History of the script

Importation of kanji

Japan’s first encounters with Chinese characters occurred as early as the first century AD with the King of Na gold seal, assumed to have been given by Emperor Guangwu of Han to a Japanese emissary. However, it is unlikely that the Japanese became literate in Chinese writing earlier than the 4th century AD.

At first, Chinese characters were not used for writing Japanese, as literacy meant fluency in Classical Chinese, not the vernacular. By the time, a system referred to as kanbun(漢文) developed, and, along with something very similar to Chinese grammar and kanji, employed diacritics to hint at the Japanese translation. The earliest written history of Japan, the Kojiki(古事記), compiled before 712, was written in kanbun. Even today, Japanese high schools, as well as some junior high schools, teach kanbun as part of the curriculum.


No full-fledged script for written Japanese existed until the man’yōgana (万葉仮名). The man’yōgana was developed and allowed kanji for their phonetic value (obtained from Chinese readings) rather than their semantic value. Man’yōgana is believed to have originated from Bakje, a Korean kingdom, and was initially used to record poetry, as in the Man’yōshū (万葉集), compiled before 759, whence the writing system derives its name. The modern kana, namely katakana, and hiragana, represent systemizations and simplifications of man’yōgana.

Due to a significant number of words and concepts with no native analogs that entered Japan from China, a lot of words came Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original. This Chinese-derived reading is known as on’yomi(音読み), and this vocabulary as a whole is called kango(漢語) in Japanese and Sino-Japanese in English. At the same time, native Japanese already had many words corresponding to borrowed kanji. Authors increasingly used kanji to interpret these words. This Japanese-derived reading is referred to as kun’yomi(訓読み). A kanji may have none, one, or several kun’yomi and on’yomi. Okurigana is written after the original kanji for adjectives and verbs to indicate inflection and help disambiguate a specific kanji’s reading. The same character may be read in different ways, depending on the word. For instance, the character 行 is read Ias the first syllable of iku(行く, “to go”). However it is spelled as okonaas the first three syllables of okonau(行う, “to carry out”), gyōin the compound word gyōretsu(行列, “line” or “procession”), kōin the word ginkō(銀行, “bank”), and anin the word andon(行灯, “lantern”).

Some linguists believe that similarly to English, Japanese has many synonyms of differing origin, with words from both native Japanese and Chinese. Sino-Japanese is usually considered more formal or literary, just as latinate words in English often indicate a higher register.


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