The Sexist History Behind the Development of Hiragana

And how women were responsible for writing the first great Japanese texts

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The Plate Mansion, by the great ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika Hokusai, in the public domain, sourced from rawpixel.com, original from the Library of Congress

Hiragana is one of the three main ‘alphabets’ used in the Japanese writing system, along with katakana and kanji (Chinese characters). Its role is to indicate the pronunciation of kanji and is used as the basis of the Japanese writing system, verb endings, particles and much more.

The natural development of an alphabet or any other system of writing is something that is continuously developing and when looked at through decades and centuries we become better equipped to understand the patterns of these changes.

Changes may seem instant — but even now there seems to be a slow process of developing a system of characters that represent emotions and pictures and is wildly used in our day to day lives — emoji. 絵文字(pronounced emoji) or picture characters is now recognized by dictionaries and major figures in linguistics, so much so that the laugh with tearing eyes emoji was the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2015.

The adoption of kanji and man’yōgana

It was through the Korean peninsula and by Korean scholars, that kanji found its home in Japan, or so the story is told in the Kojiki — considered to be the first Japanese text. It relates a somewhat embellished account of the creation of Japan and it’s origins, as well as the story of how the gods and emperors did it.

Before the creation of hiragana, the Japanese used man’yōgana, a set of characters based on Chinese characters to phonologically represent how any given kanji character may be pronounced. Man’yōgana is distinct from hiragana in that it doesn’t have any distinct features or characteristics from kanji, but is instead a subset of kanji selected to identify one pronunciation or another.

The beginnings of hiragana and onnade

The individual characters of hiragana were formed from a cursive script of man’yōgana characters called 草書 (sōsho) — it wasn’t a writing system on its own, rather a way of writing. Eventually, this way of writing became associated with court women and was eventually called 女手 (onnade) which literally means women’s writing.

For a long time, sōsho and hiragana were used alongside each other, and it was up to the writer and their knowledge to select which style they wanted to write in. During this period, the men, who were respected and noble were writing in Chinese and the women, less respected or noble, wrote in Japanese. In this way, Edwin Reschauer claimed in his book ‘Japan: the Story of a Nation’ that

[women] created, incidentally, Japan’s first great prose literature (1981, page 33)

It was because of this underestimation, the fact that women were not given enough value to be taught Chinese, the language of the elite in Japanese Feudal society, that they started writing in the language they knew. And simply because they were not given that education of the Chinese language and culture, their writing was distinctly Japanese, and is the only purely Japanese frame of reference we have for that period.

It was through onnade, women’s writing, that the Japanese were able to fill in the gaps left by Kanji.

The popularization of hiragana and flaws of kanji

There are a few reasons why the Chinese writing system doesn’t work for the Japanese language.

Firstly, Japanese is a language filled with many different verb endings — Chinese doesn’t have that. Tenses aren’t present in Chinese, there’s no future, present, or past tense, instead, they use other means to communicate the timing of a phrase. Japanese has several different verb endings to connect words, to convey time and various other reasons.

Japanese is filled with particles, altogether almost two-hundred, each conveying some sort of information. There are subject and topic markers, sentence enders, word connectors, and so many more types of particles that aren’t present in Chinese. Using a writing system from a language that doesn’t account for the presence of one of the biggest aspects of your language means a writing system with a big gap.

For a time it was common to pick a Chinese character to represent a particle — but there wasn’t always consistency between texts. Some people would skip particles altogether and rely on the reader's knowledge of Japanese to understand what is being said. It must have been a very confusing time for academics.

Hiragana became one of the go-to scripts after people like Murasaki Shikibu, Izumi Shikibu, Akazome Emon — women, who were writing whatever they pleased, whether it was poetry or the texts that would become the first stories and accounts of what life was like during the period that there was a foundation for one of the most clever writing systems in the world to start developing. Women who were writing either completely in hiragana or mixing it in with Chinese writing.

The formalization of hiragana

Throughout most of the beginning of the history of Japan, the country was not unified. It was only in the 1600s when the Tokugawa shogunate succeeded in unifying Japan, and that directly resulted in a policy of sakoku or closed country, when Japan closed its borders to the rest of the world. Prior to Tokugawa, there was no central government to unify the writing system. Even during the Tokugawa shogunate, there was no unified writing system — even some attempts to repopularize man’yōgana in poetry during the time.

The Japanese writing system went through a great ordeal to become formalized, with a lot of pressure for that to happen following the end of sakoku and the opening of the Japanese borders during the mid-1800s.

A reform was made only 1900 — separating the unofficial hiragana into a set now called hentaigana, and leaving only one hiragana per syllable.

Today, Japanese students learn hiragana when they are in their first year of school. Despite the writing systems’ almost insane complexity, Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the world at 99%.

The Japanese writing system is a complicated beast. There are three types of characters, the two smaller sets each having 46 characters each. The ‘regular use’ kanji (2136 unique kanji characters) that every Japanese is taught and expected to know by the end of middle school is still being reworked, having been revised as recently as 2010.

The way writing systems progress is hugely correlated with how history progresses. Through understanding one, we can get a better view of the other, and in a retrospective, we can get a closer view of how people lived and who the people who were responsible for shaping modern society.

Newly-wed with a baby. Writing about Culture, Language, and Travel. Occasionally I publish pieces of advice to myself about writing or put my degree to work

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