Japanese (日本語) is spoken by more than 130 million people worldwide, mainly in Japan but also in some emigrant communities. There are an estimated 1.5 million Japanese speakers in Brazil, and more than 1 million in the USA. Approximately 12% of Hawaiians have Japanese ancestry, due to large-scale migration in the late nineteenth century following the boom in the sugar industry.
Japanese is written in a mixture of three scripts: Chinese characters (kanji) and two syllabic scripts (using modified Chinese characters, called kana). The Latin alphabet is also increasingly used for company branding, such as names and logos, and also abbreviations and acronyms such as ‘CD’ or ‘NATO’. Kōgo is the dominant system for Japanese writing today, having gradually replaced bungo since the turn of the twentieth century.
Traditionally, Japanese is written from top to bottom, then from right to left, copying the traditional Chinese system. Modern Japanese, however, is often written like English, i.e. left to right, then top to bottom. There are more than 250 Japanese characters.
Standard Japanese (hyōjungo) came from the language spoken in upper-class Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It is the official language taught in schools and used in media and official communications. There are also several dialects of Japanese spoken throughout the country, but these are largely mutually intelligible.
Japanese has been heavily influenced by Chinese and therefore contains a significant number of Chinese loanwords, borrowed from ancient times. Other countries have come into contact with Japan in the past and offered loanwords, such as England, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany and France. The words for ‘tobacco’ and ‘raincoat’ come from Portuguese, while the words for ‘scalpel’ and ‘sailor’ come from Dutch. English has also adopted some Japanese words, including ‘bonsai’, ‘geisha’ and ‘kamikaze’.
Japanese has an intricate grammatical system to express politeness and formality. Humble language is used to talk about oneself and one’s own family or company, whereas honorific language is used to talk about people outside the speaker’s group. There are four levels of formality used: kun, chan, sun and sama, and the differences in usage are complex.
During the period when Japan was governed by the samurai class (twelfth to nineteenth centuries), some of the methods used to train soldiers developed into well-ordered martial arts, for example jujitsu and sumo. Some of these arts were then developed into modern sports, such as judo, and are widely practised today.
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