Don’t Forget About Japan!

“I’m Curious” Historic Research — 1

As a westerner, I trend towards trusting western media, and as far as I can tell it hasn’t landed me in hot water yet. However, as my awareness of cultures outside of my own has grown, I have begun to take note of certain biases that western media tends to have. One of the biggest ones is that periods that the west owes its lineage to are most of note. For example, in nearly every world history course I have ever taken, the rise and fall of Greece and Rome are emphasized greatly. This is likely because there is a lot about the political systems and ways of thinking that we, especially in the United States, owe to those once great empires. However, it is a bit reckless to propose that just because the United States has benefitted greatly from something means that its place in history ought to be elevated entirely.

I was particularly struck by this when reading through Meggs’ History of Graphic Design wherein exports of nations like Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire have whole chapters, and China, the inventors of movable type, get lumped into the chapter titled “The Asian Contribution.” This contribution is so undersold that the history of written language in Japan was entirely omitted. I don’t think Meggs’ intent was to be slanderous in anyway, but in a textbook about the history of Graphic Design, it is an odd call to write mainly on the growth of literacy and design in The West. Because of this, I jumped at the opportunity to further research the history of graphic design with regards to Japan in particular, and what I learned was fascinating. Not only is Japanese a beautifully written language, but its history adheres to what I view as the epitome of graphic design: visual problem solving.

Around the 5th century CE, Japan inherited the Chinese written language, known as kanji. This was a language of characters that were logograms, or abstracted representations of concepts. However, Japan was a people before the introduction of Chinese. This lead to many challenges when it came to writing, because although Japan were free to use the same characters as the Chinese, they had issues when it came grammatical syntax. Japan’s solution to this problem was to essentially break apart the kanji. Instead of creating new characters entirely, over time the Japanese developed two different systems of syllabic alphabets: katakana and hiragana. Around the 8th century, the Japanese began to use Chinese characters for their phonetic value. This first step in the kanji to kana transition was called manyogana, but over the years the kanji were pared down and simplified further until eventually the alphabet we know today as hiragana came to be. Hiragana is used for native Japanese words, but was initially considered a much less “cultured” version of kanji. Because of this, women, who before had not been allowed to learn to write in proper Chinese, found literacy in hiragana. This eventially lead to what many consider the world’s first novel, Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Japanese kana symbols.

Katakana, on the other hand has its roots in foreign language translation. Some of its most early usage was in translating Chinese Buddhist scriptures, and it further developed as characters used to tack on to kanji as prefixes or suffixes as a grammatical solution. Its modern usage centers mainly on words that don’t have their root in Japanese. For example, words in English that have made their way into the Japanese language have done so through katakana. It is not uncommon to hear English words because of their very specific connotation when spoken. This is especially frequent with exclaimations.

The Japanese language as it exists today is a testament to the problem solving done early on in Japanese history. Through many trials a complex language of kanji, katakana and hiragana was created and established. Visual problem solving, is what is at the heart of graphic design, and it was a shame this was not emphasized, or in the very least mentioned in Meggs’ text.


(translated: lame!)


The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Kana.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 04 Mar. 2016. Web. 13 Jan. 2017.

Lo, Lawrence. “Ancient Scripts: Japanese.” Ancient Scripts: Japanese. Ancient Scripts, 2014. Web. 13 Jan. 2017.

Margolin, Victor, and Felix Béltran. “Toward a History of Graphic Design Interview with Victor Margolin.” Journal of Design History (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

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