The Japanese, having obtained their civilisation from China and Korea, were inevitably led to adopt the ideographic system of writing practised in those countries. Its introduction into Japan seems to have taken place somewhere about A.D. 400, but the chronology of that early epoch is extremely obscure.
According to this ideographic system, each individual word has its separate sign, originally a kind of picture or hieroglyph. Thus, is "a man," represented by his two legs; is "the moon," with her horns still distinguishable; is "a horse,"- the head, mane, and legs, though hard to recognise in the abbreviated modern form of the character, having at first been clearly drawn. Few characters are so simple as these. Most are obtained by means of combination, the chief element being termed the "radical," because it gives a clue to the signification of the whole. The other part generally indicate more or less precisely the pronunciation of the word, and is therefore called the "phonetic." It is much as if, having in English special hieroglyphic signs for such easy, every-day words as "tree," "house," "hand," and "box" (a chest), we were to represent "box-wood" by a combination of the sign for "tree" and the sign for "box," a "box at the opera" by a combination of "house" and "box," a "boxing match" by a combination of "hand" and "box," and similarly in other cases. The Chinese language, being unusually full of homonymous words, lends itself naturally to such a method. Names of plants are obtained by combinations of the character " herb," itself still to be recognised as a picture of herbs sprouting up from the soil. "The hand," originally a rude picture of the outstretched fingers, helps to form hundreds of characters signifying actions. "The heart," gives numerous abstract words denoting sentiments and passions. Similarly "the eye," "the mouth," "fire," "water," "silk," "rain," "metal," "fish," are parents of large families of characters. The study of this Chinese method of writing is most interesting,-so curious is the chapter of the human mind which it unrolls, so unexpected are the items of recondite history which it discloses. To give but one example, the character for "war," is formed partly from the character for "vehicle," because the ancient Chinese, like the ancient Greeks, used to go forth to battle in chariots.
Unfortunately, the transfer of this system of ideographs from China to Japan was accompanied by inevitable complications. Even supposing Japanese organs to have been able (which they were not) to reproduce Chinese sounds exactly, all Chinese teachers of the language did not speak the same dialect. Hence the gradual establishment in Japan of two or three readings for each character,-one reading being preferred to another according to the context. Besides this, instead of always imitating the Chinese sound as far as possible, the Japanese also took, in many cases, to translating the meanings of the characters into their own language, thus adding yet another reading. For instance, the already-mentioned symbol "man," has the two Chinese readings jin and nin, and the Japanese translation hito. But these cannot be used indiscriminately. We say JIN-riki-sha, but NIN-soku ("a coolie "), and HITO when we mean simply a "person." In some cases there are Chinese readings only, and no Japanese. In some, a single character has several Japanese readings, while on the other hand, the same Japanese word may be written with several different characters, just as in English each letter has various sounds, and each sound may be represented by various letters.
In addition to the Chinese ideographs, there came into use in Japan during the eighth and ninth centuries another system of writing, called the Kana, derived from those Chinese characters which happened to be most commonly employed. There are two varieties of Kana,-the Katakana or "side Kana,'' so called because the symbols composing it are "sides," that is, parts or fragments, of Chinese characters, as i, from the character ro, from the character , etc., and the Hiragana, which consists of cursive forms of entire Chinese characters, as ha, in which the outline of tile original may still be faintly traced. The invention of the former is popularly attributed to a worthy named Kibi-no-Mabi (died A.D. 776), and that of the latter to the Buddhist saint, Kōbō Daishi (A.D. 834). But it is more reasonable to suppose that the simplification-for such it really is, and not an invention at all-came about gradually, than to accept it as the work of two individuals.
Whereas a Chinese character directly represents a whole word -an idea-the Kana represents the sounds of which the word is composed, just as our Roman writing does. There is, however, this difference, that the Kana stands for syllables, not letters. The following tables of the Katakana and Hiragana will help to make this clear. We give the former in the order preferred by modern scholars, and termed Go-jū-on, or "Table of Fifty Sounds" (though there are in reality but forty-seven), the latter in the popular order, called I-ro-ha, which has been handed down from the ninth century :-
The order of the I-ro-ha bears witness to the Buddhist belief of the fathers of Japanese writing. The syllabary is a verse of poetry, founded on one of the Sutras and so arranged that the same letter is never repeated twice. Transcribed according to the modern pronunciation, it runs thus :-
Iro wa nioedo, Chirinuru wo- Waga yo tare zo Tsune naran? Ui no oku-yama Kyō koete, Asaki yume miji, Ei mo sezu.Which is, being interpreted:
"Though gay in hue, [the blossoms] flutter down, alas! Who then, in this world of ours, may continue forever? Crossing to-day the uttermost limits of phenomenal existence, I shall see no more fleeting dreams, neither be any longer intoxicated." In other words, "All is transitory in this fleeting world. Let me escape from its illusions and vanities!"
