Since you are interested in learning Japanese (if we may assume), you probably have or soon will experience the Japanese importance of order. Fear not, cultural stereotypes are not the intention here. Let’s look at specifics:

Japanese Stroke Order

Because the Japanese language includes hiragana, katakana, and kanji, students should be aware of the correct way to write each character. The country name 日本 (read nihon or nippon) for example, has two kanji characters. The first character has four strokes. Any teacher worth her weight in rice wine (saké) will tell you that those four strokes have to follow a specific order – which is roughly, top to bottom and left right. Now each student is welcome to disregard this, of course, but do so at your own peril. Japanese people are fairly picky about stroke order. It is drilled into students in elementary school and most people argue that correct kakijun, stroke order, affects the final appearance of the written word. In all honesty, this is probably a vestige of times past when writing was done with brush and ink; but again, ignore it only if you dare.

Sempai/Kouhai Relationship

Hierarchy is a part of life in Japan that many do not even seem inclined to question. A good friend once told me that mastering the language was all about knowing how friendly or polite to be with your conversation partners. Rather than delving into that can of worms, how about we just master the two common words sempai and kouhai. If someone is a year above you in school, for example, they are your sempai. Or for that matter, if they are prior to you in most any kind of formal order or organization (think of offices, sports teams, a martial arts doujou, etc.) they are your sempai. In English, we struggle to translate this word as “senior” or “elder.” The opposite is kouhai. And the old joke holds true here: if after 10 minutes of looking around the room, you haven’t figured out who the kouhai is, chances are it’s probably you! Even among friends, this sempai/kouhai hierarchy can be in play. Look for signs of it in the way one person serves tea or buys drinks for another and especially in the choice of words used between speakers.

Grammatical Order

Which brings us to one of the most linguistically interesting aspects of order in Japan: grammar. Please do not run away scared just yet. It is true, though, English and Japanese sentences often have precisely the opposite word order of each other. After making a new acquaintance, for example, you might say, “O-namae-wo oshiete kudasai” (Could you tell me your name, please?). Or, another useful survival phrase is, “Ima-wa nanji desu-ka?” (What time is it now?). Do not be perturbed if the answer is given in 24-hour military time. Japanese people seem fond of using 13 o’clock as opposed to 1:00 p.m (it helps keep the order straight). And also, do not be perturbed if all you get for a reply is, “Nihongo-ga ojouzu desu-ne!” (My, you speak Japanese well!). In each of these example sentences, the English and Japanese word order just do not correspond much at all. If you are a beginner, try thinking out of order for an English speaker and you just might be right on the nose in Japanese.