Languages of Japan

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Languages of Japan
RegionalRyukyuan (Okinawan et al.), Ainu, Hachijō
MinorityNivkh, Orok
ImmigrantKorean, Chinese
ForeignEnglish, Russian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin, Dutch, Bonin English
SignedJapanese Sign Language
Amami Oshima Sign Language
Miyakubo Sign Language
Keyboard layout

The most widely spoken language in Japan is Japanese, which is separated into several dialects with Tokyo dialect considered standard Japanese.

In addition to the Japanese language, Ryukyuan languages are spoken in Okinawa and parts of Kagoshima in the Ryukyu Islands. Along with Japanese, these languages are part of the Japonic language family, but they are separate languages, and are not mutually intelligible with Japanese, or with each other. All of the spoken Ryukyuan languages are classified by UNESCO as endangered.

In Hokkaido, there is the Ainu language, which is spoken by the Ainu people, who are the indigenous people of the island. The Ainu languages, of which Hokkaido Ainu is the only extant variety, are isolated and do not fall under any language family. Ever since the Meiji period, Japanese has become widely used among the Ainu people and consequently Ainu languages have been classified critically endangered by UNESCO.[2]

In addition, languages such as Orok, Evenki and Nivkh spoken in formerly Japanese controlled southern Sakhalin are becoming more and more endangered. After the Soviet Union took control of the region, speakers of these languages and their descendants migrated to mainland Japan and still exist in small numbers.

Speakers of Korean, and Zainichi Korean, which stems from Korean, also reside in Japan.


Evidence shows that people inhabited Japan and its islands from the beginning of the Palaeolithic Age. It is believed that they spoke a language; however it is unknown what kind of language it was. Characters resembling written language have been found at Stone Age excavation sites; however there are differing opinions as to what language it may be.

Not until shortly after the turn of the second century did indications of language spoken appear in Chinese history books. Chinese characters were adopted and records of spoken language were made in Japan. Hiragana and katakana characters were incorporated as a relatively accurate way to represent the sounds of Chinese characters.

Ryukyuan languages[edit]

Chinese characters were first introduced to Ryukyuan languages shortly into the 13th century. Details concerning the language before then are not well known. Fourteenth-century records indicate that gifts from Ryukyu Islands to China used hiragana, which indicates that these languages were tied to mainland Japanese at the time.

Ainu languages[edit]

There exist places in and around Tōhoku whose names were derived from Ainu languages. It is well known that people in Hokkaido, Karafuto, and the Kuril Islands used Ainu languages, but it is also thought that people in the eastern part of mainland Japan once spoke these languages. According to 16th-century records, Ainu languages had no written form. Only from the 19th century did the Ainu languages begin to use katakana.

Orok language[edit]

The Orok language emerged before the common era. Records show that they were used during the latter part of the Edo period in Hokkaido, Karafuto and the Kuril Islands; however, there are only a few speakers still in existence.

Nivkh language[edit]

Like Orok, the Nivkh language was spoken in Hokkaido, Karafuto, and the Kuril Islands, but also along the Amur River. It is unknown whether speakers of Nivkh still remain in Japan.

European languages[edit]

Since the Middle Ages, owing to visits from Europeans, Japanese has adopted a number of foreign words.

Post-1543 Portuguese was the initial contact language with Europeans, but this was later replaced by Dutch after the Japanese removed Portuguese people from the country.[3] The Japanese government conducted negotiations with Western authorities in Dutch until around 1870.[4] Since then English became the primary language of interaction with Western countries.

Language classifications[edit]

The oral languages spoken by the native peoples of the insular country of Japan at present and during recorded history belong to either of two primary phyla of human language:

In addition to these two indigenous language families, there is Japanese Sign Language, as well as significant minorities of ethnic Koreans and Chinese, who make up respectively about 0.5% and 0.4% of the country's population and many of whom continue to speak their ethnic language in private (see Zainichi Korean). There is also a notable history of use of Kanbun (Classical Chinese) as a language of literature and diplomacy in Japan, similar to the status of the Latin language in medieval Europe, which has left an indelible mark on the vocabulary of the Japanese language. Kanbun is a mandatory subject in the curricula of most Japanese secondary schools.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Ertl, John, ed. (2008). Multiculturalism in the new Japan : crossing the boundaries within. New York: Berghahn Books. p. 57. ISBN 9780857450258.
  3. ^ "Dutch-Japanese relations". Netherlands and You. Government of the Netherlands. Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  4. ^ Vos, Fritz (2014). "Dutch Influences on the Japanese Language: With an Appendix on Dutch Words in Korean". East Asian History. 39. (PDF) - Originally in Lingua 12 (1963): pp. 341–88.

Further reading[edit]

About the role of Dutch in Japan