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The Origin of Japanese Writing

How Japanese characters developed from Classical Chinese

Alyssa Gould
May 30, 2020 · 4 min read

For non Japanese or Chinese speakers, it may be hard to differentiate the two languages by their writing. Many of the characters appear to be similar, yet the two languages sound completely different!

Well, where does the Japanese writing system come from anyway?

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First, let’s break down what the Japanese writing system entails:

  • Syllabary used for:
  • inflections after verbs and adjectives
  • grammar words (prepositions etc.)
  • to clarify pronunciation of Kanji
  • Syllabary used for:
  • foreign words and names
  • some plants and animal names
  • onomatopoeia
  • Logographs used for:
  • nouns
  • stems of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs
  • people’s names, and location names
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Words in Japanese can be written in Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji.

In the image to the left, you can see 5 different words in Japanese written in Hiragana and in Kanji with their English meanings.

Although all the words in the Japanese language can be written with just Hiragana and Katakana, Kanji serves as a way to clarify the meaning between words that have a similar pronunciation.

Kanbun 漢文

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Classical Chinese characters first came to Japan through trade materials such as coins, seals, etc. The first known material was the King of Na gold seal given by Emperor Guangwu of Han in 57 AD.

Around the 500s, Japanese began using Classical Chinese in courts and for official documents (similarly to how French was used in courts in England during the Middle Ages). Bilinguals would read and write Classical Chinese in government settings.

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Later, this Classical Chinese developed into Kanbun for citizens to be able to read and write as well. Kanbun was the first writing system for Japanese. Kanbun consisted of Classical Chinese characters with markings to clarify grammar and word order that fit the Japanese language. (Markings such as numbers to demonstrate word order etc.)

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An example of what Kanbun would look like for English speakers with the German language. “Du” pronounced as “You”, “Hast” pronounced as “Have”, “Ein” pronounced as “A”, “Kind” pronounced as “Kid”

Classical Chinese characters would be used for their meanings. The pronunciations were based on pronunciations they heard and interpretted into the Japanese pronunciation that was spoken at the time.

Although a Chinese person may be saying “我 Wŏ” (I), these sounds may not have existed in Japanese, so they may have just interpretted it to the closest Japanese sound. In Japanese, “我” (I) was interpretted as “Ga”.

Even now, Japanese read Kanji characters in two ways: Onyomi 音読み, and Kunyomi 訓読み. Onyomi 音読み being the assumed Classical Chinese pronunciation of a character. Kunyomi 訓読み being the Japanese word/pronunciation for the character.

Manyogana 万葉仮名

Around 650, Chinese characters began to be transformed to fit Japanese uses. Manyogana is the use of Chinese characters for their sounds and not their meanings. Japanese would take the assumed pronunication of Old Chinese characters and assign Japanese pronunciations for Japanese writing usage.

For example, the sound “A” in Japanese could’ve been represented by any of these Classical Chinese characters: 阿, 安, 英, 足, 鞅. These characters all had different meanings, but now could be used to represent words and letters that used the “A” sound in Japanese, but couldn’t be represented in Classical Chinese before.

This was the first form of a syllabary in Japanese. Meaning, a writing system where every symbol or letter represents a sound and not a meaning. Similar to the Latin alphabet. The ABCs don’t represent any meanings, they’re just a way to write a sound.

Kana 仮名

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Soon, these Manyogana were simplified into Kana which are specific to Japanese. These Manyogana would be used frequently in Old Japanese, so a cursive simplified version of the old Classical Chinese characters began to develop by women of the Heian era, and in monastaries.

  • The modern Japanese writing system consists of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
  • Kanji evolved from Classical Chinese characters based on Japanese pronunciations
  • Manyogana was a syllabary formed by Kanji characters
  • Hiragana and Katakana evolved from Manyogana to create unique Japanese syllabaries

Thank you!

My name is Alyssa Gould, and I am passionate about etymology, languages, and history!

Feel free to contact me at alyssa25g25@gmail.com for questions or anything!

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Alyssa Gould

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alyssamgould.com Passionate about design, languages, and history!

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Alyssa Gould

Written by

alyssamgould.com Passionate about design, languages, and history!

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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