Heyyyy…if you have a moment and interest, could you please tell more about this? (Or point me in the right direction to begin a fruitful web search?) I have recently been infected with a suspicion that the idea of “word” as I had previously understood it as an English speaker maybe doesn’t really apply to Japanese…maybe not at all … that maybe the language is so granular that it’s basically about stringing together syllables that can be contextually understood as ideas but the idea of it being a bunch of “words” with nouns and verbs and adverbs and adjectives etc. might be less true than it is for, say, English or German … is this possible? (I mean, German likes to assemble words together into big long specific ideas that turn out to be like long nouns… and it’s looking like Japanese does that too only the pieces are soooo smallllll…am I holding a hammer and seeing everything as nails ?)
Or is Japanese just looking extra suspicious because it’s my first time seeing a language with only 50 possible syllables?
A little of column A, a little of column B. Japanese does have more granular units of meaning that may not necessarily be traditional “words” than English does. Technically most “conjugations” (as we might think of them as foreign learners) of verbs except negative ones are just different helper-verbs being attached to the stem (連用形 in Japanese, indicating that it is literally a form meant to be continued by other words, with 連 indicating “continuation/combination/attachment”). Then you have the 未然形 (みぜんけい) for the negative stem, so named because it’s the only true variant of the word with no discreet meaning of its own, to which negative verbs are attached. (Cluttering all these distinctions up further is thousands of years of evolution. Ex. “い adjectives” were verbs way back when/still kind of are. Fun! Is 高い distinct from 高う? I mean, probably not, but that kind of argument could maybe be made. This evolution is still clear in some dialects and even set phrases like ありがとうございます, so it’s just one of many lines where history makes what is a discreet unit of meaning and what isn’t a bit blurred.)
And then you have a lot of compound-kanji phrases and compound verbs that blur the line–not even natives will know whether they can expect all of these to be found under their own entries in native dictionaries, unless they’re dedicated linguists. As pointed out above, there are also all the alternate-kanji uses–some with discreet nuances, some without (in which case usually one will be considered outdated, but that doesn’t mean two or more won’t continue to be used, since no one can really police it). There are a bunch of different はかるs meaning “to measure” with different nuances and contexts. Different words? Not?
That said–the ideas of 語彙, and 単語数, and 語彙力 all exist natively in Japanese and as Japanese topics. I guess I’m not sure how far back they run, and to what an extent they may be efforts to facilitate translation and global interlingual interaction, but at any rate, there’s a pretty firm idea of “words” and “vocabulary” as countable, discreet things, even if the lines on what actually constitutes one may be blurred a bit more often than with English. So if you were to tell a native to, say, count the number of words in a given sentence, the answer you get back may be different from what you expect. (And even different between individuals; it’s generally just not a concept applied to anything except word lists. I feel like that’s probably one of the reasons character-count is the ubiquitous space-measurement for writing rather than words, though their consistent spacing also helps.)
Edit – If you look up 単語 or 語 on Japanese Wikipedia (the former redirects into the latter), it basically pulls a mea cupla on how the concept might apply to its own language.
Essentially, a “word” is normally defined as the smallest unit of a language with both discreet pronunciation and meaning, but Japanese has units of meaning considered “words” in its own grammar studies that don’t quite meet the broader linguistic requirements and create trouble for comparisons.
Basically, “We call all these things ‘words’ in Japanese grammar, but they’re so granular that in broader linguistics, it’s probably more useful to look at larger units of meaning instead.”
That doesn’t stop Japanese dictionaries from boasting word counts in Japanese, but it’s more a case of “entry count” in that case, with distinctions determined by the publisher.
Also as a fun fact, 単語数 (“word count”) still exists as a feature in Japanese Microsoft Word, but from my experience it’s functionally useless, always reporting something close to the character count, since there are very few things it can discount as potential discreet units. I’m honestly not sure why it even exists, except for just being lazily carried over.