Japanese Writing: The Birth of Kana in the Heian Period

Japanese Writing: The Birth of Kana in the Heian Period

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How did the hiragana and katakana writing systems come to exist in Japanese? What purpose did they serve? A history of writing in Japan's Heian period.

After the Nara period came the Heian period (794-1185), famous for being the era which birthed Japanese literary classics such as The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and The Tales of Ise. Whereas the language of the Nara period can be exemplified by the poetry found in the Manyōshū, it can be argued that the Heian period is the era of language used by the elites.

But before heading directly into the Heian period, it is important to dissect how Japanese was being written aside from manyōgana, introduced in the previous article. The concept of writing in Chinese is called “kanbun” (漢文; literally “Chinese writing”) in Japanese. Kanbun has nothing to do with Japanese. It consists of writing using kanji following a purely Chinese grammatical structure and order. However, as mentioned in the previous article, by the Nara period, kanji was now being used by Japanese speakers for their meaning, not just their sounds.

This is the second piece on Unseen Japan’s history of Japanese writing.

Part 1: Origins to Nara Era

Chinese-Style Japanese

This concept of using Chinese characters to write Japanese (sticking to Japanese grammar and word order) has a number of nomenclatures. Yoshinori Yamaguchi calls this kanshiki-wabun (漢式和文), or “Chinese-style Japanese writing.” To reiterate, this is because, although it uses Chinese characters, it is clearly Japanese and not Chinese. It is further distanced from Chinese by the fact that there are writings in kanshiki-wabun that also contain honorific language not present in Chinese. Regarding its usage, what differentiates it from manyōgana is the fact that the kanji do not represent sounds but meaning.

Unfortunately, as mentioned in the previous article, as the Japanese took the Chinese reading as well as keeping the Japanese reading for words, it is not always possible to know how each word was supposed to be pronounced during the time it was written.

Although not every trace of written kanshiki-wabun remains, a number of writings have been found dating before the Taika Reforms of 645. The Taika Reforms were a set of doctrines established by Emperor Kōtoku and the majority of writings after these reforms were all written in kanshiki-wabun. This marked movement towards a heavy use of kanshiki-wabun shows the growing importance for written language in the contemporary Japanese society especially as it shifted towards the Heian period.

Example of kanshiki-wabun with modern Japanese translation on the left (Source: Nihongo no Rekishi, p.45)

Many writings in kanshiki-wabun which have been left behind were diaries written by noble men such as Fujiwara no Michinaga. These diaries provide a fascinating insight into the daily life of these men – how the weather was, the rituals on that day, who they met, etc.

Did People Write in Kanbun?

Moving from kanshiki-wabun to regular kanbun begs the question: did Japanese people write in pure Chinese?

Just as French was used in the courts of medieval England, so was kanbun used by the elites of Japanese society. The knowledge required to write classical Chinese was reserved for those of high social status and was deemed fitting to be used to record many historical records including the Shoku Nihongi, Nihon Kōki, and Sandai Jitsuroku. Many nobles even wrote poetry in kanbun.

But how did Japanese people read kanbun, when it was essentially Chinese, written with a completely different grammar?

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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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