The Japanese Writing System

Moon runes and how they work. The Japanese writing system is one of the first hurdles that any learner must learn to overcome. It is also quite unique in the fact that it simultaneously uses three different scripts. In this article I will try to give some insights on how it came to be this way.

What are Kanji

It all starts with Kanji. They were the first writing system that Japanese used, and they are the origin of the other systems that came after. “Kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system.”, says Wikipedia. In other words, Kanji are written characters that represent some sort of meaning. That is what logographic means. Also, they are indeed adopted from Chinese which means that Kanji is not a system that is native to Japanese. This is something you will realize one way or another over time as you study Kanji. There is a sense that they were kind of “glued” on to Japanese as an afterthought. That is not to say that they are not firmly part of the modern usage of Japanese, quite the opposite. In fact, they are so important that you basically can’t get around learning them, if you want to read any Japanese. That afterthought nature is more something you notice through terminology such as “Chinese reading” and “Japanese reading”, which very much imply a connection back to Chinese, or how 49% of words used in Japanese are considered 漢語かんご (Chinese origin words) only 33% are 和語わご (Japanese origin words). The remaining percent are loanwords from other languages such as English. The reason so many 漢語 are used in Japanese is that they were adopted together with Kanji. This is not to say that these aren’t Japanese words. The term 漢語 is a little misleading. It simply states the origin of the word, but it does not mean that said word is straight up a Chinese word. If you said a 漢語 in its normal Japanese pronunciation, chances are that a Chinese speaker is not going to understand you. It’s best not to think of these words as Chinese but rather just as normal Japanese words, similar to the way many modern English words can easily be traced back to French words but are none the less considered full English words. It is also worth mentioning that 漢語 are used relatively less often in spoken language compared to written language. The reason I brought them up is to illustrate the effect that the adoption of Kanji had on the language overall.

The history of Kanji (and the Kana)

As far as we know, Japan started importing goods from China with Chinese characters on them as far back as 2000 years ago. At that point, the people in Japan that receiving those goods likely had no comprehension of those characters. It wasn’t until about 500 years later that the literacy of Chinese increased at the Japanese court and more and more of the correspondence between Japan and China took place in written Chinese. Around this time, Japanese still had no written form. All text was written and read in Chinese.

In the Heian period (794-1185 AD) the 漢文かんぶん writing system emerged. It worked by writing Chinese text with a number of diacritic marks to help Japanese readers restructure the text and add particles in accordance with Japanese grammar. We won’t go into the details here. However, we are now one step closer to a proper writing system for Japanese but we’re not quite there yet. Around the same era another writing system known as 万葉仮名まんようがな also emerged. It was a way to write Japanese words using Chinese characters, where the characters used, were used in a mostly phonetic way. That means the native Chinese meaning of the character was disregarded and they were assigned to words based only on their reading. Cursive styles of those 万葉仮名, which are called 草書そうしょ, evolved into 平仮名ひらがな. Eventually, this way of writing became associated with court women and started to be called 女手おんなで which literally means women’s writing. For a time 万葉仮名 and 平仮名 were used alongside each other. Educated people (at the time almost exclusively men) would still use 漢文 to write. It was because of this fact, that women were the first to write prose in actual Japanese.

片仮名かたかな emerged on a parallel path via monastery students who sought to simplify the 万葉仮名 as well. Rather than using cursive versions of the original characters, they chose to simplify the characters directly as you can see here. More specifically, they developed from the so-called 訓点くんてん which were a way of annotating 漢文 script.

If you know your Kanji readings, you will be able to deduce how one can get from the characters to the 仮名. Take 仁 to ニ for example. 仁 has the Chinese reading ニ.

The name 仮名 (lit. “borrowed name,” "temporary name" or “false name”) was given as a counterpart to 真名まな (lit. “true name”) which was a term used for Kanji. This was because, the 仮名 were in a way “false” Kanji that only carry phonetic information.

The popularization of the Kana

There were several problems and limitations with using Chinese writing to express Japanese. Japanese relies heavily on conjugation for tense and other grammatical functions. Chinese does not. Furthermore, Japanese uses particles to indicate things like subjects or objects, whereas Chinese relies almost entirely on a fixed sentence order to do the same thing. All this meant that Chinese script had to be annotated heavily to be usable for Japanese writing and a lot of study was required to learn it. The 仮名 proved to be a much simpler way to write things like 送り仮名おくりがな or particles.

The formalization of the Kana

Japan was not a unified country for most of its history. It wasn’t until the 1600s when Japan was first united under the Tokugawa shogunate. It was in this period when first efforts were made to reform the writing system, however, in the end it was a continuous process, and it took until the 1900s to properly find a standard for the 平仮名. That reform solidified one 平仮名 per syllable and separated the alternate ones into a set which is now called 変体仮名へんたいがな. In 1946 ゑ and ゐ were removed from common usage and small characters were added. Before this change, geminated sounds like in 行ってきます were simply transcribed as 行つてきます.

Some of the sources I used:

Thanks also to Tentenguy#4252 for giving some helpful inputs!