Japanese books and magazines have their spines on the right side, which makes Westerners feel they are reading from back to cover. The Japanese read newspapers and books from top to bottom and right to left. Books read right to left with the script hanging vertically from the page. Most novels are printed with the texts in vertical columns. Exceptions are books and periodicals devoted to special subjects scientific and technical matter, which are printed in horizontal lines and read from left to right. Nowadays there is a tendency to print books in horizontal lines. These publications open in the same way as their Western counterparts.
People need to know three alphabets to read a newspaper in Japan. The difficult-to-master Japanese writing system consists of two phonetic alphabets---the 48-letter hiragana (for Japanese words) and the 48-letter Katakana (mostly for foreign words)---and Chinese characters known as kanji. Japanese school children memorize 80 Chinese characters by the end of the second grade and master around 2,000 characters (the number found in an average newspaper) when they graduate from high school. Most educated Chinese can read about 5,000 characters.
The Japanese writing system comes from Chinese, although the languages spoken by the Japanese and Chinese are completely different. After Chinese writing was introduced sometime in the fifth or sixth century, it was supplemented by two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) that were transformed from the Chinese characters. A large number of local dialects are still used. Whereas standard Japanese, which is based on the speech of Tokyo, has been gradually spreading throughout the country under the influence of media
Chinese, Koreans and Japanese use the same Chinese characters. The meanings of the characters is usually the same but the pronunciation is different. The character for soy sauce, for example, is pronounced "shoyu" in Japanese and "jiangyou" in Mandarin Chinese. After World War II, the Japanese simplified their characters (made them easier to write) and changed their appearance. The Chinese did the same thing but used a different system, while the Koreans stuck to the old character system. Now the characters in all three languages are the same but they look different and are pronounced differently, if that makes any sense.
Foreign students who study Japanese struggle with the written language, especially the kanji. Kanji is particularly difficult to master because most characters have multiple meanings and the meaning used often depend on whether the characters are used singly or in groups.
Websites and Resources
Language history Good Websites and Sources: Hirigana News About Studying Japanese hiraganatimes.com ; Language Guide.org languageguide.org/nihongo ; Language history Origin of the Japanese Language omniglot.com/writing/japanese ; History of the Japanese Language alsintl.com/resources/languages/Japanese ; Language Links Jim Breen’s Language Links csse.monash.edu.au ; Quick Look Language Links webgerman.com ; Super Links to Japanese Sites uni.edu/becker ; Japanese Language Land of Links landoflinks.com ; Dictionaries English-Japanese Online Dictionary englishjapaneseonlinedictionary.com ; Babylon Translation English-Japanese Online Dictionary freedict.com ; Jim Breen’s Online Dictinary csse.monash.edu.au Online Talking Dictionary dictionarist.com
Written Japanese Library of Congress Romanization Charts pdf file loc.gov/catdir/cpso/romanization/japanese ; Omniglot omniglot.com ; Tool of Translating Japanese Websites rikai.com ; Joyo 96 Learning Written Japanese joyo96.org ; Proverbs The Japanese Page (Good Stuff for Learning Japanese) /thejapanesepage.com ; Pro-Researcher Japanese Proverbs pro-researcher.co.uk ;
Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji
While the Chinese use their characters or ideograms to write each and every word, the Japanese devised two separate forms of phonetic script, called kana, to use in combination with Chinese characters. At times the written language also contains Roman letters in acronyms such as IBM, product numbers, and even entire foreign words’so that a total of four different scripts are needed to write modern Japanese. Chinese characters---called kanji in Japanese---are actually ideograms, each one of which symbolizes a thing or an idea. It is common for one kanji to have more than one sound. In Japan, they are used to write both words of Chinese origin and native Japanese words. [Ibid]
“There are two forms of syllabic kana script. One is called hiragana, which was mainly used by women in olden times. It consists of 48 characters and is used for writing native Japanese words, particles, verb endings, and often for writing those Chinese loanwords that cannot be written with the characters officially approved for general use. The other kana script, called katakana, is also a group of 48 characters. It is chiefly used for writing loanwords other than Chinese, for emphasis, for onomatopoeia, and for the scientific names of flora and fauna. Both kinds of kana are easier to write than the full forms of the original Chinese characters from which they were taken. [Ibid]
“Although the more complete Japanese dictionaries carry definitions of up to 50,000 characters, the number currently in use is much smaller. In 1946, the Ministry of Education fixed the number of characters for general and official use at 1,850, including 996 taught at elementary and junior high school. This list was replaced in 1981 by a somewhat expanded though similar list of 1,945. Publications other than newspapers are not limited to this list, however, and many readers know the meaning of considerably more characters than are taught in the standard public school curriculum. [Ibid]
Short History of Written Japanese
The Chinese system of writing was introduced to Japan in A.D. 405. Later modifications were made because Chinese characters don't adequately reflect the pronunciations of Japanese speech.
