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Japanese KaNa Orthography

Part I

Introduction

The earliest recording of contact between China and Japan is recorded in the Wei Chronicles ( ) towards the end of the Three Kingdoms Period of China, 220-265 AD. A certain priestess Queen Himiko ( ) (also known as Pimiko, Pimeku and Hibiko) of the Japanese confederation of clans known as Yamatai, sent embassies to the Kindom of Wei in 238AD. The diplomatical relations were to strengthen its control over the region of Yamatai in Wa (Japan). Bronze mirrors from China were sent to Wa and these were distributed around the Japanese islands as found in the archeological sites. This period of Japanese history is called the Kofun Period ( ) meaning Ancient Earthmounds. They were key hole shaped, and used as burial chambers. After Himiko's death, her succesors were later to sever ties with Wei.

The collapse of the Three Kingdoms brought Japanese forces into the Korean Peninsula in 369 AD, founding the colony of Mimana ( ) and its control over this area persisted until 562 AD. This afforded the Japanese access to knowledge of Chinese technology, literature, arts, and a new view on social administration and intellectual pursuits. The Kofun Era lasted until 660 AD because of the introduction of Buddhism in 538 AD and the use of cremation as a means of disposal of the deceased.

Arrival of Chinese Characters in Japan

Japan imported Chinese characters or KanJi ( ), which by the fourth fentury AD had become established as the medium in which they could write ideas, albeit in a limited way. These KanJi characters as used in China, were not suited to the Japanese language because they share no common features. Where as Chinese words are primarily mono-syllabic so that one word could be written expressly as one character, Japanese is polysyllabic with many syllables grouped together to form one word.

Buddhism provided many influences in the development of writing too. Through the already established Indic ideas on phonology, Budhhist scriptures were translated into Chinese characters from the Sanskrit, syllable by syllable, so that names of Hindu deities and demons were also transliterated. It has been used as a source of reference to the sounds of Chinese in the dialect of the translators almost two millenia ago when Budhhism entered China. With these ready transliterated texts, the sounds of Chinese then was exported into Japan and the sounds have become fixed and known as Go-On ( )(Sounds of the Chinese Kingdom of Wu). The layout of the KaNa tables are another evidence today of the Indic phonology influences.

Besides having just the sounds of Chinese, they also imported the literal meanings of the characters too. They were matched up with the Japanese words, for instance, country, ( )/Kuni/ which had the borrowing /Koku/ (in which modern Chinese dialects have M. Guo, C. Gwok, H. Gok/Get).

Development Japanese Kana Syllabaries

With the passage of time, Japanese scholars then went on to develop the idea of using the characters of Chinese and Japanese to transcribe the individual sounds (mora or phoneme). The name KaNa ( ) arose to classify them literally meaning, 'false name'. These KaNa were actual Chinese characters which took the place of individual syllables of sound. The majority of the KaNa used today are derived from the Chinese character with the sound of the syllable at the time of their original borrowing. Works such as the KoJiKi ( ) (Ancient Chronicles), ManYouShu ( ) (Thousand Leaf Collection), and others used this method. The KaNa used are grouped together and now refered to "ManYouGana" ( ).

Katakana and Kanbun

The difficulty in this system is the uneasy distinction between what is a sound particle, and what is part of a word or compound, since they were all in KanJi. This lead to the simplification of certain characters which became the KataKaNa ( ). These were angular marks, and formed part of the original KanJi character from which they were derived. At first, they were used as small marked beside the Chinese character text to tell the reader how to go about reading a passage of classical Chinese text. Later, they were also used to indicate particles of speech which were the the polysyllabic Japanese extensions to the KanJi ideogram's meaning. Classical Chinese text were studied by the Japanese aristocracy and religious community, they formed the literati of the day. It was known as KanBun ( ), or Chinese Literature (albeit annotated into a Sino-Japanese amalgam for the Japanese reader).

Hiragana and Wabun

But writing was not the sole privilege of the men, women have written some of the most important pieces of Japanese literature too. They did this through the usage of HiraGaNa ( ), also derived from Chinese, but in a more cursive way. It used to be called OnnaDe ( ) or Woman's Hand, since it was women who used it most. The literature that arose from this is Japanese in style, since with this new KaNa orthography, the use of KanJi was not really needed, was known as WaBun ( ) or Japanese Literature.

Modern Kana Syllabaries from their Kanji Derivations

Below are the original Chinese characters and derived KaNa sets that are now in use in Modern Japan. Previously, the numbers used in ManYouGana texts were more numerous, and have fallen by the wayside. Those that have been left to our modern users, are shown. (Please note that I have included /wi/ and /we/ for completeness, they are rarely if ever used in modern day Japan, and kept for the sake of understanding older texts.)


KataKana

vowelinitial letter
== k- s- t- n- h- m- y- r- w- -n
-aKanji

Kana

-iKanji

Kana

-uKanji

Kana

-eKanji

Kana

-oKanji

Kana


HiraGana

vowelinitial letter
== k- s- t- n- h- m- y- r- w- -n
-aKanji

Kana

-iKanji

Kana

-uKanji

Kana

-eKanji

Kana

-oKanji

Kana


Chinese Sounds borrowed by Japan through the ages

Later, the popular Chinese readings for the KanJi became known as Kan-On () where Kan refers Han or the whole of the Chinese people, and this borrowing mainly came in the literature and philosophies of old China. When Zen Buddism made its debut, a new type of borrowing known as Tou-On ( ) was established. But the sounds of medieval China continued into the Qing Dynasty of China. Another name for the Tou-on classification of borrowings is Sou-on ( ) which began after the Sung Dynasty until the recent past. Besides Go-On, Kan-On, Tou-On or Sou-On the Kanji characters can also have another class of readings known as KanYou-On ( ). They came about through mispronunciations, and have grown in popularity to such an extent, that they have this as their most frequent used pronunciations. An example of this is the KanJi for 'bronze' which has the Kan-On pronunciation /tou/ but generally accepted as being pronounced /dou/.


Go to Part II of Japanese Kana Orthography
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This page was first created on Wednesday 21st January and last updated on Friday 23rd January 1998.

©Dylan W.H.S 1996-1998

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