Japan is ethnically, linguistically and culturally a very homogenous nation, where nearly 99% of the population speaks Nihongo (Japanese) as their first language. This dominance of Japanese language owes to the fact that around 98.5% of the population is made up of ethnic Japanese. Japanese is the official language of Japan – specifically, the Tokyo dialect, also known as Eastern Japanese – which is considered to be the standard version of the language. Other official Japanese dialects include Hachijo Japanese, Kyushu Japanese, and Western Japanese.

Japanese Language and Its Influences: From Chinese Borrowings to Regional Dialects

Japanese is greatly influenced by the Chinese language, but modern Japanese borrowed many words from other foreign languages as well. Its numeral system is a mix of Chinese and Arabic numerals, for example. The issue of the origins of the Japanese language is often contested by historical scholars, but the most widely held view is that Japanese originated from the family of languages which also includes Korean, Mongolian, Manchu and Turkish – the Ural-Atlantic family of languages. Korean is actually most frequently compared to Japanese, given that both languages share significant key features such as general structure, lack of conjunctions, and vowel harmony. However, the two languages are mutually unintelligible as the pronunciation of Japanese is significantly different than Korean pronunciation.

There are two forms of standard Japanese: the Standard Japanese taught in educational institutions around Japan called Hyojungo, and which is also used in official communications and in media. Hyojungo is further classified into kogo (the oral language) and bungo (the literary language). Kogo and bungo differ in vocabulary and grammar. The other form of standard Japanese is called Kyotsugo (the common language). The Japanese language also differs in the accent between Western and Eastern Japanese.

There are several other languages and dialects spoken in Japan, which include the Ryukyuan languages, Ainu languages, the Orok language and the Nivkh language. These languages belong to two language families spoken in Japan: the Japonic languages and the Ainu languages.

The Japonic languages are further divided into Japanese languages and Ryukyuan languages. Japanese languages include Hachijo, Eastern, Western and Kyushu, while Ryukyuan languages include Northern Ryukyuan languages – Amami, Kunigami and Okinawa and Southern Ryukyuan languages – Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni, which together account for less than one half of one percent of the population.

Endangered Languages of Japan: Preserving Cultural Heritage and Linguistic Richness

Many of the languages that are still spoken today in Japan are on the brink of extinction, such as Ryukyuan, Hokkaido Ainu, and the Nivkh language.

Some of the most widely-spoken foreign languages spoken on the island include Korean, spoken by approximately 900,000 residents, and Japanese Sign Language, with approximately 317,000 speakers. Other foreign languages that can be heard in Japan include English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and French. There are also small populations of Brazilians, Filipino, Chinese and Korean communities within the country.