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Japanese Use of Chinese Writing System

Robert Oxnam :: Along with the other imports — Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese governmental institutions — came the Chinese language. The Japanese used Chinese in order to study religious and political texts that came from China. At this time, Chinese language was to East Asian civilization what Latin was to early Europe. It was written and read by educated elites in China, Japan, Korea, and what is Vietnam today.

Haruo Shirane :: The official language, the official writing system was Chinese. Chinese was still the great model, the great standard by which the Japanese saw themselves, measured themselves. And so men wrote in Chinese. This is the public language. All documents were in Chinese. All imperial edicts were in Chinese.

Robert Oxnam :: The Japanese, in addition to mastering the reading and writing of Chinese, also adapted Chinese as the basis of their own language. Prior to this time, Japanese was only a spoken language.

Then the Japanese began using Chinese characters to transliterate their own spoken tongue. Eventually they adapted Chinese written characters to create a set of syllables, called kana, that would fit the Japanese language.

And so, once again, a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture has foreign roots but a uniquely Japanese expression.

Haruo Shirane :: The Japanese always spoke in Japanese. But they didn't have a writing system, and the writing system that they drew on was Chinese. Chinese became the public writing system, the public language, the language that men had to use as part of their education and in everyday public service. And it's not until the late ninth, the early tenth century, that kana, that is to say the Japanese syllabary, emerges, and that the Japanese can start writing their own language.

H. Paul Varley :: Now Japanese is related to Korean and other languages of northeast Asia, but it is totally different from Chinese and from a practical, rational standpoint the Chinese writing system, which comprises literally tens of thousands of characters, was entirely inappropriate to the Japanese language.

Robert Oxnam :: It was the invention of the kana syllabic writing system that made Chinese fit the Japanese language better, if not perfectly. The writing on the left is Chinese, Japanese on the right. You don't have to know either language to see that the Japanese contains signs of a kind that don't show up in the Chinese text.

Take these, for instance. These are the kana invented in classical times and still in use in today's Japan. They were adapted from Chinese characters and are used to convey sounds. Japanese needs them for its many inflections.

This is the Japanese for "to see," pronounced "me-roo" (miru). The Chinese character also means "to see," when it stands alone in Chinese. Japanese adds the kana for "ru" to make it present tense, and the same Chinese character with kana pronounced "ta" and you have "I saw, mita."

It is possible to write Japanese totally in kana. Reformers have suggested that the Chinese be dropped entirely. The suggestion has gotten no further than plans to reform English spelling. The mix of Chinese characters and kana is not the most efficient way to write and print Japanese, but many Japanese would agree with Professor Varley that the Chinese characters are a link to the past.

H. Paul Varley :: For those of us, like me, interested in Japanese cultural history, the Chinese written characters are an extraordinary repository of taste and cultural, ethical values, even, received from Chinese civilization.