Herald Tribune asahi
Japanese People Do Not Know Japan
I am pleased to say that previously I have written eleven columns and this is the 12th article in the series of articles (The columns are available at I believe that the uniqueness of the Japanese language has affected the mindset and spirit of the Japanese people. In this column I would like to take as my theme the "Japanese language and Japanese people" in the 4th series which begins with this article.
Japanese language and Japanese people
The most surprising things for foreigners who visited Japan when Japan opened to foreign countries in the Meiji-era were the courtesy and diligence of Japanese people, not the unique culture of Japan or unique appearances, such as the "chonmage" hair style. The people were diligent and polite to anyone, regardless of rank or language barriers. Japan was highly praised in the international society before World War II due to this mindset and spirit of the people, as well as for the high language ability of some individual Japanese.
I have insisted for a long time that Japanese people should first of all have a good knowledge of Japan in order to truly internationalize the country. I wrote about the best seller "Kokka-no-Hinkaku" (The Dignity of the State) by Masahiko Fujiwara in the column in December (available at Without referring again to examples from that book, I believe that Japanese readers of this column are well aware that even if a person is good at a foreign language or languages, unless they know about their own country, they will never "pass" as an international person. Recently, more and more Japanese people have studied and worked abroad. The number of bilingual people has been increasing. Given these circumstances, I would like to think afresh about our mother tongue.
Distinctive geographic features
Broadly speaking, most people living in Japan are the same race and use one language. This is a very rare case in the world. The climate is mild and there are four distinctive seasons. Blessed with clear water and abundant food, people have lived their lives based on a fundamental reverence for and appreciation of nature. Located in the Far East, Japan is an island nation geographically at the terminal point of culture and civilization in the world. Isolated from neighboring countries by the ocean, it was never occupied by foreign nations and its culture and language were never fundamentally transformed until after WWII. Under such fortunate circumstances, Japan has cultivated its own unique language and culture, while slowly taking in foreign culture and civilization.
Japanese people over the course of 2,000 years have fostered the characteristic spirit by which they assimilate foreign cultures and religions to Japanese indigenous culture, without denying any value to them or attempting to destroy them. Such a receptive and harmonious spirit is a key characteristic of the Japanese people and underlies the country's historical development. This spirit has also played a major role in the development of the Japanese language.
Adoption of kanji, or Chinese characters
The Yamato-kotoba, or ancient language peculiar to Japan, has been used since before the dawn of history and its source even today remains obscure. There were no written characters in ancient Japan. While keeping independent, Japan was continually influenced by its large and strong neighbor China. Japan learned the ways of nation-building and laws from China in the 1st century when several small "countries" were established in some areas. Japanese knew of kanji through importation of things Chinese. People officially started using kanji and wrote in kanji from the 5th century.
I believe adoption of kanji had a large impact on the Japanese people. Before long, people started to apply the pronunciations and meanings of Yamato-kotoba to each individual Chinese character, and began using mixed expressions in Japanese waka poems. That's why there are two ways of reading one character: on-yomi is the pseudo-Chinese reading and kun-yomi is the reading of a Chinese character in Japanese. Originally, people used the two readings to translate Chinese-written texts, called kanbun. However, later they started using both ways freely and gradually adopted kanji into the Japanese language as one element of the language.
Japan's own peculiar phonograms
Adopting kanji, Japanese people thus obtained written "characters." In addition, kanji's assimilation to the Japanese language brought about two big developments concerning the sensitivity and awareness of Japanese people. The first is that they became able to make a very quick judgment of meaning merely by glancing at a Chinese character or character complex, and together with this ability, a highly developed emotional imagination. I would like to write about this development further in the next column. The second development was the invention of a 50-character Japanese syllabary to express only sounds. People simplified kanji and devised the Japanese syllabary in the 9th century. The system is peculiar to Japan and comprised of phonograms called kana, in contrast to mana, which was used to mean kanji. There are two types of kana - cursive hiragana and square katakana - and usage of both is different. Mixed usage of kana and kanji increased the manner and range of linguistic expression and description of Japanese things and feelings, and at the same time, I believe, added range and depth to Japanese people's sensibilities and emotions. People became able to read and write without memorizing countless kanji, and this drastically increased the literacy rate of the Japanese people as a whole, including women serving at the Court. This is the most outstanding achievement of the kana invention.
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