Center for Japanese Language Education,the University of Tokyo

What are the characteristics of Japanese?

Back to "Introduction to Japanese Study"

On this site, I will give you a brief introduction on Japanese grammar for those who do not have any knowledge about the Japanese language.

In Japanese, particles and verbs are the most important characteristics.

1. The basic structure of a Japanese sentence; SOV, and particles are important

Let's take a look at a simple sentence.

(1) Tanakasan wa ocha o nomimashita. (Tanaka drank tea.)

This sentence can be divided into three parts, "Tanakasan wa" "ocha o" "nomimashita". In the part "Tanakasan wa", "Tanakasan" is a noun, the name of a person ("Tanaka" is a family name, and "san" is similar to Mr. or Ms.). "Wa" is a particle. In the part "ocha o", "ocha" is a noun, meaning "tea". "O" is a particle. "Nomimashita" is the past tense of a verb, meaning "drank".

The words are in order of subject, object and verb. As you can see, the basic word order of a Japanese sentence is SOV.

What are the meanings of the particles "wa" and "o"? "O" is the object marker. "O" marks "ocha" as the object. "Wa" is the subject marker (at this stage, I will refrain from further explanation). Now, please take a look at the following sentence.

(2) Tanakasan wa Satosan to ocha o nomimashita. (Tanaka drank tea with Sato.)

Comparing sentence (2) to sentence (1), "Satosan to" is added in sentence (2). "Satosan" is the name of a person, and "to" is a particle similar in meaning to "with". "Satosan to" means "with Sato".

(3) Tanakasan wa kissaten de ocha o nomimashita. (Tanaka drank tea at a coffee shop.)

In sentence (3), "kissaten de" is added compared to sentence (1). "Kissaten" is a noun meaning "coffee shop", and "de" is a particle similar in meanign to "at".

You can make sentence (4) based on (2) and (3) as follows.

(4) Tanakasan wa Satosan to kissaten de ocha o nomimashita. (Tanaka drank tea at a coffee shop with Sato.)

As you can see, the basic sentence structure of Japanese has the verb at the end, after several "noun + particle phrases ". Particles mark a noun's role in a sentence. "Tanakasan" is the subject, "ocha (tea)" is the object, and "Satosan" is the partner of the action. "Kissaten (coffee shop)" is the place of the action. These are the "roles" of each noun. The particle after the noun marks the role of the noun in a sentence.

Such "roles" of nouns are marked somehow in all languages. How are they marked in English or Chinese? Subject and object are marked by the order of the words, and other "roles" of nouns are marked by prepositions. In Japanese, particles come after all nouns to mark their role. Since particles come after nouns in Japanese, they are called postpositions instead of prepositions.

In addition, nouns are often written in kanji, but particles are always written in hiragana. Keep it in mind that hiragana after kanji mark important grammatical information.

Above are the main points of Japanese sentence structure. Some people might think it is a strange language, structuring sentence in SOV or using postpositions. However, it is not a strange language at all. Actually, there is a report that says nearly half of the languages in the world have SOV structured sentences. The prominent languages of the world such as English, Chinese, and Russian happen to put words in SVO order, so it seems as if SOV languages are exception, but from a statistical point of view, SOV languages make up one of the two major types of language groups in the world.

Further, it is pointed out in general linguistics that prepositions are often used in SVO languages, and SOV languages tend to use postpositions. This means that the languages of the world can be classified into two typical types, one is "SVO, preposition" type and the other is "SOV, postposition" type. Japanese belongs to the latter type, as well as Korean and Turkish. It is not a peculiar language, but it just belongs to "another type" of language. For the people whose mother tongue is the "SVO, preposition" type of language, it may be difficult to learn Japanese, but it brings with it a rich experience and a totally new world to learn a language in that is different from your own.

Due to the characteristics of Japanese as mentioned above, particles are very important. Each particle can be generalized, such as "de" being used in one situation, and "to" in another situation, so they can be and are necessary to be learned at early stage. However, there are some exceptions. This is similar to some English prepositions, for example when "in" is used for "on" in certain situations. This can be confuging for non-native speakers of English sometimes. It is advisable to learn "general rule" and "exceptions of rule".

There are several types of particles other than the ones that come after nouns. For example, interrogative sentences in Japanese do not change their words orders, but simply put "ka" at the end of the sentence, such as:

(5) Tanakasan wa ocha o nomimashitaka. (Did Tanaka drink tea?)

"Ka" is also a kind of particle called a sentence particle.

