Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Japanese Writing System II

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In another essay, I discussed some of the facts about the origin and history of the Japanese writing system. Here, I would like to delve further into the development of the Japanese writing system by looking first into the changes in writing styles through history. Next, I will discuss as well systems of marking used to indicate voicing of consonants, as well as some explanations for the emergence of a use of kanji for its sound value only, a practice similar in principle to man'yōgana. Finally, I would like to indicate some aspects of the use of furigana, an orthographic convention which indicates the pronunciation of unfamiliar kanji. This section then concludes with a short discussion of jindai moji, a writing system thought to have existed before the arrival of kanji.

Styles of Writing

Over many centuries, the Japanese written language has consisted of many styles of writing, ranging from pure Chinese writing, to a mixture of Chinese and Japanese elements, and then to a system that is more overtly Japanese. By the Nara period (710-794), Japanese scribes had already created diverse ways of writing the Japanese language. During this time the language of choice for official documents was Chinese, so documents in this genre were written in best literary Chinese Japanese scholars could muster, using both Chinese syntax and vocabulary. This style was called junkanbuntai or pure Chinese (純漢文体). In other genres of writing, people also wrote in modified Chinese called hentaikanbuntai (変体漢文体), where the writer used keigo (deferential language) in Japanese word order, interspersing annotative and diacritical words to indicate the particular functions of words in a sentence (such as phrase particles). It contained many elements from both Chinese and Japanese.

Closer to the Japanese end of the continuum, another mixed style, called senmyōtai (宣命体) developed. In the style of writing, used mainly in various imperial edicts including those used in ceremonies, substantives, adverbs, connectives, modifiers, and the stems of conjugated words were written largely in kanji and the rest written small in man'yōgana. During the Heian period (794-1185) and later, this style came to be used for some official proclamations of temples and shrines, letters of appointment, personal letters, and congratulatory texts. This writing style formed the foundation of a style called wakan konkōbun—a mixed writing style containing both Japanese and Chinese elements (that is, Chinese compounds, Japanese vocabulary, and colloquial expressions prevalent during the period)—which exhibits characteristics that are very similar to contemporary writing conventions.

A fourth type, kanabuntai, was entirely written in hiragana (仮名文体), in which most, if not all, was written in man'yōgana, using purely Japanese grammar. Personal letters were typically written in this style. In the early poetic collection, the Man'yōshū, some words were written for meaning (place names, titles, and other substantives such as 月 and 潮, as we recall from another essay on the Japanese writing system in this module), while particles, inflectional/derivational endings, and auxiliaries were written in man'yōgana. This type of writing is not easily classifiable by the above scheme but in terms of its function, it occupied a central position among unofficial types of writing. During the Heian period (794-1185) official documents continued to be written in kanbun. War chronicles, diaries, records, personal diaries, official documents, and letters were written in hentai kanbuntai (see above). This style, although it sometimes included kana, was written primarily in kanji. Taketori monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), widely acknowledged as the first work of fiction to be written in Japan, dating from around 800, was written in kanabuntai.

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