Why Is Japanese Difficult?


It is often said that it’s hard for English speakers to master tonal and character-based languages like Chinese, Russian, Arabic, etc. Japanese is one of those languages. In this article, I’m going to discuss why Japanese is difficult for non-Japanese speakers, especially English speakers, to master.

Then, what are the huge differences between English and Japanese? I’m going to introduce three huge differences below.

First, there are three kinds of alphabets in Japanese, which are called “hiragana”, “katakana”, and “kanji”. In English, there is only one type of alphabet— the Latin alphabet. For example, there is only one way to describe the fruit, “apple” while we can describe an apple in three different ways in Japanese. If you use hiragana, “apple” is “りんご”. If you use katakana, “apple” is “リンゴ”. If you use kanji, “apple” is “林檎”. All of them have the same meaning. English speakers don’t have the concept of using more than one kind of alphabet, so it is difficult for them to distinguish the Japanese alphabets. In addition, since there are many more characters in Japanese than there are letters in English, Japanese is difficult for English speakers. There are 50 kinds of hiragana and 50 kinds of katakana. Students are supposed to learn 1,006 kinds of kanji before they graduate from elementary school in Japan.

Second, many kanji characters can be referred to more than one way. In English, the letter “A” is referred to as “A” and there is no other way to refer to it. On the other hand, there is more than one way of referring to each kanji character. For example, the character “日” has at least four ways of being referred to: “nichi”, “jitsu”, “hi”, and “ka”. Here is an example sentence: 3月1日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした。In this sentence, there are five “日” characters but they are all called differently. How they are called depends on the context. Kanji also exists in written Chinese. However, each spoken Chinese dialect refers to each kanji character in only one way within that specific dialect. Thus, Japanese is sometimes regarded as difficult for Chinese speakers just as it is for English speakers.

Third, the way Japanese is spoken can change depending on area, generation/gender, and situation. Speaking on the differences according to area, there are many kinds of dialect in Japan. The difference may be similar to that of British English and American English. However, the difference is not only in the choice of words but also in the grammar, intonation, and expression. Therefore, Japanese spoken by non-Japanese speakers is sometimes different from daily Japanese because non-Japanese speakers’ Japanese tends to be the standard Japanese. Speaking on the differences in the way of speaking according to generation/gender, there are many kinds of personal pronouns in Japanese. In English, the first person pronoun is “I”. In Japanese, “watashi” (for everyone and formal), “boku” (for men), “atashi” (for girl), “ore” (for men and casual), “washi” (for elderly people and casual), and “wai” (for everyone and casual but not popular) are all first person pronouns. Just as in the first person, there are many personal pronouns for the second person perspective, such as “anata” (for everyone), “omae” (for everyone and casual), “kimi” (for everyone) and so on. This is also one of the concepts that non-Japanese speakers don’t have. Speaking on the differences because of the situation, there is an honorific word called “Kego” in Japanese. “Kego” is used when people talked with older people or when people speak in a public stage. When it comes to using “Kego”, verb and conjugation are changed. “Kego” is one of the most important aspects of Japanese culture. If you don’t use “Kego” correctly, your behavior sometimes seems rude. But I believe expressing respect at the linguistic level instead of with attitude is one of the beautiful features of Japanese.

In addition to these differences, there are other differences between Japanese and English. One of the reasons why there are so many differences is because the origin of each language is different. Though the origin of English is different from the origin of Japanese, the origin of Spanish is the same as the origin of English. That’s why there are some similarities between English and Spanish such as in grammar or with words.

For non-Japanese speakers, Japanese may be extraordinarily different from their native language. However, it may be interesting for them to find similarities between Japanese and their native language. What are similarities between English and Japanese? How about between Korean and Japanese? Between Chinese and Japanese? Between Spanish and Japanese? Do you get curious about Japanese when you eat sushi with soy sauce using chopsticks?


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