A Short History of Kanji

Systems of writing are one of the greatest inventions of human beings. It seems so natural for us now to read and write that it is hard to imagine a world without this miraculously simple tool. But, it did have to be invented by somebody. After all, no other species uses writing. It’s just as dumb humans.

Haven’t you always wondered why in the world Japanese uses three alphabets? I mean there are simpler ways of doing things to be sure. A short history of Japanese kanji can reveal a lot about why the Japanese writing system is so complicated. It also good to know why in the world each kanji have so many darn pronunciations. Couldn’t they just decide on one?


A sample of kanbun

The Early Years of Kanji

Japanese didn’t actually have a native alphabet. Back in the early 5th century AD Japan was pretty much illiterate. This seems almost hard to comprehend. Just imagine, at about the time of the fall of Rome, Japan was still illiterate.

According to a few sources, a Chinese scholar named Wani is sometimes credited with introducing the Chinese writing system to Japan. At first, it was probably used mostly by bilingual officials in the Japanese court, but it later became more widely used in the court as Empress Suiko started using it to talk to the hipsters in China.

At this time, Chinese characters were mostly used for Chinese communication, but since the Japanese thought it was pretty bad-ass to have an alphabet they decided to start using it for the Japanese language as well. Unfortunately, Chinese and Japanese aren’t related. They have completely different and incompatible grammar systems. (Japanese is actually more like Korean in this sense.)

So, a modified version of writing emerged called kanbun. This system used Chinese characters, but they were marked with small kana like marks to rearrange the sentences according to the rules of Japanese grammar. In other words, it was kind of a little cheat sheet that helped Japanese read the Chinese texts.

The Emergence of Kana

This modified version of Chinese characters still didn’t really cut it though. There were still words in Japanese that needed to be represented that didn’t have a good Chinese equivalent. A different system of using Chinese characters emerged that use the characters for their sounds and not their meaning. This system was called Man’yōgana.

The cursive form of these kanji became hiragana. It was first commonly used among women. It is actually what the Tale of Genji, a famous piece of Japanese literature, was originally written with. You can see this early form of hiragana on a 2000 yen bill.

Monastery students were the ones that simplified the Man’yōgana into more simplified forms. They wanted to capture just the essence of the kanji. By doing so, they created katakana. Katakana is mostly used for loan words (except Chinese words) now as well as for emphasis and names of some plants and animals.

Similar but Not Related

A lot of people, including myself in the early days, believe that Japanese came from Chinese. It seems to make sense if you look at the writing of the two languages. They are two major languages that use a similar writing system, so one could conclude that they are related.

However, Japanese is not like Chinese at all. They do share a writing system though. And Japanese has a lot of loan words from Chinese that came over with that system. These loan words usually came in to describe things that Japanese didn’t used to have very good words for.

In general, Chinese loan words seem a little more formal than native Japanese words. They are used more often in written Japanese. However, some writing will use hiragana in place of some words normally written in kanji if there are too many kanji in the writing. This keeps the whole piece from getting too stuffy.

All of these loan words is one reason why Chinese students have traditionally done a lot better on the JLPT. However, with the new revision of the test, the reading sections have been more full of ‘Japanese-only’ writing, so the test writers try to avoid texts with a lot of Chinese words in them. This also includes the exclusion of English katakana words as well.

The reading passages have become less about just knowing the vocabulary, but more about understanding ambiguities at the higher levels. The N4 and N5 reading sections still focus on vocabulary and grammar use though.

What do you think?

Do you think the 3 writing systems used in Japanese are helpful or a pain? Let me know in the comments

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Zivar August 16, 2019, 12:38 am

    Pls let me know the best site or app for Japanese conversation.
    I need help in this field. I have no time to participate at any class

    • Clayton MacKnight August 29, 2019, 11:19 pm

      The best place to pick up a Skype tutor or teacher is italki.com. They have a long list of people that would love to help you.

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