An Eighteenth-Century Japanese Language Reformer

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In his "Reflections on the Meaning of Our Country:  Kamo no Mabuchi's Kokuikô," Monumenta Nipponica, 63.2 (2008), 211-263, Peter Flueckiger presents "a utopian vision of ancient Japan as a society governed in accordance with nature, which was then corrupted by the introduction of foreign philosophies, especially Confucianism."

Mabuchi (1697-1769) looks at a wide range of social, political, and cultural manifestations, but the aspect of his work that intrigues me most is his sharply critical stance with regard to Chinese characters.

[An interlocutor said,] "This country [Japan], though, has no writing of its own. Instead, we use Chinese characters and through these are able to know about everything." My response was that first of all, it goes without saying that China is a troublesome and poorly governed country. To give a specific example, there are the characters in the form of pictures. When we look at the characters that someone has put forth as just the ones necessary for ordinary use, they amount to some 38,000. [86] To describe a single flower, for example, one needs to use different characters for blooming, scattering, pistil, plant, stem, and more than ten other things. Moreover, there are characters that are used in the name of a specific country or place, or for a particular type of plant, but are used nowhere else. Could people remember so many characters even if they tried? Sometimes people make mistakes with characters, and sometimes the characters change over time, leading to disputes over their usage; they are burdensome and useless.

In India, though, using fifty characters, [87] they have written and passed down over five thousand volumes of Buddhist texts. [88] Just knowing fifty characters, it is possible to know and transmit a limitless number of words from both past and present. Moreover, it is not only a matter of the characters; the fifty sounds are the voice of Heaven and Earth (ametsuchi no koe), so what they contain within them is natural (onozukara). In the same way, there seem to have been some kind of characters in our Imperial Land as well, [89] but after the introduction of Chinese characters, this original writing sunk wrongly into obscurity, and now only the ancient words remain. Although these words are not the same as the fifty sounds of India, they are based on the same principle in that fifty sounds suffice to express all things. [90] To repeat the example of the flower discussed above, we can just say "blooming," "scattering," "budding," "fading," "pistil," "stem," and the like; without needing to resort to characters, one can easily express both the good and the bad, and there is nothing troublesome. In Holland they have twenty-five characters, in this country there are fifty, and, in general, characters are like this in all countries. Only China concocted a cumbersome system, so things are disorderly there and everything is troublesome.

—————

[86] A manuscript version of the text names the person as Dansheng, the zi of the Ming scholar Mei Yingzuo, who compiled a dictionary called Zihui containing 33,079 characters. An edition of this work was printed in Japan in 1672. Mabuchi is obviously exaggerating the number of characters necessary for everyday use in Chinese.

[87] There are a number of scripts that have been used for Sanskrit. The most commonly known in Japan was the Siddham script, brought to Japan in 806 by Kukai (774-835), which contains 16 vowels and 35 consonants.

[88] The Kaiyuan shijiao mulu (Kaiyuan Buddhist Index), completed in China in 730, lists 5,048 volumes. Kaiyuan (713-741) is the name of the era in which the index was completed.

[89] A reference to theories that posited the existence of jindai moji (also read as "kamiyo moji"), or "writing from the Age of the Gods." Hirata Atsutane was a later major proponent of this idea.

[90] Fifty is an approximate figure derived from the five vowels in Japanese (a, i, u, e, o) plus their combination with the nine consonants k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w (voiced consonants are not counted separately here, nor is the isolated "m" sound included). The actual number of sounds produced from these combinations is less than fifty, due to overlaps in pronunciation. In Goiko (1769), Mabuchi recognizes forty-eight distinct sounds, with the only overlaps being i/yi and u/wu.

—————

[Thanks to Ross Bender for calling Flueckiger's article to my attention.]

[This post was originally prepared on May 29, 2009, but it got lost in my drafts box until now.]



