What do these Japanese Chinese characters mean

The Japanese script

Font import from China

Why is the Japanese script so complicated? Why does it need three different forms? The search for traces leads far back into the past. For a long time the Japanese did not have a font to hold their memories and legends. That only changed when the Chinese characters came to the remote Japanese islands between the 3rd and 5th centuries.

How long the Chinese writing system had already existed is not clearly proven. The oldest signs found on animal bones and turtle shells date from around 1400 BC. However, since about 5000 characters already existed at that time, the beginnings must be even further back, probably around 8000 BC.

However, there was a big problem with adopting the Chinese characters: the Chinese and Japanese languages ​​have no phonetic or grammatical similarity. In contrast to Japanese, for example, Chinese only knows monosyllabic sounds and has no grammatical endings.

Because of this, the characters, called Kanji in Japanese, were soon used not only as pictograms (the picture tree also means tree), but also as symbols that stand for a certain pronunciation. This enabled the Japanese to write words that did not exist in Chinese.

Kanji - the Chinese characters

Kanji means nothing else than "Chinese characters" (derived from "Han" = Chinese people, "ji" = characters). The Japanese use them for nouns, verbs, and adjectives. There are around 50,000 characters in total, including a small number of Kanji developed in Japan. The majority, however, are identical to the Chinese characters. The Chinese can basically understand what a Japanese text is about - even if they don't know the grammar.

Orally, however, it becomes problematic because the pronunciation is completely different in both languages. To make it even more complicated, the Japanese also know different pronunciations for a character. The symbol for tree "boku", "moku", "ki" or "ko" can be read and accordingly means something else.

The average Japanese does not know all the characters by a long way, but only just under 3000 characters - these are enough to read a newspaper. Traditionally, the lines run from top to bottom and read from right to left. Due to the western influence, however, people are also writing horizontally and from left to right more and more frequently.

Hiragana - "writing of women"

It was court poets who, for artistic reasons, began in the 7th and 8th centuries to detach the Chinese characters from their meaning and to use them only as phonetic signs. The two syllable alphabets hiragana and katakana with 46 characters each developed from this. Each character stands for one syllable.

Hiragana originated in the 9th century and was originally called "women's writing" because this writing system was first used by aristocratic women. For them, learning Kanji was considered inappropriate. In theory, you can only write any Japanese text in hiragana - even children initially only learn this script.

As a rule, however, the Japanese only use the syllables for grammatical endings that are unknown in Chinese, or for words for which there is no kanji or for which the kanji is relatively unknown. In newspapers, little hiragana characters are written above or - if written vertically - to the right of little-known Kanji.

Katakana - for everything foreign

Katakana was developed by Buddhist monks only a short time after Hiragana. They originated as a kind of abbreviation for complicated Kanji and were originally also used for taking notes in religious lectures.

Today the Japanese usually use them for foreign words, foreign words (for example "aisu kurīmu" for ice cream, from the English "ice cream") or to emphasize words (comparable to our italics). Katakana is angular and angular, while hiragana has a soft and rounded appearance.

The two syllabary scripts give the Japanese the advantage that they can also express things for which they do not know the Kanji. The Chinese either know the correct character or cannot express what they want.

Romaji - adaptation to the west

Due to the increasing proximity to the West, the Japanese even have to learn a fourth writing system: Romaji, the Latin alphabet.

The American doctor and missionary Dr James Curtis Hepburn wrote the first Japanese-English dictionary in 1867 and developed a Latin transcription system for it, the Hepburn system. There are also other transcription systems; however, the Hepburn system is most common in the West. Japanese students learn Latin letters in English lessons and need them later in order to be able to write on the computer.

Because, understandably, there is no keyboard that covers all Japanese characters. That is why the Japanese first enter the word in Latin letters. The computer then shows the possible characters so that you can choose the right one.

Can it be a little easier?

Because even the Japanese do not find their own script easy, there have been several script reforms. In 1945 the number of Kanji used in everyday life was reduced to 1850 and the spelling of many Kanji was simplified. China resisted this reform and instead introduced its own simplification of the characters in the 1950s.

In view of the complicated Japanese mixed script, westerners often wonder why the Japanese don't introduce simple alphabet letters or write only in hiragana. There are important reasons against it: First, the old literature would only be readable by scholars. Many subtleties would be lost in translation into Latin script and hiragana.

Second, there are many words in Japanese that sound the same but are expressed using a different character. In Latin letters or hiragana one could no longer tell them apart.

Thirdly, the short kanji enable the Japanese to read a text much faster than the westerners with their long words. But this argument weighs most heavily: if you give up your writing, you give up part of your culture.