Self-Access Centre - Japanese

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Japanese materials available in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Japanese at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Japanese outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Japanese. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Japanese, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

We have a wide range of resources to help you study Japanese on your own. In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books, dictionaries, but also, reading and grammar books. You can also watch online TV or listen to radio stations. There are links to BBC Languages programmes, which will allow you to learn Japanese by watching interactive videos. You can also watch Japanese films, TV documentaries, or course videos. You can also practice your Japanese by doing the online exercises.

A bit about the language

Japanese is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family. There are a number of proposed relationships with other languages, but none of them has gained unanimous acceptance. Japanese is distinguished by a complex system of honourifics reflecting the hierarchical nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned in conversation. The language has a relatively small sound inventory, and a lexically significant pitch-accent system.

The Japanese language is written with a combination of three scripts: Chinese characters called kanji , and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana and katakana . The Latin alphabet, rōmaji, is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when entering Japanese text into a computer. Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace. Japanese vocabulary has been heavily influenced by loanwords from other languages. A vast number of words were borrowed from Chinese, or created from Chinese models, over a period of at least 1,500 years. Since the late 19th century, Japanese has borrowed a considerable number of words from Indo-European languages, primarily English. Because of the special trade relationship between Japan and first Portugal in the 16th century, and then mainly the Netherlands in the 17th century, Portuguese and Dutch have also been influential.

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and sometimes still is spoken elsewhere. When Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, the Philippines, and various Pacific islands before and during World War II, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in empire-building programs. As a result, many elderly people in these countries can speak Japanese in addition to the local language. Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazil, with 1.4 to 1.5 million Japanese immigrants and descendents, according to Brazilian IBGE data, more than the 1.2 million of the United States) sometimes employ Japanese as their primary language. Approximately 5% of Hawaii residents speak Japanese, with Japanese ancestry the largest single ancestry in the state (over 24% of the population). Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia (especially Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Cairns), the United States (notably California, where 1.2% of the population has Japanese ancestry, and Hawaii), and the Philippines. However, their descendants, known as Nikkei, rarely speak Japanese fluently after the second generation.

Official status

Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan. There is a form of the language considered standard: hyōjungo, meaning "standard Japanese", or kyōtsūgo, "common language". The meanings of the two terms are almost the same. Hyōjungo or kyōtsūgo is a conception that forms the counterpart of dialect. This normative language was born after the Meiji Restoration (1868) from the language spoken in the higher-class areas of Tokyo for communicating necessity. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications.

Formerly, standard Japanese in writing (bungo) was different from colloquial language (kōgo). The two systems have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. Bungo was the main method of writing Japanese until about 1900; since then kōgo gradually extended its influence and the two methods were both used in writing until the 1940s. Kōgo is the predominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today, although bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect.


Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to many factors, including the length of time the archipelago has been inhabited, its mountainous island terrain, and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usage. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.

  • Map of apanese dialects and Japonic languages

The main distinction in Japanese accents is between Tokyo-type and Kyoto-Osaka-type, though Kyūshū-type dialects form a third, smaller group. Within each type there are several subdivisions. Kyoto-Osaka-type dialects are in the central region, with borders roughly formed by Toyama, Kyōto, Hyōgo, and Mie Prefectures; most Shikoku dialects are also that type. The final category of dialects is formed by those that are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese; these dialects are spoken in Hachijō-jima island and a few others.
Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Kagoshima may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country. The several dialects of Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū are famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū as well. This is probably due in part to the Kagoshima dialects' peculiarities of pronunciation, which include the existence of closed syllables. The dialect group of Kansai is spoken and known by many Japanese, and the Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy. Dialects of Tōhoku and North Kantō are associated with typical farmers.

Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands) due to education, mass media, and increase of mobility networks within Japan, as well as economic integration.


Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.Most relationships are not equal in Japanese society. The differences in social position are determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or even psychological state (e.g., a person asking a favour tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner. Whereas teineigo (polite language) is commonly an inflectional system, sonkeigo (respectful language) and kenjōgo (humble language) often employ many special honorific and humble alternate verbs (iku "go" becomes ikimasu in polite form, but is replaced by irassharu in honorific speech and ukagau or mairu in humble speech).

The difference between honorific and humble speech is particularly pronounced in the Japanese language. Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family) whilst honorific language is mostly used when describing the interlocutor and their group. For example, the -san suffix ("Mr" "Mrs." or "Miss") is an example of honorific language. It is not used to talk about oneself or when talking about someone from one's company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group". In short, the register used in Japanese to refer to the person, speech, or actions of any particular individual varies depending on the relationship (either in-group or out-group) between the speaker and listener, as well as depending on the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents. For this reason, the Japanese system for explicit indication of social register is known as a system of "relative honorifics." This stands in stark contrast to the Korean system of "absolute honorifics," in which the same register is used to refer to a particular individual (e.g. one's father, one's company president, etc.) in any context regardless of the relationship between the speaker and interlocutor. Thus, polite Korean speech can sound very presumptuous when translated verbatim into Japanese, as in Korean it is acceptable and normal to say things like "Our Mr. Company-President..." when communicating with a member of an out-group, which would be very inappropriate in a Japanese social context.

Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made polite by the addition of o- or go- as a prefix. Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but if a relationship becomes more intimate, they no longer use them. This occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.

