Before the 5th century AD, the
Japanese had no writing system of their own. In the 5th century they
imported the Chinese script and Chinese language, along with many other
aspects of Chinese culture.
For a long time, most writing in Japan was in Classical Chinese, which
was read either in the conventional Chinese way, or with Japanese
pronunciation. Over a period of about 1,000 years, Chinese characters were
adapted in a variety of ways to write the Japanese language.
Modern Japanese is written with a mixture of two syllabaries, hiragana
(Chinese characters). Romaji, or
'Roman letters', the standard way of writing Japanese with the Latin
alphabet, are also used in Japanese texts.
Sample of written Japanese
and Korean, Japanese is traditionally written in vertical columns running
from top to bottom and from right to left. The Chinese text below is there
to give you an idea of the similarities and differences between the two
This sample is also available written entirely in hiragana,
An abbreviation of "kara (empty = no
singing) oukesutora" (orchestra). It began in Okayama Prefecture. Karaoke
originated from tapes featuring just a musical accompaniment used by
professionals for recording practice. They were sold for general use in
the 1970s, but it was after the LD (laser disk) penetrated the market in
the 1980s that the karaoke boom exploded. For the first time, the LDs
contained captions for the songs' lyrics, which meant you didn't have to
read the lyric sheet, and could look up and sing imposingly instead.
Romaji (Roman letters)
The Latin alphabet was first used in Japan in the 16th
century by Portuguese missionaries, who devised a romanisation system
based on Portuguese spelling. Later the Dutch introduced a romanisation
system based on Dutch.
By the 20th century, there were a number of different romanisation
systems in use, including the Nipponsiki system, the Kunrei system and the
Hepburn system, which became the official system.
Romaji is the standard way of transliterating Japanese
into the Latin alphabet. In everyday written Japanese, romaji can be used
to write numbers and abbreviations, such as CD and LD (see above). It
is also used in dictionaries, text books and phrase books for foreign
learners of Japanese.
In romaji, a long vowel is indicated by a macron (a line over the
Sample of Japanese written entirely in
The Japanese language (Nihongo)
Japanese is thought to be distantly related to the Altaic family of
languages. Japanese grammar is very similar to Korean, though whether this
resemblance is a result of extensive borrowing or sharing a common
ancestor is not known. Japanese is not related to Chinese, though it does
contain a huge number of Chinese 'loan' words, in fact perhaps 50% of the
words used in Japanse are of Chinese origin.
Japanese is spoken by 120 million people in Japan. There are also some
Japanese speakers in South American countries such as Brazil and Peru, in
the USA (especially in Hawaii), the UK and many other countries.
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