Japan developed strong phonetic components in its written language by the 9th century. Hiragana began its development in Japan during the Heian period (794-1192) and was originally based on characters from China. At the time, the syllabary was used mainly by women. Calligrapher Mariko Kinoshita said: "I love the simplicity and suppleness of hiragana. Is it not amazing that we still use these letters that our ancestors made?"
During the Heian period (794-1185), Japanese script was developed. Chinese characters were often unsuited for certain Japanese sounds and priests developed two sets of writing based on Chinese forms. By the middle of the Heian period these forms were unified and simplified into a writing form called kana. As the use of kana become widespread, it paved the way for the development of a unique Japanese literary styles.
Knowledge of kanji has always been a sign education, breeding and accomplishment. Primary school students learn about 1,00 kanji by the ed of 6th grade, Middle school students learn not write sentences with the 1,000 and learn to read another 939.
In November 2010, the Japanese government announced its first kanji reform since 1981. The new list of 2,136 characters approved for everyday use, up from 1,945, including 196 Chinese characters not on the 1981 list and five deletions. The new list contains many difficult-to-write kanjis which are easier to make with computers and cell phones than by hand and are now used more. The reform in 1981 added 95 characters.
Plate Dates Hiragana to 9th Century
In November 2012 the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Earthenware fragments from the late ninth century that bear hiragana calligraphy have been discovered in the ruins of the building of a noble who lived during the Heian period (794-1192) in Kyoto, the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute has announced. Modern hiragana is closer to the calligraphy on the discovered fragments than characters from the early 10th century that were believed to be the oldest, evidence that hiragana characters were created at least five decades earlier, the institute said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 30, 2012]
The fragments were found at the ruins of the house of Minister Fujiwara Yoshimi (813-867) in November 2011. According to Kyoto University Prof. Ryohei Nishiyama, who analyzed the calligraphy, it can be read "Hitonikushito omoware." Hiroshi Sano, an associate professor of the university, explained it meant annoying yet adorable. The origin of hiragana was Manyogana, kanji that represented Japanese phonetically. Until now, hiragana was believed to have been established in the early 10th century, when an Imperial-commissioned poetry anthology, Kokin Wakashu, and diary Tosa Nikki, were compiled. [Ibid]
Learning Kanji in School
Kumiko Makihara wrote in the New York Times, “The postcard-sized paper my son brought home from school had four imposing Chinese characters written vertically down the middle. It was from a school assignment where the fifth graders each selected a yoji-jukugo, or four-character idiom, that best suited another classmate.Yataro’s friend had chosen “men moku yaku jyo” for him. The first two ideograms mean “honor,” the latter two “vibrant,” and they combine to refer to a person who enthusiastically pursues goals and earns the admiration of others. “You are so lively when playing at recess,” the classmate had written to explain his choice. [Source: Kumiko Makihara, New York Times, March 19, 2010]
“The Japanese use thousands of four-character idioms comprised of Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese written language. When grouped together, the characters create phrases with their own meanings. Familiarity with the expressions is regarded as a sign of being educated, and the idioms frequently appear on school entrance exams. Yataro had to memorize 64 of them for winter break homework. Some were straightforward, like the characters for “different,” “mouth,” “same” and “sound,” which together read “i ku do on,” meaning many people in agreement. Others sparked the imagination, like “south ship north horse,” meaning to travel far and wide. Yataro’s favorite was “han shin han gi” or “half believe half suspect.” It means to be dubious, but Yataro applied his own interpretation and took it to mean one can believe the half that one wants to and dismiss the rest. [Ibid]
“The character clusters reflect the Japanese love of the compact, creative and scholarly. They have a vast historic range. “South ship north horse,” for example, dates back to the early Chinese travelers who forged rivers and canals in the south by ship and conquered mountains and fields in the north on horseback. At the modern end, “den atsu soku tei” was one of last year’s winners of the insurance firm Sumitomo Seimei’s annual create-a-new-yojijyuku-go contest. Den-atsu means voltage, which is pronounced “boltage” here; soku means speedy, and tei means imperial. The result is a reference to the world’s fastest sprinter: Usain Bolt. [Ibid]
