Saturday, September 22, 2007

chinese character & the japanese – a quest for yamato identity

As it is obvious from the title of the book in Japanese, it is about kanji –汉字- the Chinese characters and – Japanese people. It is an interesting read for those who are studying Japanese, and want to gain a greater depth on how kanji has came to endear itself to the Japanese Language, and why the Japanese then wished it purged.

The Japanese and kanji is a case of a - love and hate - relationship. The author puts it as a mis-mated marriage - kusare en -腐sare 缘. It was a mis-match because the two languages are from two distinct language family. However, the Japanese will have to live with this troublesome burden -– yakkai jyuumotsu – for better or for worse, as the author concludes in the final chapter.

Kanji was first adopted by the Japanese a thousand hundred odd years ago. For the greater part of the period it was deeply revered by the Japanese. It was the language of the Sage – 孔子- koshiKungzhi - Confucius. The royalty and the samurai class learned kanji and were connoisseurs of Tang/Sung poems. From the begining, kanji was mainly taught to the male. For kanji denoted strength, -full-bodied and complete when compared with the kana (hiragana and katakana).

While the gentlemen & the samurai wrote in kanji, the ladies in the court wrote in kana. The development of kana came about early in the written form as there was a need for a syllabary symbol to denote the sound of the Japanese language. Variously kana was derived from part of a Chinese character - be it from kanji written in the cursive stroke or from an abbreviated part of the kanji character that has the similar sound phonetically.

A very famous work written in kana was - The Tale of Genji – Genji monogatari – 源氏物语 – a very long romance story of some fifty-four chapters that took place in the Heian court from the 10th to 11th century. The author was said to be a court lady by the name of – Murasaki Shikibu.
Kana – 假名 – literary means a temporary, interim character. The author advocates that kana should be written in the kana form and never to write it in kanji. For 假 – ka - could also mean unauthorized. It is demeaning to call a Japanese invention, more precisely a uniquely Japanese rendition of the kanji – an interim character. This puts kana inferior to Kanji, and the author abhors such a foolish adoration of kanji.

Because of the heavy adoption of kanji over the thousand odd hundred years, the author thinks that it has stifled the development of the original Japanese language – the Yamato language - 大和语 – yamato go .

Due to this concern, and perphas to make up for the lost time he strongly advocates that where ever possible the Japanese people should write in kana, and refrain from using kanji. Only in cases where the kana caused ambiguity should one then resort to using kanji. Even, if it make the written language long and clumsy – use kana! It is the true identity of the Japanese language.

The fact that the Yamato language will always be in its infancy stage of development was highlighted in the book. It was because of the impact with a more advanced civilization from China. It resulted in the Japanese adopting and importing many of the abstract thoughts in its Chinese form, and had stifled the development of the native language.

As an example - the terms such as weather--气象-kishyoo, or season- 季节-kisetsu - are derived originally from Chinese. Such terms that describes an abstract phenomena usually do not have an equivalent term in the Yamato language . However those things that one could see, such as : ame – rain, yuki – snow, kaminari – thunder, or haru – spring, natsu – summer are original Yamato terms & the Japanese have a name for them.

These terms to could be depicted in kanji with a - on yomi –音读 – or pronunciation rendered in Chinese, namely – u - 雨-rain, setsu - 雪, rai-雷 –thunder, shun-春-spring, ka-夏-summer.

Thus Japanese is an amalgamation of Yamato language + Chinese terms, and in its more recent history, many many English & Western terms and phases have also been adopted into it. This is especially so from the Meiji period (1867-1910). The more recently adopted western terms are known as – gairai go –外来语- wai lai yu - foreign terms.

Because the Chinese kanji has a much longer history of interaction with the Japanese language and is closely knitted into it, it is no longer considered – gairai -外来– foreign. Thus even if it is very much an integrated part of the Japanese language, the Japanese is very much aware that kanji is a borrowed language & it is 'an outsider' .

It has been a mis-match marriage all these thousand of years for the two langugaes. An error or history perhaps, as the author certainly thinks that it was a lousy fit, a - kusare en.

