Questions about the development of kana

@Leebo asked me to make this into a thread.

There are some things I really want to know about the history of kana. I tried googling them but I just can’t seem to find answers that make sense. I probably could if my Japanese was better but right now it’s just too poor.

What I was wondering:

When did the Japanese give up on writing solely with Chinese words and start using the kanji phonetically? I honestly can’t ever find a good answer for this no matter how hard I try. 漢文 was a thing but also wasn’t? I used to assume anything before the meiji period was written with kanji solely for their meanings, which seems to be wrong given how the Nihon Shoki has phonetic passages. Or was it the Kojiki? I don’t remember.

Also, AFAIK, the hiragana we have is just some of the hiragana. The rest is now called hentaigana, and that selection happened after WW2. But that doesn’t make sense - Maachan’s Diary, a manga from 1946, already has the kana we know today. Did they change it that fast?
Also, I wanted to know when the hiragana we have now become so round and uniform. On that same manga it already looked like today, so this can’t be post-war, right? I can see how the hiragana evolved from the cursive kanji, but not how it got so round and uniform, that seems like an arbitrary decision.


Maybe it doesn’t resolve everything, but weren’t hentaigana eliminated in 1900? Where are you seeing they were eliminated after the war?

Hiragana are like over 1000 years old… so again… not sure where post-war figures in.


I’m looking back at some sources I read and I have no idea. I’m pretty sure I just made that up at some point and forgot I made it up

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How good is your Japanese? This article goes into it quite nicely : 朝日新聞デジタル:(ニュースのおさらい)ひらがな、いつごろできたの? - 教育

If you can’t make heads or tails from it I can try and make a rudementary translation later in the day, have some other stuff on first, but the TLDR is, we don’t know when exactly, the oldest we’ve found are estimated to date around 867, we know for sure they had been completed by the second half of the tenth century, but when exactly is a riddle due to the few surviving copies of that era.

Edit : Read over your japanese level the first time, sorry! I’ll try and get a translation here some time later today :wink:


Approximately when kanji was introduced to the already-existing Japanese spoken language. Fourth or fifth century AD possibly, but certainly by the mid-seventh.


The post WWII kana overhaul was essentially an official codification of kana practices that were already in common usage, plus the introduction of more standard spelling to represent how words were actually being pronounced. The hentaigana had already been dumped in 1900, though (along with the addition of ん to the canon set, which was previously a hentaigana for む).

… When they invented fonts. Around the same time as the printing press.


Threw the whole thing in DeepL and I think it did a good job.

This is an awesome story! But I have to admit, it kinda sounds like folklore. “Given how there are many ways to write some hiragana, it is believed many people were there and each chose a way” almost sounds like “given how some beetles are brown and some are black, it is believed amaterasu was colorblind”

I also managed to coerce a discord friend into talking about this. He sent the following:

so yeah, checks out

Still - I now have elucidated one question, yet the other remains. I tried asking masa yama about it, but he had forsaken his teaching career so he could eat at mcdonalds. Here’s the message so you know what information I’m after:

matskye, your help is invaluable!

This makes sense and checks out! But from what I gather, it didn’t mean an instant departure from 漢文 right? Or did it? I wanted to know when that died out

1900, probably, along with the rest of the hentaigana.

It feels a little bit like you’re ascribing too much intent to the development of kana from kanji. Kanji with lots of strokes are hard to write fast, so someone writing them fast tends to scrawl them a bit. I mean, them fancy types call it “cursive”, but really it’s just a way of writing more lazily. The idea of exclusively using lazy-writing as an actual character set was actively resisted by the high-class types of the day - it would up being almost exclusively the domain of the women, who were less-well educated than the men, and probably didn’t get the same penmanship training (uh… penpersonship?).

This table that Leebo posted in the other thread:

That’s demonstrating only how the modern-day kana were derived from the original kanji, and not all the different ways that the various syllabic kanji were lazy-written into a plethora of different hentaigana. It wasn’t a straight progression of A to B to C, but rather a ridiculous proliferation, everyone writing things in their own handwriting. It basically wasn’t until 1900 that the government went “Alright, enough of that. We’re trying to be a modern nation here, and this writing system is just embarassing. You’re all writing it like this from now on.”

