
シャ (sha)
ジャ (ja)
シュ (shu)
ジュ (ju)
ショ (sho)
ジョ (jo)
チャ (cha)
ヂャ (ja)
チュ (chu)
ヂュ (ju)
チョ (cho)
ニャ (nya) ニュ (nyu) ニョ (nyo)
ヒャ (hya)
ビャ (bya)
ピャ (pyo)
ヒュ (hyu)
ビュ (byu)
ピュ (pyu)
ヒョ (hyo)
ビョ (byo)
ピョ (pyo)
ミャ (mya) ミュ (myu) ミョ (myo)
リャ (rya) リュ (ryu) リョ (ryo)

These 46 katakana and their variations are sufficient to express all sounds used for Japanese words. In order to get closer to the pronunciation of foreign words, a list of not so common extended katakana is used.

List of extended katakana

イィ (yi) イェ (ye)
ウァ (wa) ウィ (wi) ウゥ (wu) ウェ (we) ウォ (wo)
ヴァ (va) ヴィ (vi) ヴ (vu) ヴェ (ve) ヴォ (vo)
ヴィェ (vye)
キェ (kye)
ギェ (gye)
クァ (kwa) クィ(kwi) クェ (kwe) クォ (kwo)
グァ (gwa)  グィ (gwi)  グェ (gwe) グォ (gwo)
シェ (she)
 ジェ (je)
 スィ (si)
 ズィ (zi)
 チェ (che)
 ツァ (tsa)  ツィ (tsi)  ツェ (tse)  ツォ (tso)
 ティ (ti)  テゥ (tu)
 ディ (di)  デゥ (du)
 ニェ (nye)
 ヒェ (hye)
 ビェ (bye)
 ピェ (pye)
 ファ (fa)  フィ (fi)  フェ (fe)  フォ (fo)
 フィェ (fye)
 ホゥ (hu)
 ミェ (mye)
 リェ (rye)
 ラ゜(la)  リ゜(li)  ル゜(lu)  レ゜(le)  ロ゜(lo)

4. Writing a Japanese text
It is possible to write everything in hiragana or katakana since both scripts cover the entity of sounds of the Japanese language, although this is not very practical due to the high number of words having the same pronunciation but different meanings.

All characters are written one by one and in the same size. There are no spaces between different words, which feels a little bit unusual for most foreigners. It takes time to get used to this and easily distinguish different words.

It is important to write the strokes in the correct order and directions to give the characters the right shape. The reason why becomes obvious when practicing with a brush pen, which is very much recommended for beginners.

Japanese writing is made in two directions. Horizontal writing (yokogaki) is from the left to the right as in western style. Traditional writing (tategaki) is vertical starting from the right top and ending at the left bottom. A book printed in tategaki opens from what Westerners would call the back, while a book printed in yokogaki opens from what traditionally in Japan would have been considered the back.

What is furigana (ふりがな)?

Furigana 振仮名 indicate the correct pronunciation of Japanese kanji characters. In principle they consist of Hiragana or Katakana which are written next to the Kanji.

At Nihongo Ichiban we decided to use Hiragana only since most foreigner are more familiar with these.

What is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)?

The purpose of the JLPT is to evaluate and certify Japanese language proficiency of non-native speakers. It is the largest scale test for Japanese in the world and used by many companies and universities to assess the Japanese language skills of applicants.

There are 5 levels for the JLPT. Level 5 is the entry level and Level 1 is the highest level of proficiency. Test is designed to assess the reading and writing skills of applicants and also requires knowledge of vocabulary and grammar.
Unfortunately the Japan Foundation does not publish lists of vocabulary, grammar and characters required for each level. The only way to provide lists as on this page is to analyze the material from the published tests with a more or less high accuracy.

It is organized by the Japan Foundation and tests are held regularly in Japan as well as many countries and cities outside Japan.

This table shows the requirements for kanji and vocabulary by proficiency level:

Level Criteria
Learning hours Kanji Vocabulary
N5 150 hours 100 characters 800 words
N4 300 hours 300 characters 1,500 words
N3 450 hours 700 characters 3,500 words
N2 600 hours 1,000 characters 6,000 words
N1 900 hours 2,000 characters 10,000 words

Please check the official website of the test organization for more information. http://www.jlpt.jp/e/

Material for preparing for the JLPT N5 – N1

What are Onyomi and Kunyomi?

Kanji (Chinese characters) have two different readings – the onyomi and the kunyomi. The onyomi is closer to the original Chinese language and is mostly used for nouns. One Kanji can have more than one onyomi.

The kunyomi reading is used to show the traditional Japanese pronunciation. It is most frequently used when kanji appear in adjectives or verbs.

Kanji can have multiple onyomu or kunyomi readings, and sometimes they might only have onyomi or kunyomi readings.

The Japanese government selected 1945 kanji to be used for official publications. These so called “toyo kanji” which are also used for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) have around 4000 readings.

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