Kanji’s arrival in Japan
Premodern East Asian History THIST 270
December 5, 2011
The arrival of Chinese characters was a significant milestone in the progression of Japanese history. Before its arrival, there was not a widespread writing system implemented in Japan. The writing system brought was called 漢字 (kanji); the character 漢 (kan) means China and 字 (ji) means character, when put together they literally means Chinese characters. The proximity between China and Japan help facilitate the transmission of the writing system.
Around the end of the Yayoi period, in the late fourth century, the Chinese writing system flowed into Japan. (1) Even though there were physical objects with kanji on them, early Japanese did not consciously know that they were a type of writing. (2) This lasted until the unification of China under the Sui and the introduction of Buddhism, when rulers realized the importance of literacy. (3)
They did not initially realized the importance themselves, however, but needed help from foreigners at the imperial court. In Japan’s two histories, Kojiki and Nihon shoki, four common points concerning the importation of writing into Japan were written; someone from Paekche came to the court of Japan and the Emperor Ojin hears about the advanced culture of this foreign state. The Emperor commands Paekche to send someone to the court, and Paekche obliges by sending someone named Wani; somehow another man from Paekche, named Atikisi, was involved in this exchange as well. (4)
Immigrants from the Korean peninsula moved and served in the Yamato imperial court; some immigrants came on the Emperor’s request and some came to move away from the warfare among the three kingdoms in Korea. Their roles ranged from aristocrats, philosophers, and scribes; these influential figures left works inscribed with Chinese characters. (5) The earliest examples of these were 150,000 wooden tablets similar to those found in Korea; inscribed on them were official documents, including directives to and reports by local officials, summonses, transit passes, and labels attached to tax goods. (6)
In Japan in Tenmei period’s fourth year or 1784, a golden stamp dating back 2000 years was discovered at Fukuoka on the island of Shikano. This golden stamp had engraved on it「漢倭奴国王印」 (kan no wa no na no koku o in) or the stamp of the king of the Japanese country of Na of Han. The origin of the golden stamp is written in 「後漢書東夷伝」(kou kan ho tou i den) the written history of Han; the Yamato’s Nakoku’s king sent tribute to Emperor Guangwu of Han, and received this golden stamp back in return. (7)
Five-hundred years later, the scribes of the Yamato court left traces of their work in sword inscriptions written with Chinese characters. (8) These swords were again discovered at sites like the「稲荷台一号」(ina ri dai) excavation site in present day Chiba prefecture Ichihara city; there, they found an iron sword with the characters 「王賜」(ou shimei); these two characters meant king and gift. They were engraved on objects given from the king to someone who had given their services to him. (9) In a separate coffin excavation site in present day Saitama prefecture Gyoda city, another iron sword was discovered with 115 characters, 57 characters in the front and 58 characters on the back of the blade. Before this discovery the most characters inscribed on a sword was thought to be 75 and 45 characters. (10)
Japan was then aware of the Chinese writing system, but the problem came with integrating the characters into the spoken language. The first problem they came across was using the writing system of the tonal and monosyllabic Chinese language and integrating it into the polysyllabic and grammatically different Japanese language. The second was using complex characters for syllables.
Fortunately for the Japanese, the Chinese already had a system for adapting the writing system. The system for reproducing the sound of foreign words by using Chinese Characters for their phonetic value alone (11). Initially this system was a useful and a previously successful system, however the spread of these characters throughout Japan resulted in different ways to read them; this still exist in present day Japan.
The character 行 has the readings [kou], [gyou], and [an]. 行動 and 銀行 uses the [kou] reading. 行状 and 修行 uses the reading [gyou]. 行脚 and 行灯 uses the reading [an]. The character 経 in 経験 is read as [kei], in 読経 as [kyou], and 看経 as [kin].
These numerous readings came during the same period that kanji came to Japan. The first type of reading that came to Japan with each character was 呉音 (go on) or the Wu-dynasty reading of Chinese characters. In the 呉音 (go on) reading, 行 is read as [gyou] and 経 is read as [kyou].
The second type of reading was brought after the Nara period; Japanese envoys and monks studied abroad in China’s China Tang metropolis and Changan during the Tang dynasty and brought back the 漢音 or chinese reading. (12) In the 漢音 (kan on) reading, 行 is read as [kou] and 経 as [kei]. Both 万葉仮名 (manyou gana) and the Kojiki were written in 呉音, but after the Nihon shoki, 漢音 came to use. (13)
A difference between the two were their origins. 呉音 (go on) came from its southern region, while 漢音 (kan on) came from China’s northern region. The biggest difference between the two, however, was that 呉音 (go on) was voiced, while 漢音 (kan on) was voiceless; the sounds ma and na were present in 呉音 (go on) but not in 漢音 (kan on). Instead, [ma] and [na] became the sounds [ba] and [da]; these are the two cases that 漢音 becomes voiced.
