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Goin’ Japanesque!

Kanjimonogatari: How Japanese Ideograms Came to Be

How very different they are, the writing systems of the English and Japanese languages. English, which almost invariably marches from the left to the right and from the top to the bottom, is prosaic when you look at the exciting directions Japanese flows in. It may follow after the footsteps of English for everyday content, or in columns running right to left for literary works, or again right-to-left but in rows instead for writing on vehicles (at least, traditionally).

The most remarkable difference, however, is found when comparing the actual writings themselves. The entirety of English thought can be written with a mere twenty-six letters (paired large and small), together with a smattering of punctuation. Japanese, on the other hand, claims four different writing systems for its own. The two phonetic syllabaries, angular katakana and curvy hiragana, are uniquely Japanese inventions, and the use of Roman characters is a recent development. It is the fourth that presents us with a fascinating case of adaption, augmentation, and evolution: kanji, the Japanese use of Chinese characters.


Shared From the Great Sinic Garden

Walk the streets of the cities of the world and you can tally up a great number of ways to write, but many scholars say they all have their earliest origins in two points of the globe (there is a third, but the Mesoamericans leave us no living system of writing: only silent ruins and striking ideographs.) Those of us who use the alphabet find our earliest literate ancestors within the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. From those ancient origins rose almost all the writing systems known to humanity, from the Latinate alphabets to the curlicues of the Arabic scripts.

Neon signs in various languages

Our story today is not of them. Instead, we turn to China, the “center country,” to find characters scratched in bone, on shells, and etched into bronze. Beginning as little more than drawings of the natural world, these characters were dressed in meanings increasingly symbolic and phonetic with the passage of the years. They were the first burgeoning blossoms that would come to bloom into a riotous garden of literature, from which bulbs would be taken to transplant in a land across the narrow eastern sea.

“Ideogram” kanji that are pictures of the natural world (mountain, tree, sun)

When Chinese writing first arrived to Japan, it was called “kanbun” and was used almost exclusively by bilingual scholars who wrote and read in Chinese only. The first step away from this came with the use of kanji to represent the Japanese language itself, albeit in a cumbersome one-to-one phonetic manner with the meaning of the character secondary to the sound it represented. In time, representing Japanese in a strictly phonetic way with kanji was replaced by hiragana and katakana, the latter starting as idiosyncratic systems of annotation that let scholars more easily wade through thick Chinese scrolls of Buddhist teachings and courtly etiquette.


Grown and Bred to Suit a New Climate

Liberated by the kana, kanji began to take on the responsibility of not just phonetic but semantic representation, too. Of course, kanji still stood for actual spoken words, and many Japanese kanji compounds both mean the same thing in written Chinese and approximate a Chinese pronunciation when used in conversation. However, what era on the mainland that pronunciation might approximate has been a source of woe for many Chinese learners of Japanese. After all, the Japanese hardly imported the kanji they wanted all in one go.

The various ways Japanese kanji can be read

Different eras saw different words being borrowed, and these words often used kanji also found in the last round of borrowing, though their pronunciations and meanings had changed with political and demographic ebb and flow in their native China. A perfect example is the kanji compound 後世 (後 means “after, later”, and 世 means “life, generation”.) When it came over near the end of the first millennium CE, it referred to the afterlife and was read “gosho.” Move forward five hundred years or so and it gets borrowed again, but that time it reads “kosei” and means “future generations”.

Four different kanji made in Japan using Chinese components (*unlike paddies, fields are burned after use, so “firey field”)

The land of Japan is one of innovation and reform, and Japanese scholars didn’t simply copy characters and leave it at that. There are many kanji that are completely original to Japan, usually formed by combining together abstract pictograms to create new meaning. Earlier, you saw that 山 (mountain), 上 (up), and下 (down) all have their origins in Chinese writing. The characters for “up” and “down” are essentially arrows pointing in their respective directions, and the Japanese combined them together with 山to make 峠, a character signifying a mountain pass (that is, a place you can pass up and then down a mountain).


The motherland of kanji may be China, but there is no parent-child relationship that is strictly one-way. Many kanji compounds coined in Japan (usually as direct translations of Western words) have been reverse-imported back into China, especially sociological and scientific phrases like “international,” “economics,” “telephone,” and “electron.” This give-and-take illustrates that, even as kanji first took root as a cutting from the venerable boughs of Chinese literature, it has grown into a marvelous and rich forest in its own right, one worthy of study, of admiration, and even of a peaceful stroll beneath its forking branches.


Bonus for the Linguaphile

You need to have the rough command of about 2,500 to 3,000 kanji to be literature in Japanese (even though there are said to be around ten thousand in “common” use), but Japanese students are hardly the only ones who have had to study ideograms late into the night. Here are some other scripts found in the family of Sinic scripts.

Hanzi (most variations of the Chinese language family): The origin of them all, requiring the knowledge of about 4,000 for functional literacy and coming in both “simplified” (in the People’s Republic of China) and “traditional” (in Hong Kong and Taiwan) flavors

Hangul (Korean): A phonetic system made up of 24 interlocking components (consonant influenced by Chinese characters), considered to be a remarkably elegant system that can be learned in just a few hours

Chunom (Vietnamese, pre-French colonization): Easily the most complicated of the lot, said to have characters numbering over 20,000, many invented by the Vietnamese themselves (sadly, no longer in use)

Related: Japanese Lessons

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About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry