Kanji and Kana

Kanji and Kana
Kanji and Kana

The Japanese language supplanted that of the Ainu and is considered part of the Altaic group of languages. It is similar to Korean and may contain elements of Southeast Asian languages. Until the fourth century Japanese had no written form and the introduction of written Chinese provided an early model.

Buddhist monks probably traveled to Japan with Buddhist texts that had been originally obtained in India, and then translated them into Chinese. The use of Chinese characters to represent Japanese words or syllables is known as kanji.

Since kanji do not represent various markers for tenses and prepositions required by Japanese, hiragana markers often accompany them, fulfilling this purpose, and they may also indicate the pronunciation of kanji. Only later were kanji introduced to represent distinctively Japanese words. The manyogana writing system adopted Chinese characters on the basis of sound rather than meaning.

Subsequently, kanji were developed that were similar in meaning (kokuji) or else different in meaning (kokkun) from Chinese originals. Many kanji have multiple pronunciations and contextual meanings, which may be broadly divided into native-derived (kunyomi) and foreign-derived (onyomi) words.

Over the next centuries two additional systems were developed to help with portraying Japanese words for which appropriate kanji did not exist. These are the hiragana and katakana systems that, together, are referred to as kana. Hiragana symbols are written in a cursive script that was known at the end of the first millennium as onna-de or woman’s script.

Its function is primarily grammatical and hiragana symbols frequently accompany and modify kanji symbols. Katakana symbols tend to be more angular in style and are used for foreign words, for children’s books, or for large public notices.

Both types of kana were based on Chinese characters, simplified to represent sounds. Foreign loanwords were initially converted into kanji characters, but in the modern age have been converted into katakana symbols on a mostly onomatopoeic basis.

Both kana and kanji have the virtue of conveying meaning from the sounds and meanings associated with them, but also within the shapes used to make them. Literature, especially poetry created using them, has a tendency to convey multiple meanings from minimal word usage.

Poetry such as the haiku, which is a development of earlier forms and for which the 17th century poet Basho is perhaps the best-known exponent, combines strict limits on numbers of syllables while offering considerable ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning.

Various attempts have been used to rationalize the kana and kanji systems, which pose some problems because of the different mental requirements of the systems and because of the sheer number of characters. Although some streamlining has been made, the Japanese people and state have so far resisted wide scale change. The many foreign words integrated into the system demonstrate its flexibility and ability to respond to change.