26 Comments

  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 6:58 am

    From a colleague:

    Let me guess—-Mabuchi was an advocate of kokugaku, right? Did he propose an alternate writing system to hanzi/kanji?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:17 am

    For Mabuchi's "rejection of the entire Chinese tradition as part of his literary ideology," see Emanuel Pastreich, "The Reception of Chinese Literature in Japan," in Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, p. 1093.

  3. James Unger said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 8:02 am

    See also my article The Very Idea. The Notion of Ideogram in China and Japan, in Monumenta Nipponica,Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 391-411 for a translation of the whole passage, of which the foregoing is just a part. I wouldn't call Mabuchi a reformer, but, as I explain, there were near-contemporaries who did not share Mabuchi's anti-Chinese senitments but clearly saw the advantages of doing away with kanji.

  4. Jongseong Park said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 8:29 am

    Kamo no Mabuchi is indeed considered one of the principal figures of kokugaku.

    I'm intrigued by the apparent reference to 神代文字 jindai moji, writing supposedly used in Japan before the introduction of Chinese characters. All purported examples of jindai moji are regarded as later fabrications by mainstream scholars, with few proponents of their authenticity outside the occultist/ultra-nationalist fringe. But the idea that writing existed in Japan prior to the introduction of Chinese characters seems to be an old one, regardless of whether it has any merit.

    A similar idea of a lost indigenous writing system exists in Korea with the so-called 가림토 garimto which was supposedly created in Gojoseon in the 22nd century B.C. This set of letters, which looks very much like a variant of hangul (the actual Korean alphabet created in the 15th century), appears in a history book about ancient Korea which is considered a forgery by mainstream scholars. But it shouldn't surprise anyone that just as with jindai moji, garimto has its champions, and it sometimes even crosses over into popular culture.

  5. Emanuel Pastreich said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 9:34 am

    There is an interesting history behind Mabuchi's efforts that is detailed by Maruyama Masao and Nakamura Tanehiko. Mabuchi's ideas about linguistic change and originality are largely built on the arguments advanced in the previous generation by Ogyu Sorai. Sorai suggested that in China there had been a pure Chinese language that had been lost in later years. He attacked contemporary Japanese scholar whom he claimed had only grasped the later, fallen, Chinese tradition. In Mabuchi's case, he just carried that argument one step further.

  6. cameron said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    It's interesting that Mabuchi uses the Sanskrit and Dutch writing systems as points of comparison, but not the Korean hangul system. Did the practice of grouping the letters of hangul into little blocks that look vaguely like Chinese characters keep him from discerning that there are actually only about as many letters as Dutch uses?

    Did any Japanese scholars ever suggest adopting a variant of hangul as a writing system for Japanese?

  7. Ross Bender said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

    Mabuchi was the teacher of Motoori Norinaga, perhaps the greatest of the Tokugawa period Kokugakusha ("National Learning Scholars.") It was Norinaga who deciphered and interpreted the Old Japanese of the Kojiki and Man'yōshū, and also the imperial edicts known as Senmyō.

    Norinaga also ranted against all things Chinese, emphasizing with great venom that if one had a "Chinese heart" (karagokoro) one could never learn anything.

    Back in grad school, a small cadre of Japanese specialists called ourselves "Shinto revivalists," and ranted against the "Confucian dogs" studying Neo-Confucianism. My good friend Peter Nosco has written extensively on the Kokugaku school AND the Neo-Confucianists. His most well-known work is "Remembering paradise: nativism, and nostalgia in eighteenth-century Japan"1990. 271p (Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series, 31.)

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    @cameron, I don't ever recall hearing about any of Korea's neighbours discussing hangul in the pre-modern age, although 17th-century Dutchman Hendrick Hamel described it in his Journal of his 13-year stay in Korea (see the section "Language and Literature").

