Chinese Characters and the Japanese Language (3)

Chinese Characters and the Japanese Language 3

Takashima Toshio

“History” and “progress” are concepts that Japanese learned from the West. In the Western way of seeing things, human societies are all moving down the same path toward a single objective, and differences in location mean that some are in the lead while others lag behind. Of all the things Japan learned from the West, this idea is among the most basic: Humankind is progressing along a single path and that is the path of history. I think this notion was quite new to Japanese.
 Having once been taught this way of viewing things, Japanese of the mid-nineteenth century compared themselves to Westerners and saw how far apart―how far “behind”―they stood. There was nothing to do but move ahead, to catch up and advance to superiority and glory. And Japanese thought that the way to accomplish this would be simple: just do things the way Westerners do. They began to study everything assiduously, from political and economic institutions to industry, transportation, education, and the arts.
 The most important thing to be learned, because it related to everything else, was language. Language, being not only one among the subjects learned from the West, but also the means without which all those things could not be acquired, was also the target of discussion for reform. Even before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the high-ranking shogunal official Maejima Hisoka (1835-1919) proposed that use of Chinese characters (kanji) be abolished, and particularly in the first two decades following the change of government, various theories advocating radical reform of the language were debated.
 The advocates of language reform could be divided into two main schools. One consisted of those who asserted that Japan should make English the national language of Japan. The best thing to do, they were convinced, was to abandon completely the “inferior” Japanese language and adopt English as the vernacular, both written and spoken. From our contemporary perspective, such a step might seem rather rash, yet there were in fact numerous cases in which weaker peoples switched completely to the language of a dominant people―even today there are quite a few countries where communication in educated circles goes on in a foreign language (for example, English or French) ―so it was not really such an outlandish idea. Nevertheless, it would probably have been impossible to achieve in Japan.
 The other argument on modernization of the language centered on changing to a writing system based on phonetic characters, either alphabetic or syllabic. The biggest difference between Western languages and Japanese is that the former are all written using phonetic alphabets, whereas Japanese depends heavily on Chinese ideograms (in combination with phonetic syllabaries). Advocates argued that since the “advanced languages” use phonetic characters, Japan should also adopt a phonetic writing system, thereby moving its language into the modern age.
 The government made conversion of the writing system to phonetic characters a policy objective. Opinion was divided, however, over what form this should take. There were two camps: those who argued for doing away with kanji (some 40,000 to 50,000 characters could be used) and relying solely on the kana or phonetic syllabaries (hiragana and katakana, 48 of each type), and those who were convinced that the ideograms and the kana should be completely done away with and replaced with roman orthography .
 Implementation of this policy, however, made no progress whatsoever. As explained in the second part of this article (see Japanese Book News, No. 24), thousands of new kanji compounds had been coined in order to translate the many new foreign words introduced in the process of modernization, and many of them were homophones. Without those new words, the westernization that was taking place in the lives and activities of the people would not have progressed. The usage of those new words, moreover, depended on the characters. The word joki, for instance can mean both “steam” and “excitement,” and the meaning can only be determined by the kanji or the context. Given the large number of homophones, confusion would have been rampant. The usages of kanji had dramatically increased by comparison with pre-1868 times; government, industry, scholarship, and education would have come to a standstill without them (to be precise, without the Western words and concepts that had been translated using ideograms). Abolishing the use of kanji might have succeeded, albeit at great sacrifice, if it had been attempted before the end of the Edo period, before the influx of all the new vocabulary, but by the 1870s-1880s, it was too late. This was not entirely evident, however, to many people at the time.

