Use of Chinese Characters
The earliest writing system employed by Japanese was kanji (Chinese characters). There's some controversy about the origin of Chinese characters. Some believe they were invented by Tsang-Hsich in 2,500 B.C. There's evidence of about 3,000 characters found in central China that can be linked to artifacts dating to nearly 2000 B.C. A dictionary from between 221–206 B.C. has 3,300 entries. By about the 6th century, when Chinese and Koreans began immigrating to Japan, 16,917 characters had been recorded. Modern dictionaries encompassing characters from all over China, including some no longer in use, list more than 56,000 characters.
A Language of Its Own
Somewhere between A.D. 250 and A.D. 350, Chinese characters were adopted to create a written language for spoken Japanese. Consequently, many Chinese words also became integrated into Japanese. Some characters ended up with two or more pronunciations: the original Chinese pronunciation and the Japanese one. In Japanese, different ways of reading a given kanji are referred to as onyomi (the Chinese reading) and kunyomi (the Japanese reading). This is why the character for water can be read sui (Chinese reading) or mizu (Japanese reading), depending upon the context in which it is used.
Not all kanji currently used in Japan came from China. Over the past 1,500 years, the Japanese have created more than 400 characters specifically for Japanese words. Some of these include the ones for “work,” “kite,” “woodworker,” and “hemlock.”
Each kanji character represents something and can stand on its own or be combined with others to create new words. Many of the simpler ones like “fire” and “car” actually resemble the objects they represent, making it easy to see how kanji were developed from pictographs. Even the more complicated characters are usually made up of combinations of simpler ones.
Travelers from Japan to China and Korea can also utilize their knowledge of kanji to navigate unknown territory. A Japanese woman traveling with her family in China found her experience with kanji to be both helpful and a hindrance at times. At a guesthouse, she was able to clear up some confusion by having a written conversation in kanji. But, at a restaurant, what she read as the kanji for “vegetables” ended up being the character for “a lot.”
In 1946, the Japanese Ministry of Education decided to make some order out of all these characters and did a study of the most commonly used kanji.
Their research resulted in a list of 1,850 basic characters that were necessary to read most Japanese literature and publications. From 1981 on, that number was changed to 1,945 characters. Of these 1,945 joyo kanji, as they are called, 881 must be memorized by children before graduating from elementary school. Later, in 1992, that number was upped to 1,006. Currently, all Japanese high school graduates are required to read and write the 1,945 joyo kanji, as well as recognize an additional 1,500 plus characters.