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20,000 Japanese Characters

One of the elements that distinguishes Japanese culture, and is responsible for much of the country’s exotic image as well as the mind-set and special skills of the people, are the “characters” that make up the Japanese system of writing.

By “characters” we mean, of course, the Chinese ideograms with which the Japanese write the core words of their language. The Japanese term for the ideograms is Kan ji (Kahn-jee), usually written in Roman letters as one word (Kanji), which literally means “Chinese characters.”

Kanji came into common use in China in the 14th century B.C., but it was not until the 3rd century A.D. that a scholar named Wani came to Japan from the ancient Korean kingdom of Kudara, bringing with him the Analects of Confucius, which were written in Kanji, and a textbook for studying the characters.

It was not until the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., however, that the use of Kanji began to spread in Japan, primarily via scholars and immigrants from kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula that had been under the suzerainty of China for many centuries.

As the decades passed, Korean immigrants who were employed in Japan as official recorders gradually transcribed the whole Japanese language into Kanji.

By the 6th and 7th centuries, most male members of the elite class in Japan could read and write Kanji. Soon thereafter, scholars created two additional phonetic scripts (phonograms) to write portions of Japanese words that could not be rendered in Chinese characters.

During the early centuries following the adoption of Kanji, women were not allowed to study the ideograms, but many upper class women surreptitiously learned how to read and write with the newly developed phonetic scripts.

By the advent of modern times, the study and use of Kanji had become the foundation of all Japanese education, with an impact that went far beyond what one generally associates with a system of writing.

Leaning to read and draw — not write! — Kanji had a profound influence on the personality, character, aesthetic perceptions and physical dexterity of the Japanese.

Learning how to read the large number of Kanji used to write the language changed the way the Japanese looked at and reacted to the world around them because the Kanji represented both physical things and non-physical concepts — they were not just phonetic sounds like the English alphabet.
Learning how to draw the Kanji required all Japanese to become virtual artists, and this too changed their perceptions and attitudes. A significant percentage of the middle and upper class population went beyond drawing the Kanji in the standard form. They began stylizing the characters, turning their drawing into a fine art that came to be called Shodo (Show-doh), or The Way of Writing, translated today as calligraphy.

Those who became especially skilled at Shodo were recognized and honored as master artists. How aesthetically attractive one could draw the Kanji became equated with morality and virtue.

Examples of Shodo by past masters are among the most treasured of Japan’s historical artifacts.

To the untrained, casual eye, Kanji may appear to have neither rhyme nor reason, but familiarity with the characters reveals not only their pictorial meaning but their artistry as well.

In fact, it may be fair to say that in order to completely, fully, understand Japanese culture it is necessary to know Kanji. It is certainly true that many of the attributes of the Japanese that are positive and admirable owe much of their significance to the influence of Kanji.

In earlier times, to become fully literate the Japanese had to learn some 10,000 characters, requiring a completely different level of discipline and respect for teachers than our measly 26 letters — to say nothing of the time involved.

Learning the some 2,000 characters required for literacy today remains a defining element in the character and mind-et of the Japanese, and there are reflections of this discipline and respect in virtually everything they do.
Learning to recognize and interpret just a few dozen Kanji adds a valuable dimension to one’s experience in Japan. And, of course, the more Kanji one knows the deeper and more gratifying the experience.  Even if one is not motivated to learn and use Kanji as a means of communication, just viewing the characters as an art form adds grace to one’s life.

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