2. A language that uses various elements after verbs

Needless to say, verbs are important as well as particles. Verbs are the backbone of sentences in any language, but in Japanese they are especially important, because various elements follow verbs. The basic form of "nomimashita" in the previous sentence is actually "nomu (drink)", and an element "mashita" follows ( u of "nomu" is changed into i before "mashita"). "Mashita" is an element that marks a polite expression (I will explain this later in the series), and the past tense. Let's look at some forms made from "nomu"(drink). "Nomanai (do not drink)" ("nai" marks the negative form), "nonda (drank)" ("da" marks the past tense), "nondeiru (drinking)" ("deiru" marks the progressive form); as you can see, the elements that follow "nomu (drink)" mark various forms, such as the negative and the tense. Moreover, elements that mark potential, causative, passive, modality ("may", "must", "let's" etc. in English) also follow verbs as follows: "nomeru (can drink)" (potential), "nomaseru (force to drink)" (causative), "nomareru (being drunk)" (passive), "nomudaroo (will drink)" (conjectural), "nomoo (let's drink)" (intention). In English, only "-ed", "-ing", and "-s" follow verbs, and elements such as "not", "can", "may" are put separately in front of the verb. All these elements follow the verbs in Japanese. As a matter of course, more than two elements can be put after verbs in some cases. For example, the sentence "nom-as-are-nak-atta-hazuda (must have not been made to drink)" has 5 elements, causative, passive, negative, past tense, and modality. This type of language is called agglutinative language. Japanese is a typical agglutinative language, as well as Korean and Turkish. There are certain rules of order when putting more than two elements after a verb. As mentioned above, it is a characteristic of Japanese that various elements follow verbs. Considering that all these elements are included in verbs, Japanese verbs are rich in information, and change into various forms. To be fluent in Japanese, it is essential to learn the various forms of verbs, and to be able to use them with ease. It may seem difficult, but you can manage if you follow the rules one by one. Explanations on these matters will be elaborated on in the next site "verbs and their inflections". A sentence in Japanese must be read to the very end to reach the essential information, one cannot even figure out if it is affirmative or negative, because the verb is put at the end of the sentence, and many elements follow after the verbs. It is inconvenient in this way, but adverbs with functions that suggest the end of the sentence in advance are well developed, so actually it is not so inconvenient.

3. A language with flexible word order

It was mentioned earlier that the basic word order of Japanese is SOV, but the essential point is that the verb is at the end. As long as this rule is followed, the word order is very flexible, such as the ability to the put subject later than object. How could this be possible? As we have learned, verb include various information, so the structure of the sentence, in the case of a simple sentence, is only made of a verb and a "noun + particle" (and adverbs). In addition, each noun has a particle which marks its role, so as long as the "noun + particle" is moved together, information is not lost when the word order is changed. That is why the word order of Japanese is highly flexible, and for this reason particles play a very important role in Japanese. Although the word order is flexible, the most natural word order is to put the subject at the beginning, and place the object just before the verb, so it is advisable for beginners to practice in this word order.

4. [An understood noun] (+particle) can be omitted

You will find conversations such as the following in a traditional Japanese textbook.

(6) Anata wa itsu taishikan e ikimasuka. (When will you go to the embassy?)
(7) Watashi wa ashita taishikan e ikimasu. (I'll go to the embassy tomorrow.)

("Anata" is "you", "itsu" is "when", "taishikan" is "embassy", "e" is the particle meaning "to", "ikimasu" is "go", "watashi" is "I", and "ashita" is "tomorrow".) However, it is much more natural to have a conversation as follows:

(6') Itsu taishikan e ikimasuka.
(7') Ashita ikimasu.

An understood noun (+ particle) can be omitted in Japanese, even if it is a subject. This is also an important aspect of Japanese.

Traditional Japanese education quotes the "sentence in whole" to put the "sentence pattern (construction)" in the learners' mind, and it is surely an important element of language education, but doing so in excess could lead to unnatural expressions. It is essential to learn "sentence patterns (constructions)" to understand the systematic structure, and to enhance natural conversation ability at the same time. Needless to say, the Japanese education offered by the International Center puts strength into both elements.

Points: Advise for Japanese learners (1)
Particles and verbs are particularly important in Japanese.

(1) Particles after nouns mark the role of the noun. Tanakasan wa Satosan to kissaten de ocha o nomimashita.
(Tanaka drank tea at a coffee shop with Sato.)

(2) Verbs come at the end of the sentence, and include information such as affirmative, negative, and tense. Nomimasu (drink) (present tense / affiramative)
Nomimasen(do not drink) (present tense / negative)
Nomimashita (drank) (past tense / affiramative)
Nomimasendeshita (did not drink) (past tense / negative)

* The contents of this page are almost the same as the article "Learn the characteristics of Japanese language and study effectively (1) : What are the characteristics of Japanese?" by KIKUCHI Yasuto (Professor of the International Center, the University of Tokyo) in International Center News, The University of Tokyo, No.33.

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