The Language Reform Movement
In the early twentieth century, the government set up an official commission, the Kokugo Chosa Iinkai or National Language Research Council. This council is a government organ whose ultimate objective is to make Japanese into something like a Western language, in short, to confine its orthography to phonetic characters. Save for a short interruption, the council has continued to exist for nearly one hundred years until the present day, and its purpose has not essentially changed. In 1934, its Japanese name was changed to the Kokugo Shingikai (National Language Council, NLC).
 For about forty years from the time of its founding, the NLC drew up repeated proposals and presented them to the government, but none of them became the basis of government ordinances to implement the exclusive use of phonetic characters throughout the country (or even in part of it). Each time such proposals were made, strong protests would arise from various sectors. The council’s recommendations were always divided into two parts. One consisted of reforms of kana usage and rules for writing words based on the way they were actually spoken. The other consisted of proposals to determine the overall number of characters permitted for official use, with a view to curtailing the number of kanji as the first step in ultimately abolishing them altogether.
 The advocates of switching to a kana orthography and those arguing for the romanization of Japanese script and the organizations that backed them continued to be active, and until the end of World War II, the language reform movement was led by the NLC, kana-advocacy groups, and proponents of romanization. From around 1920 onward, representatives of the leading national newspapers made up the largest proportion of NLC members. Newspapers had to be printed with great speed, and since fewer characters would mean greater speed in typesetting and printing, the newspapers were eager to see the number of characters decreased to the lowest possible number. The romanization movement was led by scholars in the natural sciences. Scientists wanted a Japanese orthography in which it would be possible to incorporate Western language terms used in their writings just as they were (in horizontally written, romanized characters). The kana-advocacy movement was made up of people outside of government who disliked kanji for one reason or other.
 What all three groups active in the movement for language reform initially had in common was their conviction that language was simply a tool for expressing one’s will. If language is merely a tool, it made sense to improve it and make it more convenient to use. As research continued, however, people gradually came to realize that language may be used as a tool of expression, but is also inextricably linked to matters of spirit and tradition. Those who had studied linguistics in university were rarely part of the language reform movement; indeed, they were often its outspoken opponents.
 The end of World War II with defeat for Japan presented the members of the NLC with a golden opportunity. Japan has lost the war, some opinion leaders argued, not just because of the deficiencies of its armed forces and economic resources, but because its culture was inferior to that of the West. That cultural inferiority ultimately ought to be blamed, they held, on the shortcomings of the language and the orthography. In November 1945, the influential Yomiuri daily newspaper published an editorial entitled “Kanji Should be Abolished,” which argued that if kanji were done away with and roman script adopted, Japan would become an efficient country like the United States and would progress steadily toward cultural advancement and civilian government.
 In 1946, the U.S. Education Mission to Japan presented a directive to the Japanese government to the effect that it should abolish kanji and adopt roman script. In the same year, the NLC, too, presented another of its proposals on language reform; and this time their proposal, consisting of two parts―adoption of phonetically consistent rules of the syllabary and restrictions on the use of kanji to 1,850 characters―was immediately made into a government ordinance.
 One of the members of the NLC who played a leading role at this time was a man named Matsusaka Tadanori. Born in poor circumstances, Matsusaka had not been able to attend elementary school regularly and had had great difficulty in mastering kanji. Resentment of the barrier presented by kanji led him to champion the kana cause for many years. Ultimately the number of characters for daily use (toyo kanji) was fixed at 1,850, and he was the one who adamantly opposed any attempt to increase it by even one character.
 All government institutions and schools were required to conform with the stipulations of this ordinance and the newspapers as well immediately set out to implement it. The grand issue that had been debated and studied since the mid-nineteenth century was suddenly settled by imposing it upon the government apparatus, the schools, and the press.
 Gradually, scholars and other intellectuals who had left Tokyo during the war began to return, but it was several years after this ordinance went into effect that they began to raise their voices in protest, calling on the Ministry of Education to rescind the language reforms. The MOE had no intention of turning back, but it became clear that complete conversion to a phonetic orthography would not happen as quickly as supporters of national language reform had initially envisioned.
 The NLC continues to exist today, but it is now a very moderate body. No longer driven by the mandate to attain the ideal phonetic form of the language, it does not display much energy regarding fundamental review of postwar language reforms. In the last fifty years, the number of characters permitted for regular use has slightly increased, a step taken as a result of demands from the newspapers―which had been the strongest champions of limiting the number of kanji-saying it was difficult to write articles within the 1,850 kanji limit.