In both syllabaries, consonants can be softened by placing two dots to the right of the letter. Thus is ka, but is ga; is te, but is de, and so on. In this way the number of letters is raised considerably. There are various other peculiarities, Japanese orthography ahnost rivalling our own in eccentricity. Very few books are written in Hiragana alone- none in Katakana alone. Almost all are written in a mixture of Chinese characters and Kana of one kind or another, the Chinese characters being employed for the chief ideas, for nouns anti the stems of verbs, while the Kana serves to transcribe particle and terminations. It is also often printed at the side of Chinese characters, especially difficult ones, as a sort of running comment, which indicates sometimes the pronunciation, sometimes the meaning. Add to this that the Chinese characters are commonly written and even printed in every sort of style- from the standard, or so-called "square," to the most sketchy cursive hand,-that each Hiragana syllabic letter has several alternative forms, that there is no means of indicating capitals or punctuation, that all the words are run together on a page without any mark to show where one leaves off and another begins,-and the result is the most complicated system of writing ever evolved upon this planet. An old Jesuit missionary declares it to be evidently "the invention of a conciliabule of the demons, to harass the faithful." At the same time, it must be owned that the individuals thus diabolically harassed are principally those foreigners who make their first attempt on the language when already of adult age. The often-repeated assertion that the ideographs waste years of school life is simply not true:-the Japanese lad of fifteen is abreast of his English contemporary in every way. The Japanese navvy makes as good a show at spelling out the newspaper or inditing a letter as the English navvy. After all, the average Englishman is not only abreast, but actually ahead, of the average Italian in reading and writing, notwithstanding that Italian orthography could be mastered in a day, whereas our own, in all its ramifications, might occupy a lifetime. The fact seems to be that, at a certain age, the mind will absorb any system of written symbols equally well. A large number can, practically, be learnt in the same time as a small number, just as a net with many meshes can be taken in by the eye as easily as a net with few. The same holds good of spoken symbols. Any language is assimilated equally well in early childhood, - a complex inflectional language in precisely the same time as a simple monosyllabic one. Nay more: place a child under favourable conditions, for instance, in an English family living in France and employing German governesses or tutors, and he will absorb all three languages in the same time, with the same ease, and with the same perfection as a single one would have taken had he remained in his native village. Evidently, there exists a whole educational domain to which arithmetical reasoning does not apply.
But to return. If Japanese writing is (to us) a mountain of difficulty, it is unapproachably beautiful. Japanese art has been called calligraphic. Japanese calligraphy is artistic. Above all, it is bold, because it comes from the shoulder instead of merely from the wrist. A little experience will convince any one that, in comparison with it, the freest, boldest English hand is little better than the cramped scribble of some rheumatic crone. One consequence of this exceeding difficulty and beauty is that calligraphy ranks high in Japan among the arts. Another is that the Japanese very easily acquire our simpler system. To copy the handwriting of a European is mere child's play to them. In fact, it is usual for clerks and students to imitate the handwriting of their employer or master so closely that he himself often cannot tell the difference. It seems odd, considering the high esteem in which writing is held in Japan, that the signature should not occupy the same important place in this country as it does in the West. The seal alone has legal force, the impression being made, not with sealing-wax, but with vermilion ink.
The influence of writing on speech-never entirely absent in any country possessing letters-is particularly strong under the Chinese system. We mean that the writing here does not merely serve to transcribe existing words:-it actually originates new ones, the slave in fact becoming the master. This is chiefly brought about through the exceptional amount of homophony in Chinese, that is, the existence of an extraordinarily large number of words sounding alike, but differing in signification. In the colloquial these are either not used, or are made intelligible by the context or by recourse to periphrasis. But the writer, possessing as he does a separate symbol for each, can wield them all at will, and create new compounds ad infinitum. Almost all the technical terms invented to designate objects, ideas, appliances, and institutions recently borrowed from Europe belong to this category. Some of these new compounds pass from books into common speech; but many remain exclusively attached to the written language, or are at least intelligible only by reference to the latter, while at the same time they endow it with a clearness and above all a terseness to which the colloquial can never attain.
This article may appropriately conclude by dispelling an illusion under which many intelligent persons labour, namely, that the Japanese nation is on the eve of dropping its own written system and taking up with ours instead. There is no longer the slightest Chance of so sweeping a change. There once seemed to be- somewhere about 1885-and much time, money, and energy were devoted to the cause by an association called the Rōmaji Kwai, or Romanisation Society, which lingered on some eight or ten years and then perished. Besides the weight of custom, the most obvious of the causes that concurred to bring about this ill-success has been anticipated in the preceding paragraph, where mention was made of the superiority of the existing written language to the colloquial as a terse and precise instrument of thought. Supported by the Chinese character, Japanese writers can render every shade of meaning represented in the columns of a European newspaper or the pages of a technical European work, whether financial, diplomatic, administrative, commercial, legal, critical, theological, philosophical, or scientific. Who could wish them to throw away their intellectual weapons, and put themselves on a level with the men of the stone age? They could not do so if they would. But a third cause-a more general one-must be sought in the fact that ideographic writing apparently possesses some inherent strength that makes it tend to triumph over (without entirely supplanting) phonetic writing, whenever the two are brought into competition in the same area. All the countries under Chinese influence exemplify this little known fact in a striking manner. Egypt, too, retained its hieroglyphics to the end. In Europe such competition has scarcely taken place, except in the case of the symbols for numbers and a few other ideas; but there, too, the general law has asserted itself. Which is the simpler, the more graphic, the more commonly used,-"three hundred and sixty-five" or "365,'' "thirty-five degrees forty-one minutes twenty three seconds" or "35° 41' 23"," "pounds, shillings, and pence" or "£. s. d. ?" Doubtless an ideographic system of writing is infinitely more cumbrous as a whole than its rival; but it is easier in each particular case. Hence its victory. We commend these considerations-for additional proof or for disproof-to those who have always been taught to believe, not merely that an alphabet is the ne plus ultra of perfection, but that it is a thing needing only to be known in order to be adopted.
Book recommended - A Practical Introduction to the Study of Japanese Writing (Moji no Shirube), by B. H. Chamberlain.