Japanese Writing: The Kanji Debate of the Meiji Period

Japanese Writing: The Kanji Debate of the Meiji Period

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Kanji printing blocks
Picture: kai / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
The story of how modern Japanese came to assume its current written form - and how kanji nearly got left on the cutting room floor.

With the arrival of Commodore Perry, the end of Japan’s closed-nation policy, and the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912) came many upheavals to the Japanese language, especially in the written sphere. While the roots of modern Japanese can be found in the Edo period, it is in Meiji that we arrive at a unified language that is more comprehensible to modern speakers.

During this time there was a move towards Japan re-identifying itself as a nation-state. A new national identity came with the unification of many aspects, and that includes language. With many variations of Japanese throughout the country, the government needed to create a unified form of the language, intelligible by everyone. Not only this, Japanese as a written form had not evolved much in the centuries before. There was a huge gap between the grammar between its written and spoken forms. This unification of written and spoken Japanese – called genbun icchi – will be discussed in the next article. In this article, we’ll examine the formation of the new “standard” Japanese as well as the discussions on the best writing form to use.

Also In This Series:

Part 1: Origins to Nara Era
Part 2: The Birth of Kana
Part 3: Pronunciation Shifts in the Edo Period

A Common Japanese

Instead of trying to create a new form of the language, the simplest option was to select one region’s dialect as the new standard.

To begin, it’s worth looking at the state of spoken Japanese around the end of the 19th century. With the removal of the class system, the new freedom of movement granted to the Japanese people meant that there would be more interaction between people of various areas, and that meant with people whose Japanese was different to one’s own. This applied especially to the population who lived on a fief. Before the Meiji period, they were not allowed to travel outside their lord’s land. Without a mutually intelligible form of Japanese, communication would be difficult, if not sometimes impossible. The government had to define a common Japanese for the entire populace.

Instead of trying to create a new form of the language, the simplest option was to select one region’s dialect as the new standard. Although the Meiji oligarchs were mostly from the Satsuma and Chōshū regions, they believed the language spoken in Edo, now Tokyo, would be best. Edo was renamed Tokyo in July 1868, mere months before the Meiji period began, and became the capital in March of the next year. Although the image of Edo-style Japanese was the rougher dialect spoken by those in the Shitamachi, the government insisted that the style of speech to be adopted was the one used by the educated class and warriors – those who lived in Yamanote.


The change was, unsurprisingly, a gradual one. The decisions took place over the course of nearly half a century, with Ueda Kazutoshi claiming in 1895 that the current Tokyo dialect (of the educated class) was fit to be used as the standard language. In 1903 the Ministry of Education’s National Language Investigative Association (kokugo chōsa iinkai; 国語調査委員会) began talks to decide on what region’s dialect to be used. In 1903, it released the first government-administered textbook, Standard Elementary Textbook (jinjō shōgaku tokuhon; 尋常小学読本). This contained middle-class Tokyo Japanese and was a way to introduce it gradually to the populace.

Image from the textbook (Source: Nihongo no Rekishi, p.171)

It was in 1913, in the second year of the Taisho period, when the National Language Investigative Association released the ‘vernacular law’ (kōgōhō; 口語法) where Tokyo-Japanese was decided to be the common language.

This definition of “Japanese” was essentially the same as Ueda Kazutoshi’s: the language used by educated, middle-class Tokyo residents. In other words, by those who lived in Yamanote. With this law, it was decided that it would act as a united, standard form of the language. Language from other regions would be accepted should they be widely intelligible. And so, other forms of the language, including Edo’s own Shitamachi Japanese, fell into the position of dialect.

Was English Almost the National Language?

An interesting backdrop to this is the well-known Mori Arinori. The first ambassador to the United States and a key member of the government, Mori sent a number of letters to several key American figures, including presidents Theodore D. Woolsey and William A. Stearne, regarding their thoughts on how best to lead Japan’s educational path. He is probably most famous for advocating for the replacement of Japanese with an improved and simplified English as the state language, to which the linguist William Dwight Whitney rebutted quite strongly.  

