Guest writer: Melstfox#0001
If you are interested in anime, manga, or any other aspects of Japanese culture, then you likely have an interest in learning the language as well. Although it’s spoken almost exclusively in Japan, the number of speakers is believed to be about 130 million or more. That makes Japanese one of the top 10 most spoken languages in the world! Furthermore, if you include the number of language users on the Internet, it becomes the 8th most used language in the world after English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Malay, and French, so you can safely say that Japanese has a major influence in the world.
Japanese consists of Hiragana and Katakana natively, and Kanji from China. In addition, the alphabet that is used for English is called Ro-maji. For now, I would like to focus on Hiragana and Katakana, which are unique to Japan.
But first, there was only Kanji
Hiragana (ひらがな) is the most basic character in Japanese and the first character taught in the Japanese education system. And of course, for complete beginners who want to learn Japanese, this is the first character to learn.
Katakana (カタカナ) is also an important character that makes up the Japanese writing system, along with Hiragana, but it is often used as an auxiliary role. For example, it is most often used for foreign names and names of people in foreign countries excluding countries with areas that use Kanji (such as China).
Since there were only Kanji characters in old Japan, all Japanese was originally written in Chinese. People who are familiar with Japanese may have seen Kanbun, but it’s very difficult to read. Then, one sound came to be expressed by borrowing a Kanji reading. This is called Manyo Kana. However, this also has problems. There were a lot of strokes and it was difficult to write. So the idea of omitting the letter was born and Hiragana and Katakana came to be.
With the birth of Hiragana and Katakana, Japanese has come to be composed of three types of characters: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. These characters make for an excellent language system and rich variety of expressions in Japanese.
The history of Hiragana
In the Nara period (ad 710-784), thanks to Manyo Kana, Hiragana began as a cursive form of Kanji, and in the early Heian period (ad 794-1185), Hiragana as it is read and written today was born. At first, it was considered to be broken Kanji–informal or temporary characters–and it was thought that they were not for open use. In particular, women are said to have used hiragana a lot, such as at the beginning of “Tosa Diary.” In other words, it was thought that at that time, there was a considerable trend that Hiragana was used by women and Katakana was used by men.
Nowadays, people daringly use Hiragana for a “soft and friendly image”. The characteristics of Hiragana include “rounding and flowing”, compared to many Katakana (へ / ヘ, り / リ are close in shape) and Kanji. There are also usage examples such as city and town names written entirely in Hiragana (such as さいたま, Saitama). By using Hiragana, it is possible to give words an appearance that is soft and friendly. Therefore, words spelled with Hiragana as opposed to Katakana or Kanji may have the same meaning but a completely different appearance. In today’s Kawaii culture, Hiragana plays an extremely large role.
The history of Katakana
Katakana, on the other hand, was born in the early Heian period. It was created from a part of Kanji, while Hiragana was created from Manyo Kana. In the Heian period, Kanbun was a necessary culture for nobles and in order to decipher difficult Chinese sentences, it was necessary to shift our writing system. However, the line gap was too narrow to write in Manyo Kana. For this reason, they needed Katakana, a way of writing that is more compact than Hiragana. Katakana was used between monks who read Chinese sentences and nobles who learned them.
Katakana is generally used for foreign words, but nowadays it is often used for emphasis or as a substitute for Kanji. Since it is very difficult to read Hiragana continuously in sentences, making some words partially Katakana also has the effect of making them easier to read. In addition, many Japanese words in otaku culture such as anime, loli, and nekomimi are written in katakana and translated into English. Katakana notations are sometimes used because there is no Kanji for new expressions and modern words. Kanji is often written as it is, but it is also used for emphasizing titles of books or other such works when it is written in Katakana in order to emphasize them or to be fashionable.
Before Hiragana and Katakana were created, only difficult Kanji were used, and only people who did official writing and learning wrote letters. But when Hiragana and Katakana were created, more people began to learn to read and write. As a result, women who were not required to study until now became literate, and many literary works such as “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book” were made.
At present, Japan is a world-class cultural powerhouse, and it is needless to say that it is Hiragana and Katakana that made it possible for Japanese people to so richly express themselves to this day.