Maybe you are (somewhat) familiar with Japanese language. In that case the information we provide here might be redundant. If, on the other hand, your knowledge about Japanese language is limited, it might be useful and informative to read the following.
People often ask us if Japanese is hard. The answer is both yes and no. It is difficult because it is completely different from the western languages we are familiar with and because there are so many characters. Metaphors and ways to express oneself in Japanese are often very different from those in western languages. What makes Japanese perhaps not that terribly difficult is the absence of strict rules for the writing of correct Japanese texts, and the limited sounds. But of course a Japanese sentence might be correct, but whether or not it sounds like a natural sentence is a different matter.
Kanji, katakana and hiragana
Japanese uses three types of script: kanji, katakana and hiragana. Katakana and hiragana (collectively called kana) are so-called syllabic scripts. This means that every character represents a sound. In modern day Japanese 46 katakana and 46 hiragana characters are used. Hiragana are usually used to write verb infections, particles (which show the grammatical function of a word in the sentence), and to write words which cannot (or no longer) be written in kanji. Katakana are usually used for loanwords and foreign names. It is therefore unusual to write western names in kanji, as katakana are normally used in this case.
Kana started out as simplified representations of kanji. These kanji in turn are the famous Chinese characters the Japanese "adopted" to write their language. Nowadays about 1800 characters are used daily (the so-called jouyou kanji). Kanji are mostly used for verb stems, verbal adjectives and similar words, as well as nouns and Japanese names. Oftentimes combinations of multiple kanji form a word.
Japanese language belongs to the so-called Altaic languages. Grammatically speaking Japanese is most related to Korean and Turkish. It is related to the latter because of the fact that Japanese is also an agglutinative language, which means that for instance auxiliary verbs and grammatical aids are "glued" onto the stem of a verb.
Unlike popular opinion, the relationship with Chinese is very slight. It only limits itself to the fact that, apart from the script, many words are taken from Chinese. It must be stated, though, that there are kanji that have not been taken from Chinese but are authentic Japanese ones.
Japanese grammar is not terribly difficult. Westerners mainly have to get used to the fact that the grammar is different from the grammar of western languages. A Japanese language uses the so-called SOV-structure, which stands for subject, object, and verb. This means that in sentences the subject comes first, followed by the object and lastly the verb. The function of different phrases is indicated by means of particles, which can best be described as suffixes.
What makes Japanese grammar not that hard is the fact that it is difficult to do something completely wrong in Japanese. Word order, for instance, does not have any fixed rules. On the other hand, Japanese does of course use certain commonly used ways of saying something and it will be noticed if you do not conform to this. Speaking and writing correct Japanese is one thing, but correct and natural sounding Japanese is something completely different.
In Japanese language different polite forms are used. Not only can the distinction be made between formal and informal language, but in both formal and informal Japanese different levels of politeness can be found. What polite form is to be used is dependent on the social status and age of both the speaker and the addressee. Especially in correspondence, use of the correct polite form is essential. It can be said, though, that foreigners are not usually expected to be skilled in these polite forms. Using them correctly can even be difficult for a Japanese person.
Here we have only talked about some main characteristics of Japanese. There is of course much more to know about Japanese. There is for instance classical Japanese, which differs from modern Japanese, or kanbun, which might be seen as a mixture of Chinese and Japanese. For those who want to know more there is a lot of information on the internet. Further information can for example be found on the page about Japanese on Wikipedia.
If you have questions about anything, please do not hesitate to contact us.