The Japanese Writing System

by Matthew White 

In 391AD a Japanese expedition to Korea rescued the King of Paikche from being defeated by his enemy, the King of Koguryo. Around the year 400, Japan was rewarded for the much appreciated assistance. The king's gratitude came in the form of scholars carrying books containing something the Japanese lacked. That something was a written language. If the writing system had been the han'gul system developed by Korea later in history, Japan would have been able to apply the syllabic script more easily to its own language. Unfortunately, the script in the book was Chinese. The task of applying the monosyllabic based script to the polysyllabic language of the Japanese would prove to be difficult. Before attempting such grandiose endeavors, the Japanese who were to make use of the books had to learn Chinese. In 552, the King of Paikche sent to the court of Japan a bronze image of the Buddha, some volumes of Buddhist scriptures, some other presents along with a letter praising the new faith (Sansom 47). Once again, the Chinese written language was being transmitted to Japan. The following example is a Scroll from part of the Astahasrika-prajnaparamita-sutra. It is from the Nara period in Japan. Rosenfield and Shimada have it dated at the year 740 (25).

An interesting point that should be made here is that the Chinese characters used in Japan today do not look like the Chinese characters that are currently used in China. This is not so much due to the Japanese variances over time as it is due to the changes the Chinese have made in their written script. If one were to take a class on classical Chinese it would be easy to see that the characters used look much the same as the Japanese kanji today.

Once the Japanese had an understanding of the Chinese writing system, they attempted to apply it to the writing of the Japanese language. However, there were many difficulties faced in the process of adopting the Chinese characters in Japan. In order to use the Chinese characters, or kanji, they disregarded their meaning and used them purely for phonetic purposes. Each character was used to represent one Japanese syllable. Anyone who has seen the complexity of Chinese characters can understand why the use of the Chinese characters was by no means an easy undertaking (Hadamitzky 81). Even today, some of the kanji used in Japan consist of more than twenty strokes. Keep in mind that attention is paid to stroke order as well as form. The second method attempted was to use the characters for their meaning and then simply attach Japanese pronunciations to them. For those who study Japanese, this should shed some light on why it is so difficult to determine the proper reading of Japanese, as most characters still have both Chinese and Japanese readings. Anyone looking for versions of these writings can find them in the Manyoshu, an eighth century collection of Japanese poetry (Hadamitzky 48). This was a famous book that was copied repeatedly.

While kanji continued to be used in Japan, its complexity and difficulty in use lead to the development of two other writing forms. The first, hiragana, was formed by taking a cursive style of the kanji and simplifying the entire character. These abbreviated forms of the Chinese characters were much more convenient for transmitting the Japanese language to paper. As one might expect, many different variations of hiragana came into existence. The authority on the standardization of the earlier forms of hiragana is still unclear. One might want to give credit to the Fujiwara clan, which controlled the highly ritualistic aristocratic society at court. After all, the entire country was not being instructed in the methods of writing at this time. Another possibility as to the authority on hiragana was presented by Naomi Wakan in her book introducing the Japanese language. In it she refers to the belief that the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi may have been responsible for the standardization of hiragana (25). Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, was a charismatic monk who returned from a mission to China skilled in poetry, calligraphy and art. The cursive, flowing style of hiragana made it ideal for use in all three. He is one of the main Buddhist monks of the Heian era, and still known to most Japanese. Some of his influence can undoubtedly be accredited to his abilities in the written language. Another point supporting the idea of his influence on a phonetic system is that he also learned Sanskrit while in China. This exposure to a phonetic writing system would definitely have aided him in regard to hiragana.

Hiragana was soon referred to as "onnade", meaning woman's hand. This title was given due to its popularity among women. At the time, the Chinese writing system of kanji was considered too difficult for women, as it required years of study. Women of the time were using hiragana for diaries, correspondences, and composing poetry and literature. As a result, the greatest novels of the Heian era were written in hiragana by women. The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and The Gossamer Years are all novels of the Heian that were written by women of the Heian era and provide much of the information we have about this particular time in Japanese history. Meanwhile, the men were stumbling through kanji, as it was being used in fields of study.

Even Japanese students of Buddhism were having trouble keeping up with the use of Chinese characters. As Hadamitzky and Spahn explain, it is to them that the Japanese credit the second phonetic or syllabaric writing system. It seems that students taking notes during lectures often had a hard time with the pronunciations and meanings of unfamiliar kanji. In order for them to be able to keep up with the pace of the lectures, a phonetic shorthand had to be developed. Instead of adopting hiragana, another purely phonetic form of writing was developed. An interesting change in the method of deriving the characters was the use of only part of the Chinese character for simplification. This new form of writing was also much more angular as you will see form the charts provided. The only question that remains pertains to why the students didn't simply make use of hiragana. Were they afraid women would be able to read their notes? At any rate, katakana began to be used in fields of science and learning. The following charts show the to forms of kana, hiragana and katakana. They also show their derivations from kanji. These charts were borrowed from Kanji and Kana (Hadamitzky and Spahn 1981), a text still in use today in the study of the Japanese language.




Once the two forms of kana, hiragana and katatkana, were developed, the three writing systems were used independently of each all the way into the eighteen hundreds. Spurred by the Meiji restoration and the idea of modernization, the government finally modernized the system. Basically, the Chinese characters are used for names, nouns, and the stems of verbs. Hiragana characters are used for the differences in Japanese and Chinese grammar. For example, hiragana characters are added to the end of kanji characters to change the tense of a verb. This is similar to adding -ed or -d to a word in English. Katakana characters are used to write foreign words or names borrowed from countries other than China. Katakana is also used for words that describe sounds, movements, or animal noises. The volume of onomatopoeic words in Japan greatly outnumbers those in the English language. The Japanese language has over one thousand words that describe sounds and movements (Wakan 46). While in English words describing something dropping, "thud", do exist, they shed in comparison to the variety in Japan which even go as far as to describe the way a person is smiling. At any rate, the three forms of writing in Japanese are now all used together without hesitation. If one were to pick up a Japanese book or newspaper, the three types of characters were undoubtedly be exhibited in the writing.

One has to wonder how the Japanese would have done with the Roman alphabet, which some people had suggested converting to during the Meiji restoration. The concept is hard to imagine now that the Japanese writing system has become such a strong part of the identity of the Japanese. It has been suggested that the Chinese system is necessary due to the large number of homonyms in Japanese. Personally, I would be rather disappointed to see the Japanese language reduced to the Roman alphabet. Although it borrowed extensively from China, the writing system currently used in Japan is completely unique. It is a writing system of aesthetic quality that by itself explains a great deal of the history of the Japanese.



Works Cited

Hadamitzky, Wolfgang, and Mark Spahn. Kanji and Kana. Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1981.

Rosenfield, John M., and Shujiro Shimada. Traditions of Japanese Art. Harvard University: Fogg Art Museum, 1970.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Wakan, Naomi. Japanese-an appetizer. Victoria: Pacific-Rim Publishers, 1990.

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