    I wonder how many Japanese would have been aware of hangul in Mabuchi's time. Both Korea and Japan enforced strict closed-door policies by then, and the exchanges between the two countries were very infrequent and limited. Japanese missions only got as far as the port city of Busan, Korea's only as far as the island of Tsushima. In Korea hangul didn't have a lot of prestige, "used by women and simple men" as Hamel put it, so it wouldn't have been the primary script used by any of the Korean envoys to Japan. And there is no reason that Koreans and Japanese would have used any other script than their shared Chinese characters when communicating with each other.

    By contrast, the Japanese would have known about the Indian scripts due to the transmission of Buddhist texts which happened several centuries earlier, and the Roman alphabet due to trade with the Dutch and Portuguese.

    If anyone knows anything about any evidence of awareness of hangul among Korea's neighbours during the pre-modern period, I would be very interested to know.

  9. Matt Anderson said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    Ross—
    Am I right that karagokoro is written 漢意 but pronounced 唐心? If so, that's a pretty good argument against using kanji right there!

  10. Eidolon said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

    The arguments against jindai moji quoted here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jindai_moji are pretty damning, especially given how weak the pro side looks to be, but it ought to be remembered that while the official/government/bureaucratic writing system for both Japan and Korea was derived from Chinese characters, the level of literacy in said script in both countries was low. That is to say, the vast majority of the population did not know and did not have to know the script. Such an environment opens itself up to the introduction of other scripts for local/private use, including alphabets.

    Of course, I find the primordial age proponents tend to assign to jindai moji and garimto rather ridiculous, as it brings to task why they'd switch to using Chinese characters in the first place had a complete writing system already been in place. In the absence of solid archaeological and contemporary textual evidence, we still have to think that the Chinese writing system was the first both countries had access to. But in the centuries after – and especially in light of known engagement with users of other scripts eg Indians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Arabs, Persians, Europeans, and so on – I find it difficult to believe that no other script left any traces in unofficial channels, and that Japanese/Korean merchants interacting with the aforementioned groups wrote only in kanji/hanja.

    @Jongseong

    I hope you won't mind me quoting from your link:

    "The language is written in three different ways: in the first place there is the script, with which the books are being printed. This script looks like that of the Chinese and the Japanese. The second type looks more like our script. This is used by the governors and other high administrators, when they answer petitions or correspond with each other. The common man can't read this. And finally there is the third type. This is being used by women and simple men. It is very easy to learn and one can write something with it very easily. This is done with a small pencil and they are very handy at it."

    The first language is obviously hanja, while the third looks to be hangul judging by its popularity with women, but what is the second script?

  11. Thomas Rees said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

    Is the second script 草書 (don't know what it is in Korean)?

  12. Matt said,

    April 23, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

    Jongseong — I don't have a link, but at least one of the supposed "jindai moji" orthographies were transparently based on Hangul. It didn't go so far as to borrow the consonant/vowel construction system, though — just 50 precomposed blocks, corresponding to the kana, that were nevertheless recognizable as Hangul-derived (the circle indicating "no initial consonant" is an easy tell). My memory on this is even murkier, but as I recall it the rebuttal to "this is just Korean writing" was "Of course, where do you think Korea got it?"

  13. DMT said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 3:08 am

    Jongseong – as you know, the conversations that took place between Koreans and Japanese during early modern diplomatic embassies were mostly carried out as "brush talks" using written classical Chinese. However, at least one of the records of these conversations shows that the two sides each took an interest in their counterparts' phonetic writing systems. From memory, a table of hangul was included in the published version of one of the brush talks from the embassy of 1763-4, which suggests that knowledge of hangul was rare enough in Japan for such a table to be considered interesting to readers. I have seen at least one early modern Chinese description of Japanese kana, but I don't know of any Chinese descriptions of hangul.

  14. DMT said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 3:19 am

    Tokugawa scholars were also aware of the phonetic nature of the Manchu script, but they were even less likely to consider Manchu script as a possible way of writing Japanese than Sanskrit (Siddham), Latin or hangul characters.

