The Japanese Language: Context Is Everything

From the Lecture Series: Understanding Japan — A Cultural History

By Mark J. Ravina, Ph.D., Emory University

Japanese language is highly contextual. It’s hard to know how to say something in Japanese unless you know the details of the social context. And that reflects a long-standing Japanese concern with order, with hierarchy, and with consensus.

Beginner Japanese language learner writing Hello word in Japanese kanji characters
(Image: Keitma/Shutterstock)

Many years ago, I was asked to work as a consultant on a short elementary school book. The book was called A Visit to Japan, and it should have been a fairly simple job—except that the book was part of a series, and each book in the series began with how to say “hello” in the language of the country the children were pretending to visit. And this turned out to be a big problem, because there is no simple” hello” in Japanese. You can say “good morning”, “or good day”, or “good night”, but the only way to say hello in Japanese is harō.

So, translating something seemingly simple, like “hello”, is not simple at all. “Hello” in the morning in Japanese is “good morning”, or ohayō, and that becomes ohayō gozaimasu in a formal situation. “Hello” during the day is “good day”, or konnichi ha. And in the evening, “hello” is “good evening”, or konban ha.

Japanese is a Highly Situational Language

When translating something into Japanese, you often need to know: the time of day, the time of year, the formality of the situation, the age, the gender, the social status of the speaker, the age, the gender, the social status of the addressee, the age, the gender, and the social status of the any third party mentioned, and then the social connections among the speaker, the listener, and the third parties. Are they family members? Do they work for the same company?

Needless to say, this is a little bit beyond the abilities of Google Translate. And it makes Japanese arguably the opposite of contemporary American English, which has lost almost all markers of social hierarchy in speech. French has tu and vous, German has du and sie. But American English just has you.

So, translating the English “please” or “thank you” or” how are you” into idiomatic Japanese becomes astonishingly complicated. Because we need to know, is it a mother talking to her young son, is an employee talking to her boss, is a college student talking to a friend?

Learn more about Japanese family life

The Two Axes of Japanese Verbs

Let me give you some concrete examples of how this works. When I say Japanese is situational, we can think of each speech situation as having a position on two axes. One is the social hierarchy axis. Some people are above the speaker and some people are below the speaker. The second axis is formality. Is it a casual situation or a formal situation?

Almost every Japanese verb is different based on these two axes. In fact, Japanese adjectives and many nouns also vary based on these two axes.

Young people speaking the Japanese language
The Japanese language relies heavily on the situation in which it is being spoken.(Image: loreanto/Shutterstock)

To see this in action, let’s analyze the following situation. A group of Japanese friends from college get together for a drink, and one says, “Hey, I saw our favorite teacher, Professor Tanaka, the other day. He’s retired, but he’s healthy and happy.”

Let’s think about our two axes—social hierarchy and formality. Well, clearly the situation is informal, but Professor Tanaka is the social superior to all the friends. As a result, the speaker’s language has to be honorific but informal.

So the guy says, “I saw Professor Tanaka” as Tanaka-sensei ni ome ni kakatta, literally, “My eyes respectfully fell upon Professor Tanaka.” Ome ni kakaru is a respectful phrase that signals the social superiority of the professor. “My eyes fell upon” instead of just “see” or “meet.” But kakatta is the informal form of kakaru because we’re amongst friends.

Okay, let’s tweak this scenario a little bit: same people talking about the same professor, but this time the context is not so informal. Maybe we’re in front of other people. So, ome ni kakatta becomes ome ni kakarimashita which is the same verb, but now in formal form, that longer -mashita at the end tells us that it’s formal.

One more tweak: same people, same formal situation, but let’s say the subject of the conversation is different. Maybe the conversation is about an old mutual friend instead of the professor. Now, that old mutual friend, he’s at the same social position as the classmates, so we need to use a neutral verb for “to see” or “to meet”—maybe de’au.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding Japan: A Cultural History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

So I might say, Tanaka-kun ni deaimashita. “I bumped into Tanaka-kun.” First, let’s observe that -kun is attached to the old friend’s name. Kun marks familiarity, especially amongst men. And second, although the root verb de’au is socially neutral, it takes the form deaimashita because we’re still in a formal situation. In other words, even though Tanaka is a mutual friend, the verb needs to reflect the contextual mood.

Now, as in the previous case, I can make things informal with the shorter verb ending de’atta instead of deaimashita. So if we’re back at a bar with friends, talking about an old mutual friend, I would say Tanaka-kun ni de’atta.

Think of those two axes. Is the person under discussion above me, a peer, or below me? Two, is this a formal or a casual situation? To English speakers, this might seem rather complicated, but it helps explain how even basic phrases work in Japanese.

 …nothing really corresponds to the English phrase “please.

For example, nothing really corresponds to the English phrase “please”. Many phrase books often give kudasai as the translation of “please”, and certainly it has that overall meaning. But kudasai makes more sense in terms of an axis of social hierarchy. Kudasai comes from the verb kudasaru, which means “send it down”.

Saying kudasai marks the speaker as socially below the listener. But that humility is balanced by the form of the verb. The -sai suffix is actually a mild command. Kudasai is the gentle command form of the verb kudasaru. So, please in Japanese is, “Could you send it down?”