Blessing and Burden of Kanji
Western linguists say that language is basically a set of sounds. Writing is simply the shadow or image of those sounds. A writing system, they say, is not inherent or essential to language, and of course they are correct. Human beings have possessed language for tens of thousands of years, and the invention of writing systems in that long history is relatively recent. Not all languages spoken on earth, moreover, have writing systems. Languages without orthography are not necessarily impaired in any way. Indeed, writing is not indispensable to language.
 But Japanese is the exception to this rule. Probably more than half of its vocabulary cannot be properly distinguished without recourse to a written form of the word. Japanese is in fact a very peculiar language, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, in that it has so many words that can be empty or meaningless in spoken form alone. One wonders if a language like this can be called healthy. We must conclude, as I hinted in my first article, that Japanese is an odd, one might even say deformed, language. It is a language that matured with all of its deformities intact and functioning.
 It was not always like that. It ended up that way after the Chinese language and writing system were introduced to Japan nearly 1,500 years ago, and the indigenous language ceased to develop. Particularly from the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 onward, many home-made kanji compounds were created in the process of translating Western books and concepts, and these words became a dominant part of Japanese life and thinking.
 Today, the words for very concrete things around us (mountains, stars, birds, etc.), and frequently used verbs and adjectives are wago, the lexicon that goes back to indigenous Japanese. For these words, sound specifies meaning. The written word is only its shadow. More sophisticated concepts and terms for things that were brought into Japan after 1868, however, are almost exclusively expressed using the Chinese-character-based kango. These words are of course pronounced, but they are often indistinguishable without reference to the kanji used to write them. When people speak (particularly when the content is of an intellectual nature), they are constantly referring in their minds to the characters with which the words they speak are written.
 The post-Meiji phonetic script movement had resolved to bring the language back to normalcy by imposition of government controls. The leaders of the movement believed that through such drastic measures, they could cause Japanese to be reborn as a “normal” language, like those of the West, in which sound lay at the core and orthography (in phonetic syllabary or roman letters) was (properly) its image.
 Gradually people began to understand that it would be impossible to perform such an operation all at one stroke. The first phase toward this end was the postwar language reform. It is questionable whether Japanese drew any closer to the Western languages as a result; when the number of kanji permitted use was decreased, it definitely became a language with less precision and power.
 Today the movement is in limbo. While the government hesitated, fearing that going any further might actually be rather risky, and wary of the strong opposing voices being raised, leadership of the phonetic script movement passed out of the Ministry of Education and the NLC.
 As we have seen, Chinese characters have been a very troublesome burden for the Japanese language, and yet they are a burden that has become firmly grafted onto the body of the language. Kanji didn’t really suit the constitution of the Japanese language to begin with, and they do not fit any better despite several reforms made over the past centuries. Still, to deprive Japanese of kanji would be to send it back into its infancy; if handled badly, it could be fatal. The burdens imposed by kanji did cause various problems, and yet without them the Japanese language cannot survive. They are both blessing and bane. From now on, too, Japanese can only survive, I believe, by coping with kanji’s mixed blessings. (This article is based on an original essay by the author abridged by the Japan Foundation with the author’s permission. Takashima Toshio is former professor of Chinese literature at Okayama University.)
Japanese Book News, Number 25, Spring 1999, The Japan Foundation 国際交流基金 ) © T.Takashima &The Japan Foundation

Chinese Characters and the Japanese Language (2)

