Notes on Kanji
<b>Notes on Kanji</b> orig: 97/08/27
rev1: 97/08/30 Minor corrections

Japanese did not have letters, that is, characters, to write their language. They borrowed Chinese characters (Kanji) to express Japanese language. It was toward the end of the 9th century when Japanese created its unique Kana systems.

Therefore, those history books that I mentioned before, which are compiled during the 8th century used only Kanji to express Japanese sentences.

Because of this, problems are multifold. I'd just pick up a few of them. Exact pronunciation of a Kanji as a Chinese people pronounced may not be (often, was not) in Japanese phonetic system. Conversely, a Kanji that exactly represents Japanese pronunciation was not necessarily found. To make the problem worse, Chinese pronunciation itself is not uniform, that is, it is different by time and by geography (dialect). Japanese pronunciation would have been different as practiced in different location at different eras.

Nevertheless, lacking for better solution, Japanese used Kanji in two ways.

  1. One way is to use a Kanji that has the nearest possible pronunciation in order to represent a Japanese syllable, regardless of the meaning of the Kanji.
  2. The other is to use the Kanji and read it in Japanese, totally disregarding the Chinese pronunciation for the Kanji.
To show an example, a Kanji, , means the sky or the heaven, and its pronunciation is something near to "tian". ("Something near", because phonetical value would have been different from place to place, from time to time.)

Japanese borrowed this Kanji and applied it in two ways.

Any analogy for English language? How about this, when you come to "This work was created ca. 1200 AD", don't you read "ca." or "circa" as "about"? Do you pronounce "i.e." as "id est"? No. You'd "pronounce" this as "that is." You borrow a Latin character-set or word, yet pronounce in English.

This is parallel with Japanese reading as "ama" or "ame", disregarding 'authentic' sound of "tian", yet meaning the same (or similar) thing.

Another example from a two letter expression, . In today's Japanese, this reads either Kyoto or Miyako. The former is based on Chinese sound. The latter is a Japanese word for a "capital city" which the Chinese characters also mean.

In order to know which pronunciation to use, one has to know which he or she means. If the speaker is talking about Kyoto city in Kyoto prefecture, the old capital, then pronunciation must be Kyoto. If Miyako county in Fuuoka prefecture is the subject, it should be pronounced Miyako.

    Was not Miyako once the capital of Japan? Good question. Many believe that. Not solid foundation as yet, to my understanding.
The reason I tried to explain as above is this. Available written records are in Kanji. In many cases, reading has been established, whether to read Chinese way (take the sound) or Japanese way (take the meaning). In other cases, especially where it appears Kanji 'sounds' are used to express some Japanese(-like?) word, reconstructed series of sounds still does not make sense within Japanese vocabulary.

I'm suggeting that some of such words may have a solution if Ainu language was deployed.

Please visit Page 4 that will discuss a "connotation" of "Ainu language.".

I intend to continue this kind of writing, as audiences hopefully grow. Your kind comments from the mail-form will highly encourage the writer. Thank you.

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