Evolution of Japanese script

Japan as we all know is one of the most ancient cultures in the world. The world’s first novel Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu, was from Japan. But interestingly Japanese got their script later than most civilisations. The journey it took for the Japanese to create their own script is as fascinating as the language itself.

According to Ramesh sensei, my Japanese language teacher, Japanese never had any need for their own script till 5 CE when the religious books began to penetrate into Japan from China. This was also the time when buddhism was spreading into the Japan from Korea and the country began to see proliferation of religious scriptures and texts, mainly Buddhism and were written in Chinese languages (most likely mandarin).

At that time there were only few who could read it and they were either elite and religions institutions. It also means that most of the book written were also in Mandarin and there were only select few who could read it. This created a need for Japanese to create their own script.

Japanese borrowed their script using Chinese characters kanji. One of the issues with kanji was that the structure of Japanese and Mandarin was different. The need to create more characters that will represent the essence of the language they spoke arose and that resulted in kanas, Japanese syllables. Kanas were classified into two – hiragana and katakana. While kanji was used predominantly by the elite Hiragana was quite a hit with the commoners, who began to use it. Women especially played a significant role in creation of hiragana. To counter that men, from elite and religious sect, formed katakana, which are broken down Chinese characters. (Kata means broken)

The entire process took centuries and it was 14th century before the ancient city got a full fledged script. Japanese script is defined by kanji, hiragana and katakana.  Characters are written top to bottom and left to right in general. Hiragana and katakana are letter much like our own alphabets and itself has no meaning unless combined. They combine to make 46 basic sounds. Hiragana constitutes basic grammar and katakana is used for representing things of foreign origin in Japanese. For example, curry, news and noodles are written in katakana.

On the other hand, kanji are characters that has their own meaning. You could say kanji are more like pictorial representation of things and has a life of its own. Most of the Japanese surnames and places are written in kanji as each of them have a meaning. For example if your name is Yuki, the meaning is snow. In day to day life Japanese use around 1945 kanji characters. If that is surprising, apparently the number was even more prior to World War II. During 1945, the Japanese government brought in educational reforms and brought down the kanji to the range of 1945. (Thank god for that.)


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