Chinese Characters and the Japanese Language 2

Takashima Toshio

Having adopted the use of Chinese characters, as described in the first article in this series, the Japanese language came to be composed of two major vocabularies. One is wago or yamato-kotoba, both of which refer to the indigenous words of Japan used before Chinese and its orthography were introduced. The indigenous name for ancient Japan was “Yamato”; expressed in Chinese style it was called “Wa.” The indigenous word for words or language is kotoba, while the Chinese-style term is go: yamato-kotoba and wago, therefore, are two different ways of saying the same thing. As discussed in the previous issue, the development of the Yamato vernacular came virtually to a halt with the introduction of Chinese orthography, so very few words of indigenous origin have been coined since. Modern language has been enriched by continuous borrowing from other languages, but the indigenous language was suspended in its infancy.
 The other major vocabulary in Japanese is kango. “Kan” means China or Chinese, and “go,” as noted above, means “words” or “language.” These words are of Chinese origin and are customarily written in kanji, Japan’s ideograms. Their pronunciation is not a close approximation of the original Chinese sound, but in Japanized, simplified sounds. Over the more than one thousand years since Chinese and Chinese characters were introduced to Japan, in addition, a wide variety of words have evolved that lie somewhere in between wago and kango.
 One type of these in-between words are so called “Japan-made” or newly coined kango. These words are always written with Chinese characters and read with Chinese readings, so they have all the appearance of ordinary kango, but in fact were invented in Japan. For many of these words there is no direct connection between the kanji used to write them and the meaning of the word. Examples are yakunin 役人 (official; public servant) and karo 家老 (high-ranking official in local administration of the domains under Japan’s pre-modern feudal system). Other examples are banto 番頭 (a clerk or manager of a shop) and detchi 丁稚 (shop apprentice) . While the characters and the meaning are not closely related, you can tell the sounds have been chosen carefully in order to form an easy-to-understand combination. Few of these words have homonyms of different meaning.
 There are also many words that combine the features of wago and kango. Among the oldest is shiragiku 白菊, “white chrysanthemum.” Shira (shiro) is the wago meaning “white,” and kiku is a kango meaning chrysanthemum (in Japanese, the k- becomes the voiced g- in combination with a preceding word). We may call these the hybrid wago-kango vocabulary.
 The Japanese language today is, strictly speaking, composed of four vocabularies: wago, kango, the coined or hybrid vocabulary, and words of Western origin, seiyogo. Most Japanese today are hardly conscious of these distinctions, except perhaps for words of Western derivation. They make no association between kango and Chinese, which stands to reason, as that vocabulary has been part of strictly Japanese usage for more than a thousand years.

Watershed of Language
Given the coexistence of different vocabularies as outlined above, one might imagine that confusion reigned throughout the several-hundred years of the history of the Japanese language. In fact, the situation did not cause undue complications until the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), or more precisely, until about 1870, Up to that time, the spoken language of the intelligentsia (the majority of which consisted of samurai, the warrior class) was sprinkled with a certain number of kango and all official documents and records were written exclusively in kanji characters. For the language of everyday life as far as ordinary people were concerned, wago, enriched by some hybrid vocabulary, were quite sufficient.
 The complications and confusion began following the Meiji Restoration, which toppled the feudal regime that had unified and governed the country since 1603 and established a new, modem-style government. Two antithetical movements occurred simultaneously regarding the language. One was the massive use of kanji, now without regard to sound, but utilizing only their meaning. This led to the emergence of countless words that could not be understood from sound alone. Indeed they often make no sense unless you look at the characters.
 The other movement was one seeking to adopt a phonetic orthography, which was based on the assumption that since words were essentially sounds, all the orthography had to do was to express the sounds.
 In this issue, let us take a look at the former movement, the unprecedented proliferation of kanji words. Following the formation of the Meiji government, Japan embarked on a remarkable endeavor to adopt everything possible from Western civilization. It borrowed not only governmental and economic institutions but industries in every field, architectural techniques and styles, means of transportation and communication, schools and other educational institutions, fields of scholarly and artistic endeavor, not to mention clothing, food, and articles of household use. In every field, with every borrowing, came new words and new terminology. These had to be expressed in Japanese, so kanji characters were mobilized and tens of thousands of kango were coined.
 The newly introduced kanji words can be divided into two types. One makes use of words found in the ancient Chinese classics. Naturally, there was a large gap between ancient China and the modern West, but Japanese searched for terms that more-or-less resembled the meaning required, in a process one might call recycling obsolete words. The word hoken (the translation of “feudalism”) is one such term. The overall number of these overhauled words, however, is not large.
 The vast majority of words to translate phenomena and terms from the West were newly coined. Most of them were made by combining two kanji in a compound, and when that was not sufficient sometimes three kanji. For things related to electricity, for example, the character den 電, meaning electricity, was used to create many words: densen 電線 (electric line), dento 電灯 (electric lamp), denpo 電報 (telegram), and denwa 電話 (telephone). “Japan-made” kango differ greatly in character before and after the beginning of the Meiji era. Until the end of the Edo period they were predominantly terms, as mentioned earlier, in which the characters (usually two) of which they were composed were not closely related to the meaning. The sounds, on the other hand, were distinctive.

