Atarashī gengo wa, aratana jinsei no hajimari.

“A new language is the beginning of a new life.”

You did it. After years of watching Japanese anime, you decided to learn Japanese.

Upon your first encounter with a Japanese textbook, perhaps you felt a little intimidated by all the symbols of the Japanese writing systems. Before long, however, you realized that kana (hiragana and katakana) are not that complex. You learned to read and write simple Japanese sentences. Later, you built the courage to tackle those scary-looking kanji, too.

Did you ever stop to wonder why Japanese has three writing systems in the first place?

Or perhaps imagined a world in which, like the Chinese languages, Japanese only used kanji?

Well, let me tell you something: that world did exist.

As a matter of fact, there was a point in time when Japanese lacked a written language altogether.

Let's take a short trip through history to see how Japanese grew into the “infamous” writing system it has today.

Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno / Unsplash

Origins of the Japanese language

Japan is an ancient civilization: its history is thousands of years old, and over 100 million people speak its language. We're not actually sure where the language came from.

Some experts speculate that it may have originated in the farming communities that migrated from the Korean peninsula to the Japanese islands more than 2,000 years ago. This hypothesis is called the Koreo-Japonic hypothesis, which establishes a “genetic” relationship between Korean and Japanese languages. Given the migration of people from the Korean peninsula, it is said that these immigrants greatly influenced the language and culture of the residents of the Japanese islands. While it is true that some words in both languages are similar, if not identical, and that their grammatical structures are very comparable, this hypothesis is not totally accepted.

Another theory is that the Japanese language has its roots in the Ural-Altaic language family, a theory based on the hypothesis that the two groups of languages (Uralic and Altaic) share a mother tongue.

Still other linguists say that Japanese is an isolated language, meaning it has no relationship with any other language.

In short, the history of the Japanese language is still debated. Its origin is just as mysterious as some aspects of the culture itself. Among the most significant events in the history of the language is the creation of its writing system, and we thankfully do have more information about that.

Let’s explore the different stages in the evolution of Japan's writing systems.

Photo by Cherry Lin on Unsplash

Adaptation of Chinese Characters to the Japanese Language

According to some research, the Chinese language was introduced to Japan by Korean Buddhist missionaries sometime between the 4th and 5th centuries.

At that time, the Japanese language had no writing system. However, many aristocrats and intellectuals had learned Chinese, including how to write it. As a result, Chinese was the language used to write official documents during the Nara period ( 710 to 784-94). This practice extended into the Heian period (794 to 1185).

The following picture is a page from the Tanaka version of the Nihon Shoki, an 8th-century history of Japan written in Chinese.  It was created in the early Heian period (794-1185)

Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over time, Japanese aristocrats started writing Japanese using Chinese characters. This development gave rise to the first kana writing system, known as the Man'yōgana.

Chinese Characters → Man'yōgana

The Man'yōgana was a writing system based on Chinese characters, but the characters were used primarily to phonetically represent the sounds of the Japanese language, rather than in accordance with what a given character meant. In other words, the characters were basically a massive alphabet.

The alphabet's name comes from the man'yōshū (万葉集), an anthology of ancient poetry that was written with this system back in the Nara period. The man'yōgana was composed of approximately 970 characters that were used to represent the ~90 different syllables used in 8th-century Japanese. As a result, there were many possible man'yōgana symbols that could be used to represent each syllable.

The following image portrays how the original kanji (Chinese characters) evolved into their final kana forms. On the right in bright red are kanji; in the middle in dark red is Man'yōgana; and on the left side in black is one of the future successors of the Man'yōgana, the hiragana, which we will discuss later on.

Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

The main problem with this writing system was that it was extremely difficult to read. Some documents were written in both Chinese (via the characters) and in Japanese (via the Man'yōgana). This lead to confusion because texts might look similar at a glance, but in the Chinese documents, characters had both phonetic and semantic value; in the Japsanese documents, characters had only phonetic value.

As you might imagine, some people felt it was necessary to simplify the system. At this point is when the 女手* (On'nade) entered the scene: a successor of the Man'yōgana; a syllabary that is still used today. The hiragana.

*女手→ woman + hand

Man'yōgana → Hiragana

The hiragana is a writing system that was created around the 9th century by further tweaking certain elements of certain characters — characters that had already been previously modified during the development of the Man'yōgana.

The hiragana were created by women, a group of people which did not traditionally have the opportunity to access the same level of education as men. For this reason, they started adapting the characters to be simpler and more accessible. Eventually, they reached the version of the kana that we know and use today.

Created by women, the hiragana were (originally) mostly used by women — especially in poetry and other types of literary work. Nobles and intellectuals (largely men) still preferred to use kanji, seeing the hiragana as an inferior writing system. Eventually, however, men also began to use the hiragana — especially for literary work. In contrast, kanji continued to be used for more formal/official types of documents.

The below image shows three sets of characters: at the top in black is a Chinese character; below that in red are the Man'yōgana derived from that character; at the bottom in black are the hiragana in their final forms.  

Pmx, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Characters → Katakana

The katakana is another writing system derived from Chinese characters. It was created by Buddhist monks around the 8th or 9th century, and, like the hiragana, its primary purpose was to simplify the writing of Man'yōgana characters. Compared with the curvy hiragana, katakana strokes are sharp and angular.

Initially, the katakana were used only by men — and, unlike hiragana, katakana also saw use in official documents.

The following image shows a photographic reproduction of a collection of Poems by Priest Myōe (明恵上人歌集, Myōe Shōnin Kashū), in which the katakana were used alongside Chinese characters.

Kōshin (高信), Public domain, Wikimedia Commons


As time went on, and as literacy rates amongst the Japanese improved, different variants of the kanas were also developed.

The hentaigana were alternative versions of hiragana developed before the 1900s. During this period, there was no official/standard way to write the hiragana, so multiple renditions of certain kana eventually came into existence. Like the man’yōgana, multiple hentaigana characters could be used interchangeably to represent a single phoneme of Japanese.

The following image shows various hentaigana versions of a selection of kana symbols.

Hentaigana_bot, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, the hentaigana are considered to be obsolete. However, some hentaigana symbols can still be seen in classical Japanese documents and on traditional store/restaurant signs.

Photo by Jay on Unsplash

Integration of the Three Alphabets

During the Meiji period (19th century), there was a Japanese Scripts reform which aimed to connect the spoken Japanese language with its now-existing writing system. Around the turn of the century (to the 1900s), many variants of the hiragana were abolished, and one official symbol was determined for each kana symbol. This reform also established a standardized set of kanji that were to be taught in elementary schools.

Additional reforms to the writing system that took place after World War II served to further simplify and streamline the written language. During this period, loanwords (words of foreign origin) started to emerge in Japanese.

Generally speaking, the changes in post-war Japanese society and multiple reforms caused a drive to solidify the Japanese writing system, giving each of the three scripts a specific function within the language.

(Want to know what the different alphabets are used for today? Read this post.)

Final Thoughts

The development of these writing systems fostered not only the expansion of literacy among Japanese people but also a cultural evolution. Every change that occurred in its writing was a product of significant events that took place at the time.  

Let's take a pause in our Japanese studying routine and dig a little deeper into Japanese history. Then, finally, we will be able to see that there is a lot more than grammar, hiragana, katakana, and kanji behind the Japanese language we know today.

yondekurete arigatou gozaimasu!

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Dig writing systems?

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