thoughts from places

What is Japanese like?

Here are some characteristics of Japanese that I often tell people about if I'm asked in conversation.

Being polite

Japanese has polite and casual form. That means that all sentences can be classified as polite or casual. In English unless a sentence contains words like "Please" or "Thank you", it is often unknown as to whether a sentence is polite or not. For example the sentence "I understand" in English is both polite and casual. You can't tell.

The polite way to say "I understand" in Japanese is: Wakarimasu わかります, and the casual form is: Wakaru わかる.

Showing you're listening

If somebody is talking to you in English and you constantly say "Yeah, yeah, is that so." The person talking would think that you are being rude by constantly interrupting them. This is not the case in Japanese. The more assurances you can give to show you are listening the better.

In Japanese they often say:

Yes, yes Hai hai はい はい
It is so sou desu そうです
Is it so? sou desu ka そうですか
Really honto ni ほんとに

Sentence structure

English uses subject, verb, object order (SVO). For example "I drank water". "I" is the subject, "drank" is the verb, and "water" is the object. In Japanese they use subject, object, verb (SOV). So "I drank water" is; "I water drank".

Dropping words

In Japanese you drop any word from the sentence if it can be understood from context.

The English sentence “I want to eat sushi” would become “want to eat sushi”. If you change it to the Japanese sentence order it would be “sushi want to eat” sushi o tabetai, すし を たへたい。

Reading and writing system

Japanese has three writing systems: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. 


Kanji are Chinese characters that were brought to Japan over a thousand years ago from China. Kanji are a bit like simple drawings. For example the Kanji for tree is 木 (ki). This kind of looks like a tree. The Kanji for forest is 森 (mori). You can see that this is made up of three tree kanjis and it makes sense that multiple trees are a forest.

In my opinion most kanji look nothing like the meaning they are trying to portray. For example the kanji used in the verb “to write” is 書 which looks nothing like a pen or somebody trying to write.

Kanjis are a bit like emojis in English. They are symbols that represent a meaning. Like the way the word love can be written as ❤.

One of the difficult things about kanji is that they are not phonetic. You can't determine how to pronounce kanji just by looking at them. You need to use a dictionary.


Hiragana is a phonetic script. You can pronounce words even if you don't know what they mean. The nice thing about Japanese is that words are pronounced exactly as they are written. Not like English where some words are pronounced differently from how they are written. For example the word London is written with "o" but is pronounced with "u".


Katakana is a phonetic script like Hiragana except it is used for foreign words. For example: terebi テレビ television.

Input methods


Japanese uses Roman script to type Japanese on a keyboard. They call it romaji. Romaji is when you write a Japanese word using Roman letters. Like the word "sushi". Most international Japanese companies are Japanese words written in romaji. Like Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nintendo. Japanese companies that use the letter K or I will most likely change it to C and Y so that English speakers can pronounce them correctly. For example Sony (Soni) and Cannon (Kannon).

Neil Lyons

Freelance Web Developer based in the UK.