Posted on

Basics of Japanese kanji

Have you ever seen printed Japanese and felt almost bewildered at how very different it is from English? Both are found written in ink or depicted in pixels, but the similarities might seem to end there. Japanese is traditionally written top to bottom then left to right; English right to left then top to bottom. Written English show you how to say a word (sometimes); written Japanese show you what a word means (sometimes).

English has a humble 26 characters to call its own, a capital and small version for each; Japanese boasts three writing sets, four if you include the Roman characters which are used with a freedom that might confuse the uninitiated who think, “But why aren’t they using their own writing system?” However, Japanese uses Roman characters in a way just as unique as it uses the “Japanese” characters that, in actuality, originally hail from China: kanji.

From the Cradle of China to the Shores of Japan

There are a great number of writing systems across the world, but many scholars say that all of them have their ultimate origin in three geographically-divergent points of invention. Us who use the alphabet can name our earliest literate forbearers to be those who dwelt in the Fertile Crescent, namely Sumer. These early scratching became the foundation, through imitation or influence, of almost all the writing systems on the globe, from Latinate alphabets to South Asian abugidas.

Across the Atlantic from the old world, the Mesoamerican societies also evolved a system for writing, left to us in striking figures carved into temple walls and stone. And the third protoscript, though hardly the last, is the ancestor of Japanese.

The evidence we have for the early days of the third writing system has been found on bones, on shells, and etched into bronze. At first little more than drawings inspired by the natural world, these characters came to take on more and more abstract, symbolic, and phonetic meaning. They are the seeds from which written Chinese, and thus Japanese, has stretched and grown into a writing system with a literary record that spans millennia.

Some Writing Systems from Chinese

  • Chinese (Hanzi) – The granddaddy of them all. Comes in a simplified form used in China and a traditional form used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. About 4,000 characters needed for functional literacy, though up to a 10,000 are in “common use.”
  • Japanese (Kanji) – More similar to the traditional form of Chinese writing, though with some simplifications. An average adult will recognize around 2,500 to 3,000 characters, though the very highest level of the national kanji test covers around 6,000.
  • Korean (Hangul) – A phonetic system made up of 24 parts with consonant components influenced by Chinese characters. Considered to be an eloquent and simple system learnable in just a few hours.
  • Vietnamese (Chunom) – One of the most complex derivations from Chinese, though usage ceased in the 1920s in favor of Latin characters. Said to have more than 20,000 characters, many of which are native Vietnamese inventions.

These ideograms, called “kanji” in Japanese, came to Japan first as completely Chinese creations, but were slowly modified for use with the Japanese language. The first adaption was as kanbun (“Chinese writings”), an annotative system allowing Japanese scholars to read weighty texts from across the sea with greater ease. Later, kanji started to be using in a strictly phonetic way, each sound in Japanese being represented by a single Chinese character, with only secondary attention paid to the meaning of the character in Chinese.

Making Kanji Truly Japanese

If you’ve ever seen the fullness of traditional Chinese characters, you might be able to understand how painstaking it would be to write out a whole one for every given sound in Japanese. Imagine having to write out Acorn-Charlie-Oscar-Romeo-November every time you wanted to mention an “acorn.” To save cramped hands and frustration, there were two developments: the invention of the other two phonetic Japanese writing systems and the use of Chinese characters in a semantic (meaning-based) manner.

The Many Pronunciations of Kanji in Japanese

[table],Native Japanese,Early Chinese (Wu),Middle Chinese (Han)
山 (mountain),yama,Sen,san
木 (tree),ki,Boku,moku
日(sun or day),hi,Niche,jitsu
上 (above or up),ue,Jo,sho
下 (below or down) ,shita,Ge,ka[/table]

However, many words had already drifted from Chinese into Japanese, meaning that a single character might have two pronunciations depending on context, even though it has only the one meaning. This was further complicated by shifts in pronunciation in China at the time, so characters in words imported a few centuries later would be pronounced in a way quite different from that first wave. Take for example the kanji combination 後世 (後 being “after, later” and 世 “life, generation), which means “future generations” when read “kosei” and “the afterlife” when read “gosho.”

It should be noted that this wasn’t simply a one-way relationship, with Japanese scholars faithfully and mindlessly copying words of Chinese origin. There are many characters in use (and character usages!) invented by the Japanese, who would often combine together other characters to make pictures describing the natural world. Looking at the table from earlier, we can combine together 山 (mountain), 上 (up), and下 (down) to make 峠, which means “mountain pass,” or, to rephrase it, “the place you go up then down the mountain.”

Other Made-in-Japan “Chinese” Characters

  • 込 (insert) – 入 (enter) plus 辶 (walk, road)
  • 凪 (calmed wind) – 止 (stop) inside几, a simplification of 風 (wind)
  • 樫 (oak) – 木 (tree) plus 堅 (hard)
  • 畑 (work) – 火 (fire) plus 田 (rice paddy)

*That is, a field you burn, unlike paddies.

Though the kanji of Japanese has its roots in the Chinese mainland, over the centuries and millennia it has become a system of writing that holds its own special place in the languages of the world. During the rapid period of modernization following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and again during the American occupation following World War 2, there was much talk of switching Japanese over to a strictly phonetic system, eliminating Chinese characters from the Japanese taught in school altogether.

However, to the consternation of students and the delight of language-lovers, kanji have managed to hold out for over a 1,000 years. Let us hope they continue as beautiful expressions of subtle and intricate meaning a thousand years more.