Exploring Deeper into Japanese

Having studied Japanese for three years as of the time of writing, I decided to delve deeper into the depths of the Japanese kanji. This little exploration would take up a few posts due to the extensive system behind this script, but anyway, some time in the first century CE, the Japanese people had encountered Chinese characters on the items they traded with China, like seals, coins and letters. The Japanese did not know what those characters meant, and they would not know until the fifth century.

A scholar called Wani was dispatched to Japan by the Kingdom of Baekje during the reign of Emperor Ōjin, bringing with him knowledge of Confucianism and most importantly, Chinese characters. However, this was still Chinese, not Japanese. In fact, when the Chinese writing system was introduced, Japanese did not have a written form. Texts were written and read only in Chinese. Later, during the Heian period (794–1185), however, a system known as kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to restructure and read Chinese sentences, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar.

Chinese characters also came to be used to write Japanese words, resulting in the modern kana syllabaries. Around 650 CE, a writing system called man’yōgana (used in the ancient poetry anthology Man’yōshū) evolved that used a number of Chinese characters for their sound, rather than for their meaning. Man’yōgana written in cursive style evolved into hiragana, you know, the poem called “Iroha”:









This is the famous poem which contained each character of the Japanese syllabary only once. Written in the 11th century, in the Heian period, this poem contained the archaic characters ゑ “we” and ゐ “wi”.

The Japanese katakana came from a different path.  Monastery students simplified man’yōgana to a single constituent element. So technically speaking, both the hiragana and katakana descended from kanji.

With three writing systems used concurrently in written Japanese, many have asked, why is kanji still used today? What is the importance of kanji? To start off, Japanese is a language with 107 possible syllables in its phonetic inventory, and meaning is differentiated by stress. This gives rise to a whole lot of homonyms, that is, words which sound the same but have different meaning. For example, consider the word せいき. What does it translate to in English? The answers are plenty, as you can see below:


With so many possible meanings, hiragana is pretty much useless when trying to avoid ambiguities and confusion. This signals the importance of kanji. With kanji, a written word has its own meaning, despite having so many being pronounced similarly. Using our example せいき, we find that it can be written as 世紀、正規、性器、精機、生気、生起、精気、盛期、正気、西紀 etc. in kanji, just to list a few. Reading kanji may not be so simple and straightforward, but it does bring meaning and context to words.

Another reason is that written Japanese does not use spaces. A full sentence in hiragana would make differentiating words a difficult task. Kanji works to break a sentence into readable elements, like word blocks. For example, 今日きょう 寿司すし べに きますか?(Are you going to eat sushi today?) This is more readable compared to きょう、すしをたべにいきますか?Other reasons like cultural and political ones also play a role in keeping kanji an important element in writing Japanese even to this day.

Another frequently asked question regarding kanji is, “How many of these are there?” The short answer is, I do not know. In fact, there is no definitive count of the number of kanji which have ever existed, much like the number of Chinese characters. The Dai Kan-wa Jiten, 大漢和辞典, has listed about 50 000 characters and 530 000 compound words. However, many of these characters are either archaic forms or obscure variations of other characters, and most speakers use only a small fraction of this number of characters. In fact, Japanese school children are required to learn 1 006 characters before they graduate primary school (sixth grade) [80 in first grade, 160 in second, 200 in third, 200 in fourth, 185 in fifth and 181 in sixth], and 2 136 characters before they finish middle school (ninth grade). The 2 136 characters are classified under jōyō kanji – characters required for the level of fluency necessary to read newspapers and literature in Japanese.

The Kanji Kentei is an examination dedicated to assessing one’s standard in Japanese kanji alone. Ranging from level 10 to level 1 (I am still at level 4), applicants would be tested on their ability to read, write and ability to differentiate homonyms and compound words. Stroke order is tested in the more beginner levels (level 10 to level 5). At level 1, applicants are examined on their ability to read and write all 6 355 characters in the Japanese Industrial Standard X 0208. This is far beyond the 2 136 characters everyone must know to be able to fluently read newspapers and literature in Japanese. To me, it is certainly mindblowing to know how much kanji I have familiarised and learnt, in comparison to the 50 000 which have existed in all of written Japanese. On my next post, I will be talking about the various ways kanji is read, and why it is confusing to the foreign language learner.

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