Introduction to Part 3.

Japan and Japanese

The complex Japanese language and its writing system are inventions of the devil, designed to prevent the spread of Gospel.

Attributed to Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Spanish Jesuit missionary in Japan

There can be no doubt, ... that the Japanese worker, the product of the Japanese educational system, is an extraordinarily hard-working person, strongly oriented to quality work, ... and superbly educated with the [literacy and numeracy] skilles he needs for his job.

Former U.S.ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer, in Duke (1986: xvii)

Japan is a chain of four main islands and numerous smaller islands in the Pacific Ocean, off the eastern edge of East Asia (map fig. 1-1). The largest island is Honshu, which contains the capital Tokyo as well as other large cities such as Osaka and Kyoto. The land area of Japan, 377,835 sq km, is slightly smaller than California, one of the states of the United States. Because of its mountains and forests, only a little over one tenth of its already small land is arable, yet its population, about 125 million, is almost half of the US population, 261.6 million.

On its west Japan faces the giant land mass of China as well as a bridge to that land mass, the Korean peninsula. For many centuries Japan borrowed, initially by way of Korea, the Chinese writing system, thousands of Chinese words, Buddhism, Confucianism, and many other elements of Chinese culture. In modern times, as the influence of China has declined while that of the West has risen, Japan has been borrowing science and technology from the West, but it still keeps many Chinese cultural elements, including the use of Chinese characters and words.

Japan is populated basically by one ethnic group, Japanese, who speak a single language, the Japanese language. The largest ethnic minority are 700,000 Koreans, most of whom were born in Japan and speak Japanese as a mother tongue, occasionally along with Korean. Other notable ethnic minorities are Chinese and a tiny group of aborigines, Ainu speakers. The Ainu are confined to the northern island of Hokkaido, and are now close to extinction as a separate group through intermarriage with the Japanese over the centuries. Ainu is described as a language-isolate, as its origin and relation to other languages are not clearly known. Outside Japan, about 250,000 ethnic Japanese live in such S. American nations as Brazil and such N. American nations as the United States, especially Hawaii. Some live outside Japan temporarily for business. Wherever they may live, ethnic Japanese tend to maintain Japanese schools and culture.

Our discussion of writing begins with the Yamato court, which consolidated its sovereign rule between AD c. 350 and 710. The period is called also Kofun ('old tomb'), because objects were buried with the dead in tomb mounds. After the Yamato court, Japanese history is divided into numerous eras or periods, each associated with a different capital city (e.g., Nara; Heian, which is now Kyoto), a part of Kyoto (Muromachi), a shogun (Tokugawa), or an emperor (e.g., Meiji, Showa, or Heisei).

During the Meiji era Japan modernized itself by absorbing many Western ideas and institutions. During the Showa era, Japan was defeated in World War II, and was governed for 7 years, between 1945 and 1952, by the Occupation of the Allied Forces headed by General Douglas MacArthur. During these years major reforms were made in education and writing systems. Among the peoples of East Asia, the Japanese were the first in modern times to absorb Western culture and technology, and the first to become a military power and then an economic superpower.

Table Part III-1 lists some significant events in Japanese history related to writing. These events will be elaborated in the rest of Part III.

Table Part III-1. Scripts and Literacy in Some Japanese Eras

Era Years AD Scripts and Literacy
Yamato c. 350­710 Chinese characters and Buddhism introduced
Nara 710­794 First surviving history and poetry books in Kanji
Heian 794­1185 Two forms of Kana develop out of Kanji; stories in Kana
Muromachi 1333­1568 Romanization of Japanese by Jesuit missionary
Edo/Tokugawa 1600­1868 Some European words; a variety of schools teach reading
Meiji 1868­1912 Many European words; new words coined on Chinese model; 4­6 year compulsory education; limit number of Kanji; Kana­Kanji mix common; Hepburn romanization
Showa 1926­1989 Lists of official Kanji;9-year compulsory education; 12 -year schooling common; manga ('comics') and juku ('cram schools') become popular
Heisei 1989­ Additional Kanji for education and names; no school on one Sataurday

Introduction to Part 1: Chinese | Introduction to Part 2: Korean

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