An example of this would be the character 「万」; in 一万 ,「万」 uses the 呉音 (go on) reading [man], but in 漢音 (kan on)「万」in the word 万歳 is read as [ban]. In the case of 万, it is read with the 呉音 (go on) when used in conjunction as some sort of numbered unit; the 漢音 (kan on) is generally used when the word means “many”.
Between the Heian and Edo periods, Zen Buddhism monks brought yet another type of reading to the Chinese characters; these readings were the 唐音 (tou on) or the T’ang readings of Chinese characters. This adds [an] as one more reading to the character 行 after the first two, [gyou] and [kou], and 経 adds [kin] to [kyou] and [kei]. These three readings, 呉音、漢音、and 唐音, encompasses what are today called the 音読み (on yomi) or chinese/sound reading.
Kanji’s readings were an innovation only made in Japan; Japan is the only country that uses multiple readings for kanji. In contrast in China, one character is designated with only one reading, a history that dates back from the Qin dynasty’s standardization of the writing system. (14) Even after readings were changed, China did not retain their old readings. Technically, each Japanese kanji can have each 呉音、漢音、and 唐音 readings, if looked up in a kanji dictionary, but this does not mean that every kanji commonly has three different readings; there are some with all three readings.
Japanese has similarities with the language of the Sumer and Akkadian language, with the 訓読み (kun yomi) or Japanese reading; Japanese words that had existed before kanji had arrived in Japan, were matched with kanji. The way kanji was pronounced had no relation to the word, but the meaning of the word and kanji were related. An example of this is 「暦」, it can be read as [reki] and [ryaku], but it is correctly read as [koyomi], the Japanese word for calendar.
An attempt for a solution was 万葉仮名 (man yo gana), but there was a major problem with this. If something was written in 万葉仮名 (man yo gana), then it would almost be a joke of some sort; 「出る」could become 「山上復有山」or another nonsensical string of characters. Another difficulty when using 万葉仮名 (man yo gana) was sheer amount. If there was a quiz on how many characters there were in 万葉仮名, most would not be able to answer; there are a total of 937 characters. This came because each person would choose a character and assign a sound they’d feel was appropriate. (15)
Spurred on by the introduction of calligraphy and to solve this problem, Japanese during the Meiji period or the second half of the ninth century tried their best to create a Japanese syllabary. An artifact from the early Meiji period would have some characters that were not understandable; these were early attempts on a syllabary. In Meiji’s thirty-ninth year, writing like today’s katakana and hiragana came, and other attempts were no longer used.
Two forms of the syllabary appeared. Katakana was angular kana, developed from pieces of Characters. it was used to transcribe prayers and indicate the Japanese reading of Chinese texts. Hiragana has a smooth, round look. Known also as the woman’s hand, it was used for poetry, essays, novels, diaries. To show off the elegance of their hand, men and women linked individual kana in a cursive style that flowed down the page. The aim was to combine calligraphy, text and paper into a harmonious and attractive whole (16)
The first way the kana was spread was through classic Japanese poems, 和歌 (waka); the head of writing 和歌 (waka) was ironically the imperial family. Later the Confucian scholar Kuriyama Senpou did the criticism of poems for the imperial family and had the role of writing and editing poems and songs; his job did not concern anything but poems. The imperial court lost their political power in this way. The imperial court was criticized in the famous book 「保建大記」(houken taiki) written about the period between the Hougen and kenkyuu eras. In the book, the imperial family was criticized for allowing the military powers of the Kamakura to obtain the political power as well; they were too busy with creating poems and an imperial-commission poem anthology.”
Once the Kamakura was in power, they quickly wanted to approve something of cultural significance. Following the imperial court’s example, they approved the imperial-commissioned poem anthology. This act was believed the most celebrated act implemented during the peace time caused by passing the Jyouei law code. In this way the use of kana gradually permeated in Japan. (17)
1. Patricia Ebrey, Anne Walthall and James Palais, East Asia: A Cultural, Social and Political History, second edition, 2009. p.125
2. Kokoma, Katumi. Kanji wa Nihongo de aru. Vol. 1. Tōkyō: Shinchōsha, 2008, 80
3. Patricia Ebrey, East Asia, 125
4. The Origin of Manʾyōgana John R. Bentley Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London , Vol. 64, No. 1 (2001), pp. 59-73
5. Patricia Ebrey, East Asia, 125
6. Ibid. 125
7. Fukuoka’s education committee. http://bunkazai.city.fukuoka.lg.jp/property/detail.php?ID=101413.
8. Patricia Ebrey, East Asia, 125
9. Kokoma Katamu, Kanji wa Nihongo de aru, 80
10. Eta Funayama national treasure exhibit. http://www.higo.ed.jp/bedu/funayama/annai.htm.
11. Patrick Ebrey, East Asia, 154
12. Kokoma Katamu, Kanji wa Nihongo de aru, 83-84
13. Nakanishi, henchosa. Kanji bunka o kangaeru. Tōkyō: Taishūkan Shoten, 1991, 20-21
14. Patrica Ebrey, East Asia, 36-37
15. Ibid. 125
16. Nakanishi Henochosa, Kanji bunka o kangaeru, 28
17. Ibid. 17