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Japanese Grammar

This section is a short and simple introduction to some of the basics of Japanese grammar, geared toward those who may be interested in taking up independent study. I won't go into exhaustive detail about the finer points of speaking and writing, but you'll at least get an idea of some of the essential differences between English and Japanese grammars, which may help you overcome initial hurdles in your studies.

— Phonology and Orthography —

Japanese orthography is phonemic, which means there is only one way to pronounce a given word. Most characters in Japanese writing represent full syllables, which are consonent + vowel pairs. This contrasts somewhat with the English alphabet, with the exception that characters in a syllabary represent phonemic pairs, while an alphabet has letters that represent individual phonemes.

Some of the basic phonemes found in Japanese are as follows:


a - ah, as in father

i - ee, as in meet

u - oo, as in food

e - eh, as in ebb

o - oh, as in okay


k as in kite
s as in set
t as in tin
n as in now
h as in height
m as in many
y as in yield *
r produces a sound between r and L, but sounds more like d
w as in water

* You'll occasionally see syllables such as kyu or gya in written Japanese. It's important to note that these syllables are indeed pronounced as just one syllable. For example, Tokyo is pronounced Toh·kyoh, not Toh·kee·oh.
The above chart illustrates some of the basic kana (Japanese syllabary) consisting of two writing systems, hiragana and katakana. The hiragana characters (left) are used to scribe everyday words, while katakana characters (right) are used to scribe foreign names and loanwords.
Kana is extended through the use of diacritical marks, as illustrated in the example below. These marks modify basic kana to indicate consonants such as b and f, which are fairly common throughout Japanese.
Use the rows and columns to match phonemic pairs to their respective characters. For instance, you can see that the hiragana character for
ka is . An exception to note: The character for t + u is tsu, not tu.
A third writing system — kanji — is a very large set of ideographs borrowed from Chinese. These are used to shorten writing and make context more clear, as some Japanese words (especially one-syllable words such as shi) produce many homonyms. Kanji can typically be broken down into a set of simple characters (called "radicals") that represent simple ideas; these are then used as base characters, combined to make more complex characters that represent more complex ideas. A couple of examples are illustrated in the left diagram.

— Syntax —

Japanese is a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language, which is nearly opposite to typical English (SVO) syntax.
For instance, if one wanted to say, "I'm going to the store," the Japanese syntax would appear like so:

わたしは いちばに いく
watashi wa · ichiba ni · iku
I · store to / at · go

— Particles —

Japanese uses small words called "particles" (grammatical markers) to indicate relationships between nouns. In English, one would instead inflect (or alter) a noun to demonstrate these relationships. For instance, we use I when we're the subject of a clause, and me when we're the object of a verb or preposition. In Japanese, the noun itself remains unchanged. Let's look at a couple of common particles:

watashi wa - The wa indicates that I (watashi) am the subject. If I'm talking about myself or some action I'm performing, I would likely use the particle wa. Note: In actual Japanese writing, the particle wa is always rendered as ha.

watashi o - The o indicates that I'm the object of something. This is equivalent to English me in all respects.
First, an example of the nominative (subject) particle wa ...

"I placed the book on the table."

わたしは テーブルのうえに ほんお おい
watashi wa · teburu no ue ni · hon o · oi
I · surface of the table on · book · place / put
Next, an example of the oblique (object) particle o ...

"Don't forget me."

わたしお わすれないで
watashi o · wasurenaide
me · forget not

— Pronouns and Levels of Speech —

Japanese language (and society) is quite fixated on social status. This is often reflected by the way you bring yourself (and others) up during a conversation. For the most part, your relationship(s) to other people can be indicated simply by your choice of pronouns. Choosing the wrong pronouns can have unfortunate implications, so it's important to understand their appropriate contexts before engaging in everyday conversation.

Personal Pronouns (i.e. yourself)

watashi - This is the most common (and safest) personal pronoun. This is how you will typically refer to yourself. watashi is technically on the polite side, so its usage is flexible enough for both formal and colloquial settings.

boku - Males will sometimes use this in the company of other males, especially friends or close associates. It's very colloquial, so you would never use it in a formel setting. Girls may sometimes use boku to convey a tomboyish nature. It's also worth noting that boku has become fairly common among gay males, so using it with overwhelming frequency may cause others to ponder your sexual orientation. Um... yeah.

ore - This is an extremely masculine pronoun, and most definitely not suitable for formal situations. You would use this only in the presence of very close male friends and associates, sometimes to assert yourself as leader of the pack. In some cases, it can make you sound cool and laid back; in others, it can make you come off as a punk or a bad boy, especially if you use it in all general situations.

Second Person (i.e. the person you're speaking to)

anata - This is a very polite way of saying you. Although suitable for formal settings, it can at times come off as too endearing. For instance, if anata is used by a wife to address her husband, it more likely translates to dear or darling.

kimi - Typically an affectionate way of saying you, but it's actually pretty informal. You would likely address your close (probably female) friends this way, but definitely not your teachers, superiors, bosses, etc.

omae - Either very laid back or very rude, depending on the situation. You would likely use this among very close friends, but if used to address a perfect stranger, it may seem contemptuous. Like ore, omae conveys a sense of superior status or masculinity.

Honorific Suffixes

It's common practice to suffix names and second person pronouns with honorifics, which usually convey a sense of respect for the person you're addressing. Although common, honorifics are not mandatory, nor are they an aspect of Japanese grammar itself. Their usage is entirely elective.
Below are a few examples of some of the more common suffixes:

-san - Similar to to English sir or ma'am. -san can be used safely in most settings, regardless of the nature of your relationship to the listener.

-sama - A more formal version of -san. You may consider using -sama to address teachers or other superiors.

-chan - Implies endearment. This would typically be used to address children, or maybe close female friends.

-kun - Also implies endearment, but in a more masculine sense. Girls may use -kun to address their male friends or little brothers. I suppose males can also use it to address other males.