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Today's written Japanese comprises a number of components: elements of kanji, hiragana, katakana and the Latin alphabet; as well as Arabic numbers and Greek characters for mathematical symbols, punctuation and units of measurement. This means that a typical document could include as many as six different scripts. If you look at the Arabic numbers and punctuation marks as supporting elements, then a Japanese sentence consists mainly of kanji, hiragana, katakana and the Latin alphabet.
Kanji is the Japanese name for the characters derived from Chinese. “Kan” is the Japanese reading of the Chinese “Han”, an age or dynasty that ranged from 206 BC to 220 AD (China itself was called “Han” at that time). “Ji” is the word for character. The result: “Chinese character”. The oldest existing records of kanji were found on tortoise shells from about 1500 BC, which were likely used for prayers. The script spread throughout East Asia. The oldest archaeological find for kanji in the form used for Japanese writing was a metal tool from the fifth century.
A dictionary from 100 AD contained1 9,353 kanji characters in China. There are approximately fifty-thousand kanji in Japan today. There is no official number, however, since new kanji are coming out all the time and the total number is constantly increasing. However, a level of about three-thousand kanji2 is sufficient to read a newspaper, for example. Nowadays, kanji are generally used for nouns, compound kanji words3, verbs and adjectives.
“Hira” means simplicity. Research suggests that hiragana characters represent a system that everyone can use as a simple, informal system of writing. Hiragana was developed from kanji to enable faster, simpler and continuous writing. (The Latin script evolved for similar reasons.) In today’s Japanese, this script is used to write verbs, adjectives, inflections, adverbs, auxiliary verbs and proper names. Like the Latin characters, hiragana did not simply appear suddenly but rather evolved into the present form over time.
In the heyday of hiragana4, there were some 1000 characters; this number went down to about three hundred in the eleventh century, however. Anywhere between one hundred and two hundred letters were used, depending on the person. Over time, the number of characters was reduced, unified and ordered. The final result: the current 46 basic hiragana characters5.
The word katakana means “premature and unfinished script”.6 The so-called katakana developed from a part of the kanji in the eighth century and were initially used symbolically as abbreviated kanji for informal documents. Buddhist monks in Nara7 learned to use this condensed script at the start of the night century. They used the shorthand katakana to provide passages of complex characters in Buddist texts with a kind of phonetic transcription. To do so, they wrote the katakana in between the lines or even in the space between words. Initially, the characters differed from person to person. Over time, however, selection and adaptation took place, as was the case for hiragana.
Even then the symbolic form of the katakana was considered a non-organic, simple and incompletely developed writing system. Hiragana eventually became a writing script developed from kanji, while katakana represented a symbolic script that leaves out parts of a kanji to enable faster and simpler writing. Katakana are used, for example, in foreign words, foreign personal names, foreign place names,8 onomatopoeia (mimetic words that imitate sounds) and terminology. As in the case of hiragana, the number of katakana were reduced over time. Today there are 46 basic characters9.
As mentioned earlier, Japanese is a mix of different writing systems that each had different processes of development. The Latin script, however, also comprises various elements: the majuscule (borrowed from carved scripts used on monuments), the minuscule as handwriting and the Arabic numerals derived from ancient Indian scripts. If you keep this in mind, the Japanese writing system does not seem so unusual – rather, the development seems more like a historical matter of course. It can be said, however, that Japanese has an exceptionally tolerant writing system.
The fact that different sentence elements are written in a mixture of different scripts has a major significance to Japanese. There are no spaces between the individual characters and words; the different scripts indicate the sentence structure. However, the different script types enable general spellings and nuances to come through. This enables diverse writing expression in the Japanese language.
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Shigemi Komatsu: Kana, Tokyo 2007
Shoji Oshima: Kanji Denrai, Tokyo 2007
Takashi Inukai: Kanji wo Kainarasu, Tokyo 2008
1. Shuowen jiezi is the first kanji dictionary by Xu Shen in China.
2. There are 2136 official every day characters with a total of 4388 readings nowadays. There are several characters, which are often used for technical terms, place names and proper names.
3. A kanji compound refers to the formation of a new word by combining at least two kanji. Similarly to the use of Latin and Greek loan words in German, the kanji compounds are primarily used for technical terms.
4. At that time, they were known as manyogana.
5. There is a total of 83 characters (JIS X 0208), including diacritical and special characters.
6. Shigemi Komatsu: Kana, Tokyo 2007, p. 108.
7. A town in Western Japan, former seat of the government.
8. Except Chinese words.
9. There is a total of 86 characters (JIS X 0208), including diacritical and special characters.