Real as Written
The new kango created from Meiji onward, however, were based strictly on the meaning of the individual characters. For example, in densen (electric line), the first character means “electrical power” and the second means “line.” On the other hand the comers of these words were little concerned about what the resulting pronunciation would be; it did not bother them if a new word turned out to be a homonym of other, totally unrelated words. Since the Japanese sound system, as discussed in the previous installment of this article, is very simple and the number of distinct sounds used in Japanese is rather limited, if people had worried too much about phonetic dissonance or similarity, they would never have been able to create the tens of thousands of new words that were needed to modernize the country.
 This situation, indeed, seems to have further encouraged the general Japanese disinterest in or indifference to the sounds of words and their tendency to stress instead how they are written.
 The above sound densen, written 電線, means “electric line,” but written 伝染, it is the translation of “contagion.” Dento, written 電灯 means “electric lamp” but written 伝統, it is the translation of “tradition.” Because the characters are different, Japanese don’t find the identical pronunciation confusing; indeed, probably few native speakers of the language pay much attention to the fact that the two words are pronounced the same.
 The change at the end of the Edo period was historic. Until then, language to most people had been mainly the human communication they spoke and heard. To them, verbal speech was the real form of language. But from the beginning of the Meiji era onward, such a momentous transformation took place that for Japanese today, language seems real only in its written form. The sounds of words have become mere echoes or shadows of real words cast by pronunciation of written language. It doesn’t bother people when the shadows of one word and another overlap or mingle. When the verbal shadows overlap too much, they can easily undo the confusion by examining the word’s “real form,” that is, how it looks in writing.
 Needless to say, language is inherently verbal. However, since Japanese today is used as if it were inherently written, you often cannot be sure of the meaning of something you hear until you can link it to a specific written context. In that sense, it is a topsy-turvy language.
 The reason that the reality of language is now associated with its written form, one might observe, is because of the proliferation of kango. In the years following the Meiji Restoration, Japan westernized every aspect of its society, and, since the primary terminologies needed in that process were the newly coined kango, this was probably inevitable.
 Perhaps most important, however, is that Japanese themselves are not much bothered by such confusion. They may realize this only when someone points out to them that the language seems real only in its written form and that the spoken form is simply a sometimes-fuzzy shadow of that form. Indeed precisely because they were not conscious of this, another, completely opposite movement sprang up around the time of the Meiji Restoration: a movement to switch Japanese to use of a phonetic orthography, as shall be discussed in the concluding installment of this article.
Japanese Book News, Number 24 , Winter 1998,The Japan Foundation 国際交流基金) ©T. Takashima & The Japan Foundation


Chinese Characters and the Japanese Language (1)

(本文を掲載するにあたり、御参考までに、文春新書『漢字と日本人』の「あとがき」冒頭を引用し、経緯を紹介しておきます。なお、本文は国際交流基金発行のJapanese Book News, Number 23-25〈1998年秋,、冬、1999年春〉に掲載されたものです。今回、国際交流基金の許可を得てそのまま転載します。)

「 あとがき
 漢字を一字も使わないで漢字について書いてみるのもおもしろいんじゃないか、と思い、おひきうけした。英訳する人がとまどうようなことがあってはいけないので、文章は極力そのまま英語になるように書いた。術語ははじめから英語にしておいた。漢字はChinese characters、中古漢語はMiddle Chineseといったふうに。
 そのすこしあと、雑誌「This is 読売」にたのまれて、「字体について」という文章を書いた。この題はおとなしすぎたのか、雑誌が送られてきたのを見たら「戦後国語改革の愚かさ」という題になっていたのでびっくりした。しかし内容はたしかにそのとおりであったにちがいない。

