Each day, as I scan the items in Moreover’s Japan News feed, the outlook for Japan seems to be getting worse and worse: aging population, impotent government, shrinking export markets, failing banks, astronomical debt. And one of today’s headlines—First miracle, then collapse - now an endless struggle. Where did it all go wrong for Japan?—reminded me of a conversation I had with a former girlfriend about the secret of Japan’s success.
According to Ayako, Japan’s rapid modernization and subsequent economic success was due not to the loyalty and endurance of the Japanese worker, nor to the symbiotic relationship between business and government, nor even to the legendary Japanese ability to copy and refine ideas and technologies from elsewhere. The foundation for Japan’s success, she said, lay largely in the power and flexibility of its writing system.
Whereas the French fanatically attempt to preserve the purity of their language—to the extent of having a government committee police the introduction of foreign words (like le coke)—the Japanese took the opposite approach, first by basing their written language on Chinese pictographic characters, then by borrowing and adapting words as needed, mainly from English but also from Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese.
“We are an island people,” Ayako said, her voice trembling with uncharacteristic vehemence, “we have no resources apart from our own diligence.” I heard in these words her father’s or a high school teacher’s admonition.
She meant that Japan, with no oil or mineral wealth and barely enough arable land to feed its population, could survive only by importing raw materials and exporting finished products. Doing this successfully depended solely on the skill and imagination of its people. Unlike the French, the Japanese regarded language as a raw material like any other, to be imported and fashioned into something useful.
The Japanese had no native writing system until, during the Asuka period (593-710), they began to borrow Chinese ideographic characters (called kanji). Each kanji represents a concrete word or concept but does not indicate how that word is pronounced, as an alphabetical writing system (such as English) does.
Moreover, kanji are ill-suited for representing grammatical markers and inflectional endings. To circumvent these problems, by the middle of the ninth century the Japanese had developed two phonetic syllabaries: the curved hiragana and the angular katakana.
Thus, the word for the Japanese language—nihongo—can be written using either kanji, hiragana, or katakana.
Alternatively, it can be written in romaji (Roman letters), used for teaching elementary or conversational Japanese to foreigners and to enter Japanese text on a computer with a standard English keyboard.
A typical Japanese sentence contains characters from each set — as in this sentence, one of the best-known in modern Japanese, which opens Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country):
Kokkyou no nagai tonneru wo nukeru to yukiguni de atta.
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. (in Edward Seidensticker’s translation).
The kanji appear in yellow (the nouns “borderline” and “snow country,” the stems of the adjective “long” and of the verb “came out”); the katakana word tonneru (tunnel) is magenta; and the hiragana are white (the particles, adjectival and verb inflections, and the final verb).
Interestingly, in the original, there is no “train.” The Japanese literally reads: “When [something/someone] emerges from the long tunnel at the borderline, the snow country exists.” The nominal subject of the sentence might be “the snow country” but the implied subject (60% of Japanese sentences lack a subject) is the person (the protagonist or the reader) sitting in the train.
Seidensticker is one of the greatest translators of Japanese into English, yet his rendering provides none of the sense of the original, in which one experiences the feeling of being confined in a dark tunnel and then being suddenly thrown into the white brilliance of northern Japan in winter. Nor is there any sense of leaving heavily populated Central Honshu and entering the Deep North that Basho immortalized—all of which is implied in the single word “borderline.” Such are the difficulties of translating one language into another. Still, just learning Japanese is problem enough.
Of more than 40,000 possible kanji characters, just under 2,000 comprise over 98% of those in current usage, the “Common Use Kanji” that Japanese school children are expected to know by the end of high school.
The basic katakana set consists of 48 syllables used for writing loan-words (words borrowed from other languages such as makudonarudo, McDonalds), for onomatopoeic (shikushiku, sniffling) or mimetic (nyaa, miaow) words, for the names of flora and fauna, and for emphasis (like bold or italic in English).
The hiragana (meaning “commonly used,” “easy,” or “rounded”) duplicate the katakana in rounded, more easily written characters and are used to write indigenous Japanese words and grammatical markers and inflectional endings.
Ayako’s point was this: not long after they were forced by Commodore Perry to abandon the policy of national seclusion that had lasted from 1639 to 1854, the Japanese sent scholars and experts all around the world to study Western systems of law, medicine, engineering, education, and military science. The ease with which the ideas and techniques they brought back were readily described to their fellow countrymen was due in no small part to the versatility that, over centuries, had been designed into the Japanese writing system.
As fascinating as Ayako’s hypothesis was, it couldn’t match something else I learned about Japanese writing—later on, when I started to read Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. These early classics of Japanese literature—and many others—were written not in Chinese—as was the custom for official or serious writing — but with an early variant of hiragana called onnade (women’s hand). But that’s another story.