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
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 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
and the Sousho form is:
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")
is based on the Kanji
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")
is based on the Kanji
Another example is the hiragana for "a" (pronounced "ah")
is based on the Kanji
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
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:
History - Duke University East Asian Collection: Japanese Studies
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