Syllabary Is Developed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The creation of the kana syllabaries made it possible to write the Japanese language, laying the foundation for a unique Japanese literature during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Summary of Event

Three main types of written characters are used to represent the Japanese language: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji are ideograms originally imported from China in about the fifth century because Japan lacked a written language. These characters were adopted as a crude way to record the Japanese language, even though they were unsuitable because of the structural differences of these two unrelated tongues. Chinese is monosyllabic and terse, with no grammatical inflections; tense and mood are either ignored or expressed by means of syntax and word position within a sentence. The Japanese language is polysyllabic, diffuse, and highly inflected and has its own peculiar sentence structure. [kw]Kana Syllabary Is Developed (c. 800) [kw]Syllabary Is Developed, Kana (c. 800) Writing;Japan Kana syllabary Japan;writing Japan;c. 800: Kana Syllabary Is Developed[0810] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 800: Kana Syllabary Is Developed[0810] Kōbō Daishi

During the eighth century, phonetic characters developed to better approximate Japanese syllables; by the ninth century, these had simplified into the hiragana and katakana systems. Each kana system has forty-six characters, with each character representing a single syllable and each system independently representing all the sounds of spoken Japanese. Although both are derived from Chinese characters, each system serves a different purpose and looks somewhat different. The angularly shaped katakana are used primarily for foreign words, and the more cursive hiragana performs grammatical functions necessitated by Japanese inflections impossible to express with kanji. Foreign sounds that cannot be represented by syllables native to Japanese are attempted by using whatever katakana symbols most closely approximate the sound.

With the development of the phonetic kana system, it became possible to write Japanese using hiragana exclusively, but by this time, many Chinese words had been incorporated into the Japanese language. These words were best written with Chinese ideograms, even though they were pronounced quite differently in Japanese. Ultimately this evolved to the mixture of Chinese characters and kana that is employed today. Chinese kanji are used for nouns, verb roots, adjectives, and certain common words, while hiragana is employed for grammatical markers (verb and adjective endings indicating tense), auxiliary verbs, particles, and adverbs. The katakana are reserved for foreign names or loan words. Arguably, modern Japanese, burdened with Chinese characters, is the most complex written language in the world, yet these characters have undoubtedly enriched Japanese society and provided a deep cultural connection between China and Japan. The use of Chinese characters has influenced modes of expression and led to an association between literary composition and calligraphy lasting many centuries.

Although about fifty thousand Chinese characters exist, in 1945, the Japanese government officially specified about two thousand kanji as the principal characters every high-school graduate must know. However, one must know considerably more to read newspapers and books because many personal names and place-names are not included in this list.

Although the kana syllabaries were most likely the result of evolution rather than invention, the Buddhist monk Kōbō Daishi Kōbō Daishi has been credited as the inventor of kana as well as the person who first introduction tea to Japan. Founder of the Shingon sect Shingon sect of Buddhism, this brilliant scholar’s study of Sanskrit during a three-year sojourn in China may have provided the inspiration that led to kana.

During the Heian period Heian period (794-1185), Japanese authors were primarily ladies of the court who had the leisure time for reading and writing. Although there were men with literary inclinations, prose literature was considered the domain of women. So strong was this interdiction that, when Ki no Tsurayuki Ki no Tsurayuki (869-945) composed the Tosa nikki (935; The Tosa Diary, Tosa Diary, The (Ki no Tsurayuki) 1912), he pretended it was written by a woman. Men continued to be educated in Chinese, which enjoyed undiminished prestige and remained the official language for all purposes except speech (similar to the manner in which Latin was used in Europe during the Middle Ages). Literature;Japan Japan;literature The study of Chinese was an exclusively male domain from which women were excluded. Even if a woman learned Chinese, it was not considered proper for her to write in this language, so instead women used kana to represent their thoughts in their native tongue; in the process, they composed classic works of Japanese prose.


From the late sixth century until the mid-ninth century, Japan was learning and copying from China. During the ninth century, however, a subtle change occurred. The emphasis shifted from borrowing to adapting and assimilating what had already been acquired. One of the clearest signs of the divergence of Chinese and Japanese culture was the development, during the ninth and tenth centuries, of an adequate way of writing Japanese. The kana system evolved from simplifying certain Chinese characters into simple phonetic symbols, devoid of any specific meaning, each representing an entire syllable, such as ka, te, or no. The result was a syllabary, not an alphabet. Although more clumsy than alphabets, kana are quite efficient for writing Japanese because this language utilizes fewer phonemes than most languages. Because the kana system perfectly represented the spoken language, writing in the national tongue became facile enough to allow complex ideas to be readily expressed. Consequently, a unique literature, written in the Japanese language, emerged concurrently with the kana. Courtiers and their ladies wrote and exchanged poems, many of which are still extant, on every conceivable occasion.

Kana also made more extensive literary works possible. By the tenth century, stories, travel dairies, and essays written in Japanese appeared. Although most educated men scorned the use of their native tongue for any serious literary purpose (writing only in Chinese), women of the imperial court, blocked from learning Chinese, had only Japanese kana (referred to as “woman’s hand”) as a medium for literary expression. While the men were pompously writing bad Chinese, the ladies consoled themselves by writing good Japanese and, in the process, created Japan’s first great prose literature. Private collections of poetry in kana began to be compiled about 880. In about 905, Kokin wakashū Kokin wakashū[Kokin wakashu] (also known as Kokinshū; English translation, 1970), the first major work of kana literature, was compiled by poet Ki no Tsurayuki and others. The preface by Tsurayuki is the oldest work of sustained prose written in kana. The golden age of this venue was the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. The most eminent accomplishment of the period, as well as the world’s first novel, was Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, Tale of Genji, The (Murasaki Shikibu) 1925-1933), written by Murasaki Shikibu, a court woman, early in the eleventh century.

One may wonder why written Japanese remains burdened with Chinese characters when the phonetic kana characters alone can represent the entire language. One possible explanation is the long-term continuing prestige that Chinese culture and language has commanded throughout Asia. For a long period after the introduction of kana, most learned Japanese men continued to write in Chinese, but as the knowledge of this tongue decreased, more kana crept into their bastard Chinese texts. Moreover, thousand of technical and scholarly words were created out of Chinese lexical elements (similar to Western use of Greek and Latin roots to form new words) as the need arose. Unfortunately, many of the compound words created in this manner are identical when pronounced in Japanese. For this reason, in modern Japan, new words, particularly technical terms, are typically derived from the more distinct English words and written in katakana.

The Japanese writing system may be complex, but it cannot now be easily changed. Chinese characters have worked themselves deeply into the entire culture and have acquired artistic and psychological values the Japanese are loathe to abandon. Since World War II, the number of characters in daily use has declined somewhat, and many have been superficially simplified, but their use as a major component of written Japanese is unlikely to change significantly in the near future.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cortazzi, Hugh. The Japanese Achievement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Cortazzi analyzes and discusses this intriguing culture from a Western perspective, from its prehistoric origins through contemporary Japan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The first volume of Donald Keene’s history of Japanese literature, this work deals with the women’s literature produced in Japanese.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reischauer, Edwin O. Japan: The Story of a Nation. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. A first-rate text that traces the history of Japan from its origins to the world power it became. The development of kana and its influence on Japanese culture can be seen in the context of the country’s long and fascinating history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993. A compact but comprehensive survey of Japanese history from its origins through the late twentieth century, this concise history includes the development of thought and literature and their contingency on the evolution of kana.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. A concise survey of two thousand years of Japanese history with an emphasis on Japan’s cultural peculiarities, including the evolution of Japan’s complex system of writing.

Categories: History