“On the back of the paper my son brought home from school, the teacher requested that the parents write an idiom that befits their child. To broaden my choices, I went to the bookstore where I found a shelf full of titles like “Yoji-jukugo and Sayings You Can Use in Conversation and Speeches.” I settled on the 1000-entry “Yoji-jukugo Dictionary to Bolster Your Brain.” Figuring this was a lesson in positive reinforcement as much as learning another phrase, I excluded the negative ones no matter how well they described Yataro. Out went “horse ear east wind” “ the eastern wind is a spring breeze, pleasant to humans but meaningless to horses: a perfect depiction of Yataro turning a deaf ear to my pearls of wisdom. I also had to avoid the praiseful ones lest the teacher think I was an indulging parent. So I passed on “large vessel late achievement,” which describes someone who triumphs in maturity, even though I have my hopes pinned on the chance that my son is a late bloomer. [Ibid]
Yataro begged me not to bring to the assignment my personal gripes against the teacher, who I feel is petty in his criticisms of the children. Along that line my choice had been “ka gyu kaku jyo,” or “snail tentacles on top of,” which expresses small-scale squabbling through the image of the two tentacles fighting each other. When I finally sat down to write, I wrote my choice for him: “jyuku doku gan mi,” “thorough reading enjoy taste,” which means to read deeply. “Reading lets you glimpse into other worlds,” I wrote to Yataro who loves to lie down with a book...And then I could not resist. In the corner I drew a small picture of a snail and put boxing gloves on each of the tentacles. [Ibid]
Typing in Japanese used to be performed on bulky machines. In 1978, the first Japanese word processor system went on sale, allowing the Japanese language to be input phonetically via a keyboard. When Japanese words are typed using word processing software, either one of the two kana scripts or the roman alphabet can be used. Input method editor (IME) software displays phonetic matches and allows the user to select the correct characters. The use of keitai (cell phones) to send text messages via either e-mail or instant messaging has become hugely popular in Japan, particularly among young people. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]
“Text entry on the cell phone’s small keypad is done primarily by using the thumb to push number keys multiple times to select characters from a particular sequence of kana. Once the kana have been entered they can be converted to Chinese characters as necessary. In PC-based messaging there was already a tendency to make frequent use of abbreviations, truncated words, and symbols, and this has further accelerated in keitai messaging. Japanese has its own extensive series of emoticons known as kaomoji (“face characters”), and there are also many graphical emoji (“picture characters”) which can be easily embedded in cell phone text messages in place of words or phrases. As children who grew up communicating with short text messages sent via cell phones and PCs become adults and enter the workplace, they are changing the way that written Japanese is used, often to the chagrin of their elders. [Ibid]
Difficulty Writing and Typing Japanese
Now that so many Japanese write kanji with hiragana on computers they have forgotten how to make kanji characters by hand. Less than 20 percent of the people have taken a national exam, that requires knowledge of 2,000 kanji characters, have passed it. And, many young businessmen can not write kanji very well and use hiragana on memos, which is considered shameful.
Many Japanese have difficulty simply writing by hand. "The only time I write by hand is when I write envelopes and when I have to fill out forms," a linguistics professor told the New York Times. "When it occurs to me that we need spinach and soy sauce, I write an electronic message to my wife, even if she's in the next room." One calligraphy instructor told the New York Times, "At school, teachers themselves can't write well anymore. So they can't teach how to write properly any more."
Some misplaced dots, squiggles or lines can transform the meaning of kanji characters: A forgotten line makes "Your enlightened worship" (a common written farewell) into "You enlightened piece of trash;" other mistakes change "hall of ambassador" (the literal translation of embassy) into "hall of feces," and his "His Majesty the Emperor" into "Emperor under the staircase."
Until the 1980s, when the word processor was introduced, most Japanese was written long-hand. Japanese typewriters tended to be complicated an unwieldy.
Typing Japanese can be quite tedious. Words with hiragana and Katakana are typed liked English words on a Western keyboard. Chinese characters, however, are made by phonetically spelling the Chinese character in hiragana and then pushing a button which changes it into the desired Chinese character.
Written Japanese and Cell Phones
Cell phones have not only revolutionized the way Japanese communicate verbally and through messages they have also revolutionized the way Japanese write. On a Japanese cell phone you type in hiragana and katakana. For kanji, rather than laboriously making the multiple-stroke characters, you type in syllables of hiragana and katakana, and the phone provides a list to choose from of kanji the user uses most frequently.
This phenomena has led to a general dumbing down of the written language. Kanji are now used less frequently and those that are used are simple and common and are ones most everyone is familiar. This partly explains why cell phones novels are so popular in Japan: they are easy to read and easy to write. With a cell phone you can read them any time and any place.
Image Sources: 1) cell phone pictures, Ray Kinnane, 2) hiragana and katagana, Online Languages Info, 3) old picture, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013