How to Write Japanese

Founded in 1884, it put forward the idea to write all of Japanese in a Roman alphabetized version of kana. Interestingly, this movement didn’t gather much steam as an inter-factional split in 1905 over which style of Romanization, Hepburn or the Japanese style, should be used.

Before covering the linguistic changes written Japanese undertook, it’s worth looking at the discussions regarding the way in which Japanese was to be written. With the influx of western European and American culture during this time, it became clear that the alphabet used for many Western languages had an arguably far lower threshold to be able to read and write easily. After all, there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet compared to thousands of kanji. Not only this, in regard to Japanese, the choices made centuries ago meant that kanji could be read multiple ways depending on context. This made kanji far more difficult for an uneducated person to master.

But kanji was also the preserve of the educated class. And with a society that was no longer bound by class, it was imperative to bring the written language to everyone. In any case, many at the time agreed that kanji was a huge hurdle for those wanting to learn the written language, especially if we consider with hindsight that the Japanese of the time used a vast number more kanji than now. Maejima Hisoka’s ideas to abandon kanji altogether (kanji onhaishi no gi; 漢字御廃止之議), and to simply use kana instead, sent ripples through society at the time.

Different Writing Styles

To revolutionize written Japanese, many different ideas were considered, such as the aforementioned Maejima’s idea to only use kana, which was also supported by Yamashita Kamesaburo. During these discussions, many realized that Japanese could be written left to right in rows (like many western languages), as opposed to top to bottom columns that went right to left.

Another idea, spearheaded by Yatabe Ryōkichi, was the Romaji Movement ( (Romaji Kai (羅馬字会), formed in 1885; it later became the Romaji Hirome Kai (ローマ字ひろめ会)). Founded in 1884, it put forward the idea to write all of Japanese in a Roman alphabetized version of kana. Interestingly, this movement didn’t gather much steam as an inter-factional split in 1905 over which style of Romanization, Hepburn or the Japanese style, should be used. The proponents of the Japanese style formed the Japan Rōmaji Group (nihon romaji kai; 日本ローマ字会) in 1921, which is still active today.

Finally, it is interesting to take a look at some of the other writing systems proposed during this time and into the Showa period. Kojima Ittō proposed these 24 characters, which he labelled the New Japanese Characters (日本新字).

Much later, Nakamura Sōtarō created the Hinode Characters (ひので字) in 1935 which he intended to replace kana.

Tōru Masayoshi published his own book on his ideas a new writing system that could replace kanji. In there, we can see his 75 new characters.

The Kanji Problem

Unlike Maejima, who sought to discard kanji, Yano Fumio was unenamored with writing Japanese solely in kana or romaji. He put forward the idea of reducing kanji (kanji setsugen ron; 漢字節減論). He believed the ideal format was to continue to use the mixed kanji and kana style of writing sentences, with kana also used to render the reading of kanji. This way, both meaning and pronunciation would be preserved. As the government would slowly reduce the number of kanji, people in the country could keep up with the changes.

Although it’s hard to fix a number, the number of kanji used until the Meiji period was vastly larger compared to the standard 2,136 jōyō kanji currently in use. These ranged from Fukuzawa Yukichi’s claim that two or three thousand would be enough to Yano’s three thousand. Eventually, everyone went with Yano’s figure. Indeed, the fact that these are the recommended reduced number, far larger than the jōyō kanji in use today, exemplifies just how many kanji were being used.

An Expanding Vocabulary

An expanding worldview comes with expanding vocabulary, and many of these new words and ideas made their way into the Japanese language via translation. The intellectuals of the time translated a large number of texts. through these, we can see new words dispersing into contemporary society.

The three major ways new words came about from foreign concepts were by:

Creating new words

This was simply the creation of new words which had concepts which did not exist within Japanese already – 彼女 (kanojo – girlfriend), 哲学 (tetsugaku; philosophy), 新婚旅行 (shinkon ryokou – honeymoon).