During the Meiji period and henceforth when Japan modernized many of western concepts in the field of law, economy, science and technology were translated into the Japanese language using kanji. Perhaps, due to this inundation of knowledge, and that the fact that the Japanese had to continue to use a language from a civilization in her sunset years, had made the Japanese all the more eager to call for the abandonment of kanji - and replace it with a modern language - the English phonetic or even French alphabet.

Had it succeeded, Japanese perhaps would look like the written Vietnamese now - an alphabetically written language - whit a total chop from its historical roots.

Thus, kanji has in a sense put the Yamato language into an inferior position, and the author strongly resents this. He wants the Japanese people to purge it from their sub-consciousness and to re-instate the Yamato language to its right of place in the Japanese Language.

He calls for the promotion of the use of kana in written Japanese. Kana should be the writing of choice - even if makes the sentence long, clumsy and wordy – for that is the Yamato language. However, he is resigned to the fate that the Japanese will forever be intertwined with kanji.

Postcript –

1) shina - 支那

The term 支那 -shina - is liberally used in the book in place of 汉- Han - to decribe things Chinese, such as :

支那文字 – shina moji - Kanji or Chinese characters
支那人 – shina jin – for Chinese – the Han Chinese specifically
支那文化 - shina bunka – Chinese culture
支那思想 – shina shisoo – Chinese thoughts

When I asked a young man from mainland China if he knew the word - 支那 – zhi na – in Chinese, he retorted & replied, ‘Of course, I know. It’s a bad word. It’s so bad’.

The term - shina - 支那 – has a historic legacy as being used as deceitful term for China, especially during the WWII years. Instead of 中国 - chuugoku - this term would be used. It is derived from the western term for China – the country of the Chin – 秦 – Chine or Sino.

It was a book written for the Japanese, and the term seems to have been used to boost the nationalistic ego and racial supremacy.

b) Quotes - p238
‘ Thus, the use of kanji however cannot be restricted. If the use of Chinese characters were to be restricted, the fact will be that the language itself will then be limited, and the Japanese language will then be impoverished.

It is not to advocate the restriction of Chinese characters, but by all means where possible not to use it. As an example, avoid such style of writing as in [止meru]. One does not know whether it is [yameru] or [tomeru] If it is [yameru], then should be written as [yameru], and [tomeru], then as [tomeru] ‘ .


a) Kanji to Nihon jin - Chinese Characters & the Japanese people
高岛俊男, 文艺春秋 - Takashima Toshio, Bungei Shunshu 2001; 10th reprint in 2002.

the author a graduated from the Post-graduate school of Tokyo University in Chinese Language and Chinese Studies.

He is a writer and regularly contributes essay to the Japanese Weekly - Shukan Bunshun - 周刊文春. Among his other books are –李白杜甫- ‘Li Bai & Du Fu’, 水浒传日本人 - The Water Margin and the Japanese, 三国志 群众 - The glittering mass from the Romance of the Three Kingdom. He is a member of the National Language Review Committee. - 国语审议会

b) The chapters -

Chapter One: The Chinese Characters final came
1. the problem with [katei ]
2. The only written word in the world
3. Han-Language (Chinese Language ) – what language is it
4. The clumsiness of the Japanese language

Chapter Two; The Japanese have the Chinese Characters processed thus
1. What is kun yomi
2. The identity of Japanese Language
3. The so called foolishness of adoration of Chinese Characters

Chapter Three: Post Meiji Era
1. The flood of new words
2. The translated words – Japanese and Chinese
3. The inverted up-side down / convoluted language – Japanese
4. [history] & [progress]

Chapter Four: Forty years of the National Language reformation
1. The campaign to discontinue the use of Chinese characters
2. What was this – National Language Reformation
4. The form of the characters in Toyo Kanji
3. 新村出- indignation

Chapter Five: A troublesome burden

4) Japanese Book News

Japanese Book News is published quarterly by the Japan Foundation to make available to overseas readers up-to-date information on new books and recent topics of Japan’s publishing culture

2007.8.11/Sat – Sunny
Roppongi – 六本木- Aoyama Book Centre ( )
In the bookstore wrapper. This bookstore is close by Roppongi Hills.