Kanji tales: The journey to Japan

When I started learning Japanese I was overwhelmed with all the Kana and Kanji and all the other stuff that were completely new to me, all of which didn’t give me the time to think about the history of those characters. to be honest I didn’t care at all then, but now that I am used to it I started to think that it’s actually fun to learn about the history of characters, as it gives you so much insight about its meanings and construction. I think it will help the advanced learner to understand more aspects about Kanji and Japanese culture as well. So without further ado I wanna tell you about the journey that brought Kanji to Japan briefly in the following few paragraphs.

Whether Japan possessed the art of writing before the introduction of Chinese characters or
ideographic script is a matter of conjecture. Letters said to have been found in certain old
copies are much like, if not identical, to modern Chinese alphabet. But the fact that no
scripture text had ever been found leads many to doubt the authenticity of such copies.
According to Japanese records, a Korean savant named Wang-in come to Japan during
the 16th year of reign of the Emperor Ohjin (285 A.D.) with books of Chinese language and
taught the Japanese how to read and write Chinese ideographs. Now this date is believed to
be in error by 120 years, which makes it 405 A.D. instead of 285.

At first there seems to have been only a few in the Imperial court that took up learning
of Chinese language, but as years go by the study of sounds and meaning of Chinese
characters gradually gained ground among the populace. Japanese learners attached to the
Chinese characters the meaning in Japanese language, so that each Chinese character has
been regarded to have, in addition to the proper Chinese sounds, new Japanese sounds
corresponding to the meaning in Japanese.
To illustrate: If England would introduce into the country a Greek word grapho and
read it in various ways as grapho, to write, writing, to inscribe, script, inscription, etc., she
would be doing exactly what Japan has been and is now doing to the Chinese ideographic

The Chinese characters or ideographic writing which were brought to Japan were from
the work during the Han dynasty in China. Hence Japanese called them “Kanji” (literally
Han characters). They were also known as “Honji” (literally real characters) in contrast to
Kana (literally Provisional name).
Some Kanji has two or three different sounds as it had been pronounced in one way
during one Chinese dynasty and in another way during another. Most Kanji again were
used in two or more different senses in China. Japanese had to learn all these, translated
into Japanese. Quite a number of characters, as a result, had to have two or three Chinese
sounds and a dozen or more Japanese ways of reading.
The Chinese sounds are known as “on” or “in” (literally: sound) and the Japanese
sounds are known “kun”, “wakun” or “yomi” (meaning or reading). Among the former are
“kan-on” (sounds of Han dynasty) which are by far the most prevalent, “go-on” (sounds of
Wu dynasty), and later on “Toh-on “(sounds of T‘ang dynasty), “soh-on” (sounds of Sung
dynasty), “min-on” (sounds of Ming dynasty) and “shin-on” (sounds of Ts‘ing dynasty).
The latter four are acquired by Japanese in later period during the intercourse with China,
and are limited to only a few characters.
The present day Chinese sounds of characters are widely different from what the Japanese
are attaching to the same characters. Moreover, the Chinese sounds vary according to localities in China.

The reason such discrepancies occur are not difficult to understand when we learn that China has undergone a great many changes in dynasties often revolutionary, since
Han period when Japanese had been first taught their sounds.

Chinese dynasties timeline
Chinese dynasties timeline

The Han dynasties lasted from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., then came three kingdoms when
Minor Han, Wei and Wu divided the country till 280 A.D., Western Tsin 265–316 A.D.,
Eastern Tsin 317–420 A.D., the division of the north and south dynasties, each division
having four or five courts 386–589 A.D., the reunification of the empire by Sui dynasty
589–618 A.D., T‘ang dynasty 618–907 A.D. Five short dynasties 907–959 A.D., Sung
dynasties including north and south 960–1279 A.D., Yüan or Mongol dynasty 1280–1368
A. D., Ming dynasty 1368–1644 A.D., and Ts‘ing dynasty 1644–1911 A.D. followed in
As a result of such frequent changes in dominating powers, the vast Chinese dominion
has people of widely various origins, different in customs, idioms and sounds of
characters. For example, a character meaning man is pronounced in China today as jan,
lan, niang, in, jin or yan by the people of Peking, Hankow, Shanghai, Fuhchau, Amoy or
Canton respectively.

The sounds of Chinese characters as taught in Japan at present and those
learned by Japanese 1500 years ago from the continental teachers are supposed to be the
same, although we have reasons to suspect that the original Chinese sounds of Han period
are largely lost and are substituted by highly Japanized sounds, which would be entirely
unintelligible to the Chinese ears, should the people of Han period be given opportunities
to hear them.
When a language of one people is learned by another in a large scale, the latter is apt
to change and adapt it to suit their tongue. This fact is exemplified by Japanized English
produced through the toil of Japanese students under Japanese teachers during the last half
a century.

Shing or tones of Chinese characters never seem to have been acquired by Japanese,
although Japanese poets and a few scholars study a great deal about them.
So the characters or ideographs of the original Chinese language, clad with Japan-modified
sounds, some with Japan-created sounds, Japan-invented meanings together with
a number of Japan-made characters, became now to be known as Japanese characters, the
name of “Kanji” (or Han characters) alone remaining to tell the tale.



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