Writing system

Literacy was introduced to Japan in the form of the Chinese writing system before the 5th century. Using this language, the Japanese king Yūryaku presented a petition to a Chinese emperor Liu Song in CE 478. Japan invited scholars from China to learn more of the Chinese writing system. Japanese kings gave an official rank to Chinese scholars and spread the use of Chinese characters from the 7th century to the 8th century.

  • The table of Kana: Hiragana top, Katakana in the center and Romaji on the bottom

At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later, during the seventh century CE, the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose, but some Japanese words were still written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. This is when the history of Japanese as a written language begins in its own right. By this time, the Japanese language was already distinct from the Ryukyuan languages.

Over time, a writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese, or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters also used to write grammatical elements, were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana.

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three main systems: kanji, characters of Chinese origin used to represent both Chinese loanwords into Japanese and a number of native Japanese morphemes; and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet is also sometimes used. Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds.

Hiragana is used for words without kanji representation, for words no longer written in kanji, and also following kanji to show conjugational endings. Because of the way verbs and adjectives in Japanese are conjugated, kanji alone cannot fully convey Japanese tense and mood, as kanji cannot be subject to variation when written without losing its meaning. For this reason, hiragana is suffixed to the ends of kanji to show verb and adjective conjugations. Hiragana used in this way is called okurigana. Hiragana is also written in a superscript called furigana above or beside a kanji to show the proper reading. This is done to facilitate learning, as well as to clarify particularly old or obscure (or sometimes invented) readings. Katakana, like hiragana, is a syllabary; katakana is primarily used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis. For example "Australia" has been adapted as Ōsutoraria, and "supermarket" has been adapted and shortened into sūpā. The Latin alphabet (in Japanese referred to as Rōmaji, literally "Roman letters") is used for some loan words like "CD" and "DVD", and also for some Japanese creations like "Sony".

Historically, attempts to limit the number of kanji in use commenced in the mid-19th century, but did not become a matter of government intervention until after Japan's defeat in the Second World War. During the period of post-war occupation (and influenced by the views of some U.S. officials), various schemes including the complete abolition of kanji and exclusive use of rōmaji were considered. The jōyō kanji ("common use kanji") scheme arose as a compromise solution. Japanese students begin to learn kanji from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of kyōiku kanji ("education kanji"), specifies the 1,006 simple characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 939 characters in junior high school, covering in total 1,945 jōyō kanji. The official list of jōyō kanji was revised several times, but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained largely unchanged. As for kanji for personal names, the circumstances are somewhat complicated. Jōyō kanji and jinmeiyō kanji (an appendix of additional characters for names) are approved for registering personal names. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration. However, as with the list of jōyō kanji, criteria for inclusion were often arbitrary and led to many common and popular characters being disapproved for use. Under popular pressure and following a court decision holding the exclusion of common characters unlawful, the list of jinmeiyō kanji was substantially extended from 92 in 1951 (the year it was first decreed) to 983 in 2004. Furthermore, families whose names are not on these lists were permitted to continue using the older forms.

Japanese poetry

Japanese poets first encountered Chinese poetry when it was at its peak in the Tang Dynasty (7th century CE). It took them several hundred years to digest the foreign impact, make it a part of their culture and merge it with their literary tradition in their mother tongue, and begin to develop the diversity of their native poetry. For example, in the Tale of Genji both kinds of poetry are frequently mentioned (Since much poetry in Japan was written in the Chinese language, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of Japanese-language poetry). A new trend came in the middle of the 19th century. Since then the major forms of Japanese poetry have been tanka, haiku and shi.

Nowadays, the main forms of Japanese poetry can be divided into experimental poetry and poetry that seeks to revive traditional ways. Poets writing in tanka, haiku and shi move in separate planes and seldom write poetry other than in their specific chosen form, although some active poets are eager to collaborate with poets in other genres.


Manga consist of comics and print cartoons in the Japanese language and conforming to the style developed in Japan in the late 19th century. In their modern form, manga date from shortly after World War II, but they have a long, complex pre-history in earlier Japanese art. In Japan people of all ages read manga. The genre includes a broad range of subjects: action-adventure, romance, sports and games, historical drama, comedy, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, horror, sexuality, and business/commerce, among others. Since the 1950s, manga have steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry, representing a 406 billion yen market in Japan in 2007. Manga have also become increasingly popular worldwide.

Manga are typically printed in black-and-white, although some full-color manga exist. In Japan, manga are usually serialized in telephone book-size manga magazines, often containing many stories, each presented in a single episode to be continued in the next issue. If the series is successful, collected chapters may be republished in paperback books called tankōbon. A manga artist (mangaka in Japanese) typically works with a few assistants in a small studio and is associated with a creative editor from a commercial publishing company. If a manga series is popular enough, it may be animated after or even during its run, although sometimes manga are drawn centring on previously existing live-action or animated films. "Manga" as a term used outside Japan refers specifically to comics originally published in Japan. However, manga-influenced comics, among original works, exist in other parts of the world, particularly in Taiwan, South Korea, and the People's Republic of China, notably Hong Kong. In France, "la nouvelle manga" has developed as a form of bande dessinée (literally drawn strip) drawn in styles influenced by Japanese manga. In the United States, people refer to manga-like comics as Amerimanga, world manga, or original English-language manga (OEL manga).

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org