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Asia Japanese Writing

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Japanese used to speak in Japanese with their written language being Chinese, learned from Chinese people who lived in Japan during the early Christian era. By the 8th and 9th centuries, Chinese characters began to be used to represent the Japanese language. Chinese loanwords and characters began to be "Japanified" for more convenient use (Encyclopædia Britannica 1997). As a result of this Chinese influence and domestic adaptation, Japanese writing developed into the threefold system it is today.

One system is the Kanji, which are borrowed Chinese ideographs, word pictures, which is what Chinese uses to write. Each kanji is a character that represents a meaning. For example, the concepts sun, moon, fire, and water are each expressed in writing with a single kanji. Since each unrelated idea requires a separate character, thousands of ideographs are necessary for a sufficient writing system. That means that each character must be identifiably different from all the rest, so each individual character can be complex as well. Today there are about two thousand kanji in regular use in Japan. Each kanji has at least two pronunciations: one, an imitation of the equivalent Chinese word (the On reading), and the other, a native Japanese word (the Kun reading).

For more convenience two systems called Kana developed during the 9th Century, as two different methods to simplify writing. Hiragana arose as a cursive abbreviation for the kanji, and was the writing system of women, who were excluded from the study of Chinese characters. Men's writing systems were Kanji and Katakana until the 10th century when Hiragana was used by all. The word hiragana means "ordinary syllabic script". Chinese through Buddhism had become a traditional Japanese priestly language and through this Japanese writing was further developed by priests creating the Katakana writing system. Buddhism is the imported faith that most Japanese who are religious are members of in addition to the native faith of Shintoism. As the priests read Chinese works, they translated them in their temples into Japanese and inserted these kana beside the kanji as a mnemonic device to help them with Japanese inflections that were not in the Chinese (Encyclopædia Britannica 1997).

The kana are syllabic. Like capital and lowercase sets of letters in the Roman alphabets, the two kana systems cover the same phonetic territory but have different orthographic functions.

Katakana, the first syllabary, is more angular and is used mostly for transcribing words of foreign origin, such as terebi (television). Hiragana is more cursive, and can be used for grammatical inflections or for writing native Japanese words where kanji are not used. Modern Japanese texts may also include rōmaji, (Roman letters), the standard way of writing Japanese with the Latin alphabet. This was the only way for typing Japanese before using traditional script became possible.

The direction of writing of Japanese is right to left in vertical columns or left to right in horizontal lines. Horizontal writing was first used during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) in Western language dictionaries of Japanese. Today both orientations are used.

Mostly from http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/ling450ch/reports/japanese.htm, http://www.omniglot.com/writing/japanese_Katakana.htm and http://www.omniglot.com/writing/japanese.htm

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