Short history of the hiragana and the katakana alphabet, birth of the Japanese culture

There were missions organized from Japan to China since the 7th century, but after the Tang dynasty's power started to weaken due to several civil wars, these trips were carried out less frequently. Moreover, these missions were quite dangerous because of shipwrecks and the Japanese leaders thought it is better to cancel these. The last scholar who was supposed to be sent to China was called Sugawara no Michizane, ( 菅原道真, すがわらのみちざね) , but his trip in 894 has never been made.

Sugaware Michizane was supposed to be sent to Tang China, but his trip has never been made

After the missions were cancelled, the Japanese culture has experienced a serious changed. As the Chinese influence got weaker and weaker, traditional Japanese elements arose. In addition, it must be noted, that the Chinese characters were not suitable to write Japanese words. As such, in the beginning of the Heian period (平安時代), Japanese scholars have developed a new writing system called “kana” (仮名文字), and the characters were called hiraganas and katakanas. It is unclear who created the characters, but probably many people worked on the process for a reasonable amount of time. The letters that we call “kana”-s were developed by simplifying certain Chinese characters.

The hiragana and generally speaking the kana writing system was created around the 9th and 10th century

In the Nara-period (奈良時代), a given Japanese syllable was written using a single Chinese character. For example, ‘ha(は)’ was written using(波). Later on, the Chinese character has been transformed into a hiragana. On the other hand, the katakana alphabet was created using a certain radical of a Chinese character, for instance カ was formed from the left radical of 加.

As a result of this process the literacy rate in Japan has increased significantly. In addition, Japanese women also became able to read and write, which was indeed a change, since education for women has never been treated equally important. It is interesting however that stubborn educated officials still used complicated Chinese characters during work.

Meanwhile, poets, such as for example Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之), started to use kana to write their works. Probably he’s most famous one is called "The Tosa Diary" (土佐日記). Since the kana system was increasingly popular, Japanese literature was enriched by works, such as the “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (竹取物語) or the “Yamato Monogatari” (大和物語), that are similar to modern novels. This was some kind of simplification in the Japanese writing system, so as opposed to the previous ages, stories not only from the “high-class” could appear in the literature, but the ordinary people could also take part. And again women became able to contribute to poetry and arts. One of the worldwide famous Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部) should be noted here, who wrote “The Tale of Genji” (源氏物語) at the beginning of the 11st century. This traditional love story depicts an idealistic image of man, who later became “the Japanese prince on white horse”.

Ki no Tsurayuki was one of the most significant poet of the Heinan period

At the beginning of the Heian-period Chinese poetry was very popular and following emperor Tenno’s (天皇) order, there has been several Chinese poetry collections published. In the same time, the emperor has ordered Ki no Tsurayiki and his group to create a collection of Japanese poetry (和歌). They have used the new “kana” system, as opposed to the previous Manyoushuu-s (万葉集) collections, which made it easy to understand and accessible for wide audition. Japanese arts, especially painting styles have changed a lot along with literature and new folding screen canvas paintings (屏風絵、絵巻物) became popular in this period.

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