The significant reforms of the 19th-century Meiji era at first did not impact the Japanese writing system. However, the language itself was changing following the increase in literacy that resulted from education reforms, the massive influx of words (both borrowed from other languages or newly coined), and the ultimate success of movements like the influential genbun’itchi(言文一致). These changes resulted in Japanese is written in the vernacular form of the language instead of the full range of classical and historical styles used previously. The difficulty of written Japanese was a topic of debate, with a few proposals in the late 1800s that the number of kanji in use be limited. Besides, exposure to non-Japanese texts led to unsuccessful proposals that the Japanese be written entirely in rōmaji or kana. This period witnessed Western-style punctuation marks introduced into the Japanese language.
In 1900, the Education Ministry introduced three significant reforms, all aimed at improving education in Japanese writing:
- standardization of hiragana, eliminating the range of then used hentaigana;
- limitation of the number of kanji taught in elementary schools to about 1,200;
- reform of the irregular kana is the representation of the Sino-Japanese readings mainly of kanji to make them conform with the pronunciation.
The first two of these changes were accepted almost immediately. However, the third was hotly disputed, especially by conservatives, to the extent that it was withdrawn in 1908.
Pre–World War II
The partial failure of the 1900 reforms joined with the rise of nationalism in Japan efficiently prevented a further significant change in the writing system. The period before World War II witnessed numerous proposals to restrict the number of kanji in use, and various newspapers voluntarily restricted their kanji usage and increased usage of furigana. However, there was no official support of these, and indeed much opposition. One successful reform can be considered the standardization of hiragana. This reform involved reducing the possibilities of writing Japanese morae down to only one hiragana character per morae. Consequently, it led to labeling all the other previously used hiragana as hentaigana and discarding them in daily use.
Post–World War II
The period shortly following World War II experienced a significant and rapid reform of the writing system. This reform was in part because of the influence of the Occupation authorities, but to a remarkable extent was due to the removal of traditionalists from the control of the educational system, which indicated that previously stalled revisions could proceed. The significant reforms were:
- gendaikanazukai(現代仮名遣げんだいかなづかい)—alignment of kana usage with modern pronunciation, substituting the old historical kana usage (1946);
- promulgation of various restricted sets of kanji:
- tōyō kanji(当用漢字) (1946), a collection of 1850 characters for use in textbooks, schools, etc.;
- kanji to be used in schools (1949);
- an additional collection of jinmeiyō kanji(人名用漢字), could be used in personal names (1951);
- simplifications of various complex kanji letter-forms shinjitai(新字体).
At one stage, an advisor in the Occupation administration offered a wholesale conversion to rōmaji. However, it did not proceed because other specialists did not endorse it.
Besides, the practice of writing horizontally in a right-to-left direction was replaced mainly by left-to-right writing. The right-to-left order was acknowledged as a particular case of vertical writing, with columns one character high, rather than horizontal writing per se. The method was used for single lines of text on signs, etc. (e.g., the station sign at Tokyo reads 駅京東).
The post-war reforms have mostly survived, even though some of the restrictions have been relaxed. The replacement of the tōyō kanjiin 1981 with the jōyō kanji(常用漢字)—an alteration of the tōyō kanji was followed by a shift from “restriction” to “recommendation,” and in general the educational authorities have become less engaged in further script reform. In 2004, the jinmeiyō kanji(人名用漢字), managed and maintained by the Ministry of Justice for use in personal names, was significantly enlarged. In 2010 the jōyō kanjilist was extended to 2,136 characters.