(That said, you can still find examples of people writing things in phonetic kanji for stylistic reasons. In fact, there was a bit of a fad among kids - especially delinquent kids - in the eighties to write common kana phrases in fancy and/or archaic kanji. For example, 夜露死苦 = よろしく.)


uh… I understand what you’re talking about and now comprehend it better but I asked another thing. I thought 漢文 was classical chinese. as in, the other language japanese people wrote it. was I wrong? I wanted to know when that was phased out

I have a book recommendation on this topic: A History of Writing in Japan by Christopher Seeley. I got my copy second hand so I’m not sure how available/pricey it is - it might be better to get a second hand or library copy. Anyway, as the title suggests it covers the evolution of the writing system in detail starting from the first handful of written inscriptions on bronze swords and mirrors.

I would check what it has to say on kanbun but I’m not currently in a position to get at my copy - I’ll try to remember to look it up next week.


Oooh, adding to my wishlist ^^I have had this one : A History of the Japanese Language by Bjarke Frellesvig which deals with something similar on my wishlist for a while too, but never pulled the trigger to purchase it…


I suspect the answer will turn out to be not so much that it was “phased out” as that its area of use became steadily more restricted. As you say it’s essentially a system for “reading” Chinese texts into weird Japanese, so if you still have a pile of those texts you’re going to keep using it (e.g. buddhist religious texts), and if not, you’re more likely to shift to something else as the cultural status of texts written in more normal Japanese rises. Right back as far as AD 700 some kinds of text are being written in non-kanbun formats; and Wikipedia cites a reference claiming some kanbun usage up to WW2. So I doubt there will be any clear ‘phasing out’ point.


Yeah, I have and like Frellesvig too. That one deals with the language in general and in particular the evolution of it linguistically, so while I think he may mention the writing system occasionally it’s more brief asides IIRC.


Seconding the Seeley recommendation. And I’m also gonna throw in Gottlieb (neé Twine). She focuses mostly on Meiji-period language policy / reform, genbun itchi and the likes. I think she also talks about kanbun in this work, and how standardized written Japanese came to be.


Ooh, stuck that on my to-buy list.


These books all seem awesome but they’re really expensive. Which one do I get?

Seeley is a really good overview imo, but it was published a while ago, so Frellesvig might be the more up-to-date option. If you find Seeley for cheap however, I’d definitely recommend picking it up. Gottlieb is much more specialized and probably best if you have read a few general works first.
Or, if you have access to a library, check out their available books. Wikipedia articles are another free option, or maybe you can find some scientific articles on jstor to read (I think you also need to be affiliated with a university for that, though?)


I don’t think I can provide more historical detail than everyone else already is, so I’ll just comment on this instead:

OK, I tried really, really hard to find the document I read, but no matter what I do, I can’t remember what it was. In any case… it’s mostly Classical Chinese, but not necessarily 100%. Terms specific to Japan that don’t exist elsewhere can make it in as well. I’m pretty sure I read a document containing the word 大名 in the midst of otherwise relatively normal Classical Chinese. Otherwise though, yes, it’s mostly just Classical Chinese. I think it was probably the same in Korea: the promulgation of hangul as a writing system was written in Classical Chinese as well.

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To state the obvious, to the extent that they’re really expensive in your region or for your budget, don’t buy them. When I recommend books it’s always implicitly on the basis “I found this interesting and you might too if your hobby budget allows”. Academic-ish books are often quite pricey, so second hand or library might be better. (As I say, my copy of Seeley is second hand.) Sometimes stuff goes out of print and what used to be reasonably priced becomes a silly price.

If you have budget for only one, it depends what you’re interested in. Seeley, as the title suggests, is all about the development of the writing system in particular. Frellesvig doesn’t much care about that and takes a standard linguistics spoken-language-first view of the language, looking at sound changes, grammar developments, etc, over time. They’re covering different topics really. You can probably find the table of contents, and maybe a sample, on a publisher website, google books, or amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature, which should give you an idea of what they cover.


Unfortunately there are no libraries here. And if there were, no books would be in English.

I’ll try used on ebay when I have a little more okane. They all seem equally interesting for different reasons, I kinda wanna read them all. If ebay doesn’t work out, I’ll try alternative methods of obtaining them. Usually they don’t fail for English books.