Languages of Japan

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Languages of Japan
1930s Japan Travel Poster - 01.jpg
Japanese travel poster, 1930s
NationalStandard Japanese
MainStandard Japanese
RegionalJapanese dialects, Amami-Ōshima, Kunigami, Miyako, Okinawan, Yaeyama, Yonaguni
MinorityBonin English, Japanese-English, Matagi, Nivkh, Orok, Sanka, Zainichi Korean
ImmigrantChinese, Korean, Mongolian, Portuguese, Spanish
ForeignArabic, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, Dutch, English, Filipino, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Khmer, Korean, Kurdish, Lao, Malay, Nepali, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
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, Ryūkyūan languages are spoken in Okinawa and parts of Kagoshima in the Ryūkyū 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 Hokkaidō, 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 Hokkaidō 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.


Shortly after the turn of the second century did indications of language appear in Chinese texts. 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.

Ryūkyūan languages[edit]

Chinese characters were first introduced to Ryūkyūan languages shortly into the 13th-century. Details concerning the language before then are not well known. 14th-century records indicate that gifts from Ryūkyū Islands to China used Hiragana, which indicates that these languages were tied to Mainland Japanese at the time.

Ainu languages[edit]

History records that people in Hokkaidō, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands spoke Ainu languages,[citation needed] but there are also places in and around Tōhoku whose names derive from Ainu languages. According to 16th-century records, Ainu languages had no written form.[citation needed] Only from the 19th-century did the Ainu languages begin to use Katakana.

Orok language[edit]

Record show that the Orok language was spoken during the latter part of the Edo period in Hokkaidō,[dubious ] Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands;[dubious ] however, there are only a few speakers still in existence.[citation needed]

Nivkh language[edit]

Like Orok, the Nivkh language was spoken in Sakhalin and later in Hokkaidō,[citation needed] and the Kuril Islands.[dubious ] It is unknown whether speakers of Nivkh still remain in Japan.[citation needed]

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. ^ "参議院法制局".
  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. 28 April 2017. 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