Chinese Characters and the Japanese Language 1

Takashima Toshio

Japan did not have an orthography until more than 1,500 years ago, when Chinese characters were introduced sometime before the third century. Some people might conclude that Japan lacked an orthography until that time because its culture was backward, but it would be more correct to say that China’s culture simply emerged much earlier, while that of Japan came later. The superiority or inferiority of cultures, as with people, has nothing to do with how early or late they were born. Japanese culture, as it happened, emerged long after Chinese culture had considerably advanced, so at the time the two came into contact, its language was not yet fully developed and it did not yet have a writing system of its own.
 Japan, Korea, and China are often lumped together culturally because they all use Chinese ideographs (known in Japan as kanji) for their orthographies, and the assumption made that they belong to the Chinese linguistic family. In actuality, Japanese evolved from entirely different roots. Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages along with Tibetan, Thai, and Burmese. The origins from which Japanese evolved have not, in fact, been clearly established (some scholars assert that it is related to the Tamil language of southern India, but I do not believe this has been substantiated); there is no other related language anywhere on earth. Not only is Japanese of totally separate linguistic roots from Chinese; its grammar, syntax, and phonetics are completely different, as I shall show below.
 Surely Japanese is indebted to Chinese, most might think, for having provided it with a writing system. By implication the adoption of kanji to write Japanese must have been fortunate. But this, too, is a misconception. Indeed, it was not so fortunate.
 Why unfortunate? First, because the adoption of kanji effectively brought an end to the development of the indigenous language. Japanese at the time had developed to the point where it could express the specific and concrete (such as things one can see and hear), but there was little to express the abstract or conceptual. It could identify things individually but did not have terms to describe them generally or abstractly. In other words, the language was still in its infancy. If it had continued to grow naturally, no doubt the vocabulary of generalization and conceptualization would have evolved in due course. As it was, kanji were introduced- (and it must be remembered that the orthography came from China, then a far more highly developed civilization than that of Japan), and Chinese words themselves were adopted. From that time, the indigenous language lost the capacity to coin new words and concepts truly its own.
 The second reason that kanji are not such a boon to Japanese is that they were meant, obviously, for writing Chinese. The relationship between the Chinese language and its writing system is virtually ideal. Considering the nature of a vernacular and its orthography, Chinese is perhaps one of the most highly perfected, sophisticated languages in the entire world. That did not mean, however, that kanji were necessarily the ideal orthography for just any other language.
 Suppose, for instance, that there was no orthography for writing down the English language, and that the only orthography that existed in the world was Chinese ideographs. English would have to be expressed using kanji. Just imagine how difficult that would be.
 Yet that was exactly the situation that Japanese faced in antiquity. Chinese and Japanese were linguistically so completely different that the adoption of kanji caused great consternation and confusion. Indeed, those difficulties have continued over many centuries to this very day. But at the time, Japanese had no alternative but to adopt Chinese: it was the only orthography available to them. As far as they knew, this writing system was not just the writing system of China; it was the sole orthography in use by human civilization.