Borrowing words

Many western missionaries working in China translated a number of their concepts into Chinese, and these words were taken straight from these translated texts or dictionaries – 電報 (denpou; telegram), 恋愛 (renai; romantic love), 冒険 (bouken; adventure).

Reusing old words

Many older words with a similar concept were reused with the Western concept being applied to them – 印象 (inshou; impression), 家庭 (katei; family), 権利 (kenri; right, privilege).

It is interesting to look at how these words entered contemporary use. One example we can look at is the word for love – “ren’ai” (恋愛). Although the kanji 愛 existed as a Buddhist concept, and 恋 and 色恋 also existed, any of these pre-existing words in Japanese did not have the same nuance as Western “love.” It is natural then that it would be first used by a Japanese-speaker in a translation. Nakamura Masanao was translating Samuel Smile’s hugely popular Self-Help and decided to use ren’ai when translating the expression “fallen in love”.

Ren’ai was a way of putting the concept of Western love into a single word. However, this didn’t necessarily mean that the depth of its meaning was understood by a contemporary Japanese reader. Various translators attempted different methods to bring the concept across. Natsume Soseki’s famous translation of “I love you” as “the moon is beautiful” (月が綺麗ですね), or Futabatei Shimei’s “I would die for you” (死んでもいい) show a society grappling with this concept. Even now, other indirect phrases for “I love you” are preferred among Japanese people.

Despite these other euphemistic translations, Hida Yoshifumi tells us that by looking at contemporary dictionaries, the word ren’ai did eventually settle itself into the lexicon, even if it was not always used. This was aided by its wide-spread use in the popular women’s magazine Jogaku Zasshi (女学雑誌).


The Meiji period brought about a systematic change towards the Japanese language. By deciding upon a mutually intelligible form of Japanese, communication could be made feasible between people from distant regions. Not only this, but the systematic review of the written language and the debate surrounding the number of kanji made Japanese easier to learn for everyone – not just the elites. Finally, translations helped to bring a wealth of new vocabulary.

Our next article in our series will continue with the Meiji period and will focus on the closing gap between Japanese in its spoken and written forms.


Yamaguchi, Nakami, Nihongo no rekishi, 29th edn., (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2019)

Hida, Yoshifumi, Meiji umare no nihongo, (Tokyo: Tankosha, 2002)

Mori, Arinori, Education in Japan: A Series of Letters (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878) Retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.30000067351589

Fukuda, Masata, 明治翻訳語のおもしろさ (n.d) Retrieved from https://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/proj/sosho/7/fukuda.pdf

Fukumoto, Miwako, 森有礼の日本語廃止論・英語採用論を中心に (2016) Retrieved from http://alce.jp/journal/dat/14_162.pdf

Toru, Masayoshi, 漢字に代はる新日本の文字と其の綴字法 (1919) Retrieved from https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/942751

Yatabe, Fumio, 漢字節減論 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://kokugomondaikyo.sakura.ne.jp/ha/ronsou3-11.htm

日本語と日本文化 (n.d.) Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/2027/inu.30000067351589?urlappend=%3Bseq=212

常用漢字表 (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.bunka.go.jp/kokugo_nihongo/sisaku/joho/joho/kijun/naikaku/pdf/joyokanjihyo_20101130.pdf

Romazi Aieuo (n.d.) Retrieved from https://green.adam.ne.jp/roomazi/undoo.html

Nihon Romaji Kai (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.roomazi.org/

Interesting Docs on Romaji
http://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/992339 http://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/862107

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Arthur Reiji Morris

Arthur Reiji Morris is a freelance translator currently based in London. He lived in Tokyo for four years, which he mostly spent playing music in tiny venues, attempting to visit every prefecture in Japan, and finding the best melon pan in town. He spent two years working at a video games company and three weeks working at a coffee chain, before deciding that being able to work from bed was far more appealing.

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