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Alluring Qualities Of The Complex Japanese Writing Systems

As with many languages, picking up Japanese can be rather challenging. Throw in the several levels of formality and 3 different writing scripts; this language is bound to make you dizzy. However, there is no doubt that this language holds a beauty that is unlike many others. Appreciation of such beauty is hard to cultivate, especially if all you’re learning is theory and language rules. Here are some interesting facts about the writing scripts you may not learn when you first enrol in Japanese classes in Singapore.

Kanji: The Chinese-derived Script

East Asian countries have always had a strong symbiotic relationship. China and Japan, in particular, are only separated only by a thin narrow stretch of ocean. This geographical proximity has allowed the two countries to be trading partners and it has been as such for over a millennium. This relationship gave rise to the significant influence they have on each other, and one of the many things that China had a strong influence was the Japanese writing system.

Kanji was first introduced to Japan when a scholar named Wani travelled from Korea to Japan, with the intention to spread Confucianism. Prior to the formation of kanji, the Japanese had no writing system of their own.

Similar to Chinese, kanji are also ideograms. Each character has its own meaning and corresponds to a word. At the first few stages, kanji retained the original Chinese pronunciations but was also corresponded to native Japanese words and pronunciations. This then gave rise to two ways of pronouncing kanji: On Yomi (Sino-Japanese reading) and Kun Yomi (native reading).

Kanji: A Script Only For The Male Elites

It was later in the Heian period (794-1185) that the use of kanji truly proliferated. With the emergence of the kanbun system, diacritical marks were introduced to reconstruct the Chinese language. By changing sentence structures, adding particles and verb endings following the rules of Japanese grammar, the language started to morph.

Kanji was the general writing style for official and intellectual works throughout the Heian period. This means that kanji was a writing system exclusive for the educated and consequently, only those in aristocracy and the imperial court. Not only was kanji inaccessible to the masses, aristocratic women were also not able to use kanji. Despite being in the elite class, court women and ladies-in-waiting were not granted higher education and thus, had not been trained in Chinese as had their male counterparts. The implementation of the kanbun system and the usage of kanji were, therefore, reserved only for the male elites.

Hiragana: The Feminine Script

Since kanji was inaccessible to the women, the court ladies and ladies-in-waiting took it upon themselves to create a writing system they could call their own. Hiragana, formally known as onna-de (women’s hand), was a cursive script form of kanji. This writing script allowed the court women to present their views of life and romance in the Heian court. In fact, these court women were the authors of several core classical Japanese literature novels, namely, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book.

For a long time, many, mainly the male elites, were not fond of this writing script. Hiragana was not only considered effeminate, but it was also seen as childish and unsophisticated, especially when compared to kanji. It only started gaining attraction when male authors came to write literature using this script. Even though kanji still reigned as the official writing system, many had started to use hiragana in their unofficial writing such as personal letters amongst friends.

Conclusion

The 3 writing systems are complicated as they are beautiful. They’re imbued with a rich and vibrant history and its beauty will never truly end. There is the history aspect to these writing systems, but be amazed once you step foot into how they are used in Japanese literature and art, especially calligraphy. Build your appreciation for the language when you enrol in Japanese classes in Singapore today!

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