Linguistically Incongruous
Let us look briefly at Chinese characters and the Chinese language. As a general rule, all Chinese words are of one syllable: 日 (ri); 高 (gao); 捕 (bu). Like “sun,” “tall,” or “catch” in English, words of one syllable are the smallest units of pronunciation. Since the basic vocabulary of English consists predominantly of words of one syllable, this may be easy to understand. In Japanese, however, there are few one-syllable words, most being composed of two or more.
 Chinese words are all basically words of one syllable and each of them is written with a separate character. In other words, each and every character possesses a specific sound and meaning. Individual kanji, then, are equivalent to individual English words such as “sun,” “tall,” and “catch.”
 The number of ideographs normally used for writing in China is between 3,000 and 5,000. This roughly corresponds to the 3,000 to 5.000 words that make up the basic vocabulary of English. One could just as well call Chinese characters “Chinese words.”
 So, while each Chinese character is a single syllable, in Japanese the ideographs were pronounced usually with two syllables. “Red,” in Chinese chi, is seki in Japanese. One reason for this was that Japanese do not pronounce consonants separately. This feature is very closely related to the problems of kanji usage in Japan.
 Chinese is not an inflected language. Words are not inflected for different grammatical constructions as they are in English (go, went, gone; happy, happiness; have, has, had, etc.) The word da (big) is simply da, no matter whether it means “something big” or “bigness” or “become big.” Indeed, Japanese and English are similar in that they are both inflected languages (although the forms of inflection in Japanese are far more numerous than for English). Obviously, it was a very troublesome matter to adapt an orthography intended for an uninflected language to the needs of an inflected one.
 Inevitably, over the first several centuries after the introduction of kanji, Japanese made quite a few changes and adjustments in order to employ them to write their language, among which was the development of the phonetic syllabaries katakana and hiragana.
 First, Japanese borrowed Chinese words verbatim and mixed them with their own vocabulary. They made some changes in the sounds of the characters in order to make them easier to pronounce. The changes may not have been intentional. Japanese probably tried to pronounce them as faithfully as possible to the original, but ended up pronouncing them Japanese-style.
 The basic sounds that make up Chinese are quite complex, while those of Japanese are extremely simple. The Japanese tongue is accustomed to pronouncing only a limited number of sounds, and sounds that are different and distinguishable in Chinese become the same sound in Japanese. For example, words pronounced yang, yong, you, and ye(p) in Chinese all come out “yo” in Japanese. In Chinese each of these sounds is spoken in several distinct tones and corresponds to a number of different words. Since all these sounds ended up being reduced to “yo” in Japanese, inevitably adoption of kanji led to numerous homophones among words of totally unrelated meaning.
 Chinese characters were also given Japanese readings. This means that many kanji have two readings, one based on the Chinese pronunciation of the word (the on reading) and the other adopting the Japanese reading (kun). For “mountain” (shan in Chinese), for example, the on reading is san and the kun reading is yama. Of all the peoples surrounding China that borrowed its writing system, Japanese were the only ones to apply their own readings to kanji. Needless to say, these numerous innovations made the language extremely complex. For example, the Japanese word noboru is used to mean any of the various forms of “rise.” But Chinese is a highly developed language with different words for specific types of “rising,” discriminating for example for “going up stairs,” for “smoke rising,” for “rising in an organization,” or for “prices rising.” And naturally the kanji are different for each usage. The discrimination could not have been maintained by simply reading all the different Chinese characters for “rising” as “noboru.”
 Just the opposite phenomenon occurred as well: various Japanese words congregating around one kanji led to cases where one kanji might have ten or more readings. It was a situation that was inevitable, since Japanese and Chinese words by no means made a neat match.
 And then, as mentioned before, Japanese created their own syllabaries (kana) by abbreviating kanji. Kanji all have a specific sound and a fixed meaning, but kana have only sound and do not carry specific meaning. They became sound symbols somewhat akin to an alphabet. The reason these symbols were developed was that writing Japanese using the Chinese ideographs alone had proved so awkward and inconvenient. One reason was the inflected nature of Japanese, as mentioned above: special symbols were needed to express the endings of inflected words. Two syllabary sets were created, katakana and hiragana, and used for different purposes.
 The “ka” of kana suggests “not the real/genuine thing” or “provisional” and the “na” means “letter” or “character.” Kanji, by contrast, were known as “mana,” ma” meaning “genuine.” In other words, kana were not considered characters specific to Japanese usage on a par with kanji, but temporary, lesser features subordinate to Chinese characters.
 Kana were first made to represent only sounds, but in the course of time they came to indicate words as well. The same process occurred as did in the case of English. Words like “night” and “knight” were undoubtedly pronounced exactly as they were spelled even though today the “gh” of “night” and the “k” of “knight” are not pronounced. If sound was consistent with characters, spelling would change along with pronunciation and you might think that both “night” and “knight” would become “nite.” But language has not developed that way. At present, both “night” and “knight” show not only sound, but represent the words. It is precisely this same process that occurred in the case of Japan’s kana.  
Japanese Book News, Number 23 , Fall 1998,The Japan Foundation 国際交流基金) ©T. Takashima & The Japan Foundation




 (1994.8.1 毎日新聞「今週の本棚」)

嗚呼、大ヶ瀬幹人先生 (4)