Japanese Writing

Writing was introduced . . .in Japan in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Like so much else in early Japanese culture, it was a direct import from China. Since the Japanese had no native writing system, the introduction of literacy involved writing first in Chinese using Chinese characters. However, since knowledge of Chinese was limited, the Japanese soon adapted the Chinese style of writing to the Japanese language—by the seventh century AD, the Japanese were writing Japanese using the Chinese style of writing. Japanese, however, was an exponentially different language than Chinese —they are not even in the same language family—so the development of Japanese writing involved ingenious but complex reconfigurations of Chinese writing.


Mesopotamia Glossary
Cuneiform
   Chinese writing is in part a ideogrammatic writing system and partly a syllabic writing system. The earliest Chinese characters were pictures of the object being denoted, as in the earliest Mesopotamian writing. Like Mesopotamian writing, this pictographic writing eventually developed into a more simple, cursive way of drawing the characters rather than drawing the objects. In Mesopotamia this led to the development of cuneiform, in China this led to ideograms, which are halfway between being a picture of the object and being an abstract representation. In addition to ideogrammatic characters, some Chinese characters simply represent syllables. When the Japanese exported Chinese writing, they first exported Chinese writing phonetically. That is, if you needed to write the word, "onna," meaning woman, early Japanese writing would write first a Chinese character that in Chinese represents the word "on" or something close to it and then another Chinese ideogram that translates into the Chinese word "na." After a while, the Japanese began to use the characters ideogrammatically, that is, they'd use the character that corresponded not to the sound but to the meaning of the Chinese word with which it was associated. So, in later Japanese writing, when one wanted to write the word "onna," one would use the Chinese character for "woman." This style of writing, which characterized all Japanese writing until the late seventh century, is called kanji. By the seventh century, both methods were used whenever one wrote Japanese using Chinese characters.


   Kanji , as anyone who has studied it knows, was highly limited. The problem is particularly acute when there are no Chinese equivalents for Japanese words. In some cases they used Chinese words in their pictographic meaning—for instance, the Chinese character for "mountain" (shang ) could serve as the Japanese character for mountain, which is "yama" in Japanese. However, when the Japanese came to unique Japanese names or concepts, they had no Chinese characters for these names or concepts. In these cases, they used the Chinese characters phonetically. So, if one is writing "Yamaguchi" in kana , you would use the Chinese character for "mountain" to write the first two syllables of the name, since "mountain" in Japanese is "yama.". In the earliest Japanese writing, however, there were no formal rules for phonetic spelling, so the first two syllables of "Yamaguchi" could also be spelled by using the character (there are several) for "ya" and the character (there are several) for "ma." So, just like Chinese, kana is both an ideogrammatic and a syllabic writing system, only the syllables are Japanese rather than Chinese syllables. The rules for phonetic spelling, however, were very loose. One could spell phonetically according to Japanese words or to Chinese words; since a single syllable could be rendered with several different Chinese characters, one could spell the same word several different ways.

   In the history of Japanese writing, the syllabic characters used in the Manyoshu , a collection of poetry from the eigth century, is a cornerstone in the history of writing in Japan. It's use of certain characters to represent syllables (rather than the free-for-all in normal Japanese writing) was known as the Manyo kana , the "Manyoshu borrowed words," and became the basis for formal rules of writing syllables in kana . After the Manyoshu , writing Japanese became much more stable.

   In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Japanese invented another writing technology based on Chinese characters called kana , which means "borrowed words." There are two types of kana , hiragana (which the early Japanese called onna-de , or "women's writing"), and katakana . The most important innovation in Japanese writing occurred with the introduction of hiragana or completely syllabic writing in the Heian period. In Japanese historiography, hiragana was introduced by the Buddhist, Kobo Daishi, who had studied Sanskrit, a phonetic alphabet, in India. The alphabet that he invented was a syllabic alphabet—in part based on Chinese writing, hiragana is made of simple, cursive strokes in which each character represents a single syllable. Not only is hiragana easier and faster to write, it also doesn't require a knowledge of Chinese characters. In the Heian period, hiragana was called onna-de , or "women's writing" and made possible the great works of Japanese literature composed by women such as Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon. Through these works and the court culture produced by women's communities, hiragana eventually became the dominant writing system in Japan.

   A little later, Buddhists developed yet one more writing system, katakana . Like hiragana , katakana is a syllabic alphabet derived from Chinese characters. Hiragana , however, was produced by drawing Chinese characters in quick, cursive, fluid strokes—they are curvy and simple renditions of the Chinese characters from which they were derived. Katakana , however, takes Chinese characters and draws only one part of the character, a kind of shorthand. In the example below, both the hiragana and the katakana characters are derived from the same Chinese character which stands for "woman" (in Japanese, "onna"):


Examples of hiragana and katakana derived from the kana for onna


   Reading Japanese, then, requires that the ability to move between three distinct writing systems. Often a work will be written using a combination of both kanji and kana ; after the introduction of the European alphabet, a fourth method of writing Japanese came to be introduced side by side with the other three.

   This complex state of affairs resulted from ingenious technological solutions in a rapid adoption of literacy. There are several problems that the Japanese had to overcome when they adopted Chinese writing: first, they had to adapt a non-phonetic method of writing to a completely different language. Second, they had to develop methods of writing to speed up the writing process, since not only was kanji time-consuming to write out, it also presupposed a knowledge of Chinese. Like so many other writing systems, the solution to these problems lay in the development of a phonetic or syllabic writing technology—a pattern that repeats itself independently across cultures and across time.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-2-97