Most historians agree that Japanese writing began with the introduction of kanji from China. The offshoots hiragana and katakana appeared over time, and the modern Japanese character set was complete. But lurking on the outskirts of this history are a strange and little-known assortment of exiled characters. In Japanese, they are called jindai moji or kamiyo moji 神代文字: ‘characters of the spirit age.’
These scripts are veiled in mystery. It’s claimed they predate the introduction of kanji by several centuries. This would make them not only the first, but also the ‘most’ Japanese characters. Yet these letterforms have been dogged by controversy for centuries.
There are around a dozen different scripts that together are called kamiyo moji. Some are full character sets; others are only proto-scripts that can’t be formed into sentences. Each has a distinct and striking style. Katakamuna looks like a series of electrical diagrams. Anaichi feels like a science fiction script. Abiru is notably similar to Korean hangul.
Ninjas and other underground groups of the Edo period used kamiyo moji to write secret messages. They also appear on amulets and a scattering of shrine inscriptions across Japan. Rumours spread of secret kamiyo moji scrolls and bamboo slips, passed down among priests. To this day, some people believe they are divine; representative of some profound spiritual or metaphysical truth.
Scholars have debated the authenticity of kamiyo moji since they first came to light around the 17th Century. Modern experts have concluded that they are unlikely to be prehistoric. Most believe they are fakes, created at that time they were ‘discovered’. Which, if true, leads us to another mystery: who would go to the effort of designing and disseminating these scripts? And why?
Over many centuries, Japan adapted Chinese characters to suit the needs and form of the Japanese language. But to some, these foreign kanji remained a dirty smear on an otherwise pure Japanese culture. Of course, Japanese is no less diminished by Chinese characters than English is by Latin letters or Hindu-Arabic numerals. But, for believers in the superiority and perfection of Japanese culture, kanji raised an uncomfortable question: how could Japan never have devised its own ‘native’ writing system?
In kamiyo moji, these nativists found a mythical Japanese script. One that, like the Emperor, had a lineage stretching back to the heavens. These letterforms fit a view of the Japanese language as sacred and Chinese characters as vulgar and profane. These spirit scripts could be used to literally re-write history.
Not all scholars accepted the scripts when they were revealed. Some said that the ancestors had not bothered with written language because they had no need for it. They argued that the ancient Japanese ‘had no need to store in static characters the truth they encountered and appreciated every day.’¹ This may reveal a profound wisdom of ancient Japan. But these scholars were still arguing against the ink of foreign letterforms fouling the pure wellspring of Japanese culture. For them, the introduction of kanji meant that ‘words no longer expressed the direct experience of things. Words were no longer a transparent medium, as they had been in the original Japanese language.’²
Kamiyo moji gained renewed prominence when they were promoted by nationalists in the 19th and 20th Centuries. At the same time, a similar campaign was being waged against ‘foreign’ Buddhism in favour of the native religion Shintō. Some forty thousand Buddhist temples were destroyed in a wave of nationalist fervour in the late 1800s.
These days, Shintō and Buddhism peacefully coexist in modern Japan. And the belief that kanji are inferior foreign imports also seems finally to have been put to rest. Kamiyo moji are hardly seen these days, except in a few new age books and websites claiming to unlock their mystical healing powers. (The persistent belief in their supernatural potential is probably a result of their long association with Shintō.) In fact, few Japanese people even know they exist. But, for what it’s worth, it seems that these characters of the spirit age were indeed the first completely Japanese scripts.
鶴峯 戊申 Tsurumine Shigenobu, 1848『嘉永刪定神代文字考』 ‘Kaei Santei Jindai Moji Kō’
落合 直澄 Ochiai Naozumi, 1888『日本古代文字考』‘Nihon Kodai Moji Kō’
平田 篤胤 Hirata Atsutane, 1819『神字日文傳』
芬木元達 (口授) 小野寺成美 (編), 1837 『神代字三十六人首』 ‘Kamiyomoji Misojimarimutari No Uta’
Hansen, Wilburn 2008 When Tengu Talk: Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the Other World
Hansen, Wilburn 2016 ‘Japanese nationalism and cultural memory: Creating memories of a native Japanese writing system’, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies,vol. 42, no. 1
1, 2: these excerpts are quotes from the Edo scholar Motoori Norinaga, taken from Hansen (2016)