Fine Japanese Calligraphy by Master Japanese Calligrapher Eri Takase


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Japanese Writing System

This article describes the origin of the Japanese writing system and serves as an introduction to this complex and yet very beautiful language.

Introduction of Chinese Characters (or "Kanji") to Japan

When the Japanese began to adopt the Chinese writing system in the fifth century, the Chinese writing system was already standardized and was twenty centuries old. The earliest records show that the Japanese adopted the system with little or no change even though the Japanese and Chinese languages are completely different and have less similarities than, say, Chinese and English. For example, Chinese is monosyllabic and non-inflected, Japanese is polysyllabic and has a great variety of suffixes for both adjectives and verbs. Also Chinese, like English, uses the sentence structure of "subject - verb -object" while Japanese uses the order "subject - object - verb". The early attempts at adopting the Chinese writing system for Japanese met with many very difficult to overcome problems and the earliest solutions often avoided the problem by using Chinese syntax.

One method of transcription was to use the Chinese sound associated with the Chinese character, or what is known as the "on-yomi" (which literally translates to "sound - reading"). The other method was to use the the meaning of the Chinese character and pronounce the word using the Japanese word. This method is known as "kun-yomi".

The earliest attempt to use Chinese characters for the Japanese language used the on-yomi to transcribe the Japanese word syllable for syllable into a close sounding Chinese character. This led to the Japanese having a lot of fun because many Chinese characters have the same sound and so one could take a Japanese word and write it in several different ways based on the pronunciation of the Chinese character. The result could be funny when the meaning was then looked at. And for the longest time the Japanese refused to standardize the 51 Japanese syllables into 51 standard symbols.

From a practical sense, something needed to be done however. Each Chinese character (or kanji) required many brush strokes and it could take a lot of work to write just one word. One solution was to forget the pronunciation of the kanji and to use the meaning of the symbol and to read the kanji using the Japanese word.

These two styles were used for a few hundred years and the result is that Japanese kanji today will have many readings. For example, the word for "dream" uses the kanji [dream] which has the on-yomi (Chinese reading) of "Mu" and the kun-yomi (Japanese reading) of "Yume" (pronounced "you may" as in "You may go to the store")

Kaisho and Sousho Forms of Kanji

Another method to reduce the amount of work to transcribe Japanese words with Chinese characters was to use a cursive style of the Chinese character. Chinese characters are written in the angular form called Kaisho and the cursive form called Sousho. Using the above example for dream, the Kaisho form is [dream] and the Sousho form is: [dream]

The Development of the Japanese Alphabets: Katakana and Hiragana

In order to represent the grammatical elements of the Japanese language, Katakana was developed. This is a purely phonetic syllabary that has a sound, but not a meaning. For example, katakana for "ne" (pronounced "nay") [ne] is based on the Kanji [ne].

 During the end of the Nara period and during the Heian period, literary women (who were not allowed access to the male dominated Chinese learning) developed a syllabary that encompassed all 51 sounds of the Japanese language. This syllabary was based on the Sousho form of the Chinese characters and has a very feminine, flowing form. This style was originally called "onna-de" or "feminine-hand" and is now called "hiragana" and commonly called the cursive style of syllabary.

For example, the hiragana for "mi" (pronounced "me") [beauty] is based on the Kanji [beauty] meaning "beauty".

Another example is the hiragana for "a" (pronounced "ah") [beauty] is based on the Kanji [beauty] meaning "peaceful".

Up until the end of WWII, hiragana and katakana were used, depending on the situation, to represent purely Japanese grammatical elements. With the simplification of the Japanese language after WWII, it was decided that Hiragana would be used for the grammatical elements and Katakana would be used to represent all non-Japanese words and names.

Hence, today, it is technically correct for names to be written in Katakana.

The Japanese Language Today

Not only did the Japanese use the Chinese characters to transcribe polysyllabic Japanese words with monosyllabic Chinese characters, but the Japanese began to adopt the Chinese reading of the words. While this method gave new words and new ideas to the Japanese, it also caused a serious problem since Chinese uses four inflections to distinguish words. In Japanese these inflections do not exists and so Japanese has an inordinate number of homonyms.

While Chinese has far more Chinese characters than Japanese (the largest dictionary will have some 50,000 Chinese characters) each character in Chinese has only one reading. Japanese has far fewer characters (the largest dictionary will have some 10,000 Kanji), however, each character has several different readings and several word combinations simply must be memorized. This is largely due to the fact that Japan adopted Chinese characters over a period of centuries and from different parts of China. Fortunately, after World War II an effort was made to simplify the Japanese writing system and there are now 1,900 official Kanji (with about 4,032 readings).

Originally, Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana were not used together. Today, however, Kanji and Hiragana are used to write the Japanese language itself and Katakana is mainly used to write foreign words adopted into the Japanese language.


The history of Japan and the Japanese language is more complex and fascinating than the brief summary described above. For more information please visit the following:

Japanese Art History - Duke University East Asian Collection: Japanese Studies Resources


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