Learn more about the making of contemporary Japan

The Power of the Suffix in Japanese

By now, you’ve probably noticed that stuff happens at the end of Japanese verbs. It’s tempting to call this conjugating, but linguists call it agglutinating.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that stuff happens at the end of Japanese verbs. It’s tempting to call this conjugating, but linguists call it agglutinating. Japanese verbs and adjectives add information by adding suffixes. Here’s a good example. In English, if the verb is “eat”, the past passive is “was eaten”. In Japanese, the verb for “eat”, taberu, becomes taberareta, “was eaten”. The past passive voice is indicated by a suffix. So, where English adds words, Japanese adds suffixes.

Let’s look at another example of agglutination. In English, adjectives don’t have a tense. Take, for example, the phrase “is delicious” and the phrase “was delicious”. The adjective “delicious” doesn’t change from present to past. The sense of time comes from the verb. But in Japanese, the adjective for “delicious” is oishii in the present and it changes to oishikatta in the past. The past tense of an adjective is marked with a suffix.

And, indeed, the more complicated the sentence, the more stuff happens at the end of Japanese words. So in English, a sentence that needs lots of additional words, in Japanese, it just gets lots of suffixes.

Sushi octopus in bowl
Although it was delicious, it did not want to be eaten. “Oishiokatta ga taberaretaku nakatta.” (Image: Anna_Pustynnikova/Shutterstock)

Here’s a silly example. “Although it was delicious, it did not want to be eaten”. In Japanese that would be Oishiokatta ga taberaretaku nakatta. In English, to get that thought across, you use lots of words. But in Japanese, it’s just the words “delicious”, “but”, and “eat”, and then a negative past marker, nakatta. All those helper words in English become suffixes in Japanese.

Learn more about Japanese poetry

Pronouns Not Required in Japanese Language

So far, we’ve been focusing on how Japanese says things. But just as important as how Japanese says things is what it does not say—or rather, what’s explicit in English, but implied in Japanese.

For example, Japanese routinely drops pronouns. You rarely say “I”, “me”, and “you” in Japanese. They are not needed. That’s largely because those reference points are clear from other parts of the sentence, usually from suffixes to verbs or the type of verb.

Think about it. Since we’re marking social position in grammar, we really don’t need to say explicitly “I” or “me”. If the verb is “humbly send it down”, do I really need to say, “I humbly ask you to send it down?” “I” and “you” are just needless extra words.

In fact, when the Japanese want to make fun of how Americans sound when they’re trying to speak Japanese, they emphatically add words like “I” and “you”, because it sounds so weird.

In fact, when the Japanese want to make fun of how Americans sound when they’re trying to speak Japanese, they emphatically add words like “I” and “you”, because it sounds so weird. For example, Watakushi ha anata ga itta koto o wakarimsen is a direct translation of “I don’t understand what you said.” And it sounds completely idiotic. The idiomatic Japanese is just one word— wakarimasen, don’t understand.

Instead of saying “you” in Japanese, speakers will commonly use the person’s name with a suffix. And, not surprisingly, that suffix marks social status. So, if you’re talking to Mr. Tanaka, rather than say “you”, you’d say Tanaka-san, -san is the honorific suffix, or maybe Tanaka-sama, an extra honorific. If he’s an old friend, it’s Tanaka-kun. -kun is familiar, used primarily by men. And those suffixes, like -sama, can attach to things other than names. One of my favorite Japanese phrases is otsukaresama, -sama attached to the word for “tired”, which is a polite way of saying, “You must be tired”—but literally, it’s “Honorable Mr. and Mrs. Tired”.

There are pronouns in Japanese, words for “I” and “you”, but they usually come with extra meaning. For example, according to most phrasebooks, anata is supposedly “you” in Japanese. But anata has the nuance of a wife talking to her husband, and therefore, if a wife used anata in speaking to her husband, he would never say anata back. Instead, he’d say something like kimi. Similarly, first person pronouns tend to add information about the speaker. Phrase books often say that “I” in Japanese is watakushi, and that works as a fairly neutral, formal first person pronoun.

But there’s also: atashi, an informal “I” usually used by women, boku, that’s used by men and boys in casual situations; ore, a very informal male first person pronoun. So there are all these different “I’s” and “you’s” with extra, socially dense implications.

Okay, to recap. First, Japanese is highly situational and nothing—not even pronouns or adjectives—are socially neutral. And second, situational meanings are conveyed through agglutination.

Common Questions About Japanese Language and Context

Q: Is there a Japanese alphabet?

The primary alphabet for Japanese is Hiragana.

Q: Why is Japanese so difficult?

Japanese can be challenging to learn due to the phonetics which differ greatly from English, the Kanji writing system (which contains thousands of characters), and the various dialects.

Q: Can I learn Japanese by myself?

Although it is easier to learn with a guide or a partner, with the right amount of motivation, you can learn Japanese on your own. You can accomplish this by taking online lessons or completing workbooks in the different writing systems, pronunciation, and grammar.

Q: How many languages does Japan speak?

In addition to Japanese (which contains different dialects), people in Japan speak Ryukyuan (a regional language) as well as lesser known languages such as Ainu, Bonin English, Nivkh, and Orok.

This article was updated on 8/18/2019

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