  15. Jongseong Park said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 4:59 am

    @Eidolon, the Koreans and Japanese of the time certainly had more than hanja and kanji. Even before the invention of hangul in the mid-15th century, various systems had been in use in Korea to record the vernacular language (or some hybrid thereof with Classical Chinese), and in Japan there were of course developments that led to the kana syllabaries. I'd have to think that these attempts to write the vernacular language began almost as soon as literary Classical Chinese was introduced to these two countries.

    Speaking of writing the vernacular language, the most relevant attempt for this time period is the 이두 idu script, which uses Chinese characters to write Korean. It's sort of like how Japanese uses kanji except if all the particles were also written in kanji instead of kana. After the invention of hangul, the use of idu became a bit of a class marker, used extensively by the 중인 jung-in class manning the lower bureaucracy. The complex system of having some characters represent the sounds and others the meaning of Korean was almost impenetrable to those who were not familiar with the script from what I can gather. The upper class literati would have used Classical Chinese, while women and commoners would have used hangul.

    So reading Hamel's description of the second of the three scripts, my mind leapt immediately towards idu. However, from his description that it "looks more like our script", it is clear that it differed in appearance from the hanja used in printed books. So he is talking about the very different appearance of the handwritten 초서 草書 choseo "grass script" from the printed forms. Classical Chinese and idu draw from the same set of characters, so the difference between the two is not one of writing system. Also, governors and high administrators seem to be higher on the social scale than the class that would be using idu, though I might be wrong. So Hamel's second script is merely handwritten choseo characters, although it isn't clear if it is Classical Chinese or idu.

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    @DMT, that's exactly the kind of thing I wanted to find out about! I've been doing some searches about these kinds of exchanges, and though so far I've only mostly found snippets in news articles (e.g. about newly published translations of the "brush talks"), I did discover the site of the History Museum of Joseon Tongsinsa about these Korean envoys to Japan.

    I said earlier that Korean envoys to Japan only went as far as the island of Tsushima, which was very wrong. They passed through Kyoto and reached Edo (Tokyo) in the east, and some missions even went all the way to Nikko.

    Another thing I discovered: the Korean court trained interpreters in the neighbouring languages of Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, and Jurchen (later Manchu). And the textbooks they used to train Japanese interpreters included information on the kana syllabaries. One text they used was the poem 伊路波 Iroha (이로파 Iropa in Korean) with the kana transcribed into hangul. I'm guessing that such interpreters trained by the court must have accompanied the Korean missions to Japan.

  17. DMT said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

    A copy of one of the brush talks mentioned in my previous comment is available online here. The following page of the same brush talks also shows katakana representations of the Sino-Korean pronunciations of a few short passages of classical Chinese text. The Japanese participant, a 15-year-old scholarly prodigy called Yamada Tonan 山田図南, seems to have asked the Koreans to read the characters aloud and then recorded the sounds in katakana. (The linked images are from a manuscript copy of the published version of Sōkan hitsugo 桑韓筆語, now in the collection of Kyoto University Library.)

  18. Eidolon said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    @Jongseong thanks for bringing up idu and choseo 草書. After looking around a bit, the prevailing opinion is indeed that Hamel's second script was choseo 草書. I imagine this is validated through official documents preserved from around this time? Given how widely Hamel describes it being used, and how "recent" the 17th century was, there had to have been examples passed down to today. And after briefly scanning 16th-17th century Dutch letters, there is a bit of a resemblance, though I have to think Hamel was no orthographic expert given how superficial his descriptions were.

  19. Chris C. said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

    @Jongseong Park:

    It's sort of like how Japanese uses kanji except if all the particles were also written in kanji instead of kana.

    It seems it's perfectly possible to write Japanese particles in kanji. There was a discussion about this recently on a Sumo forum I frequent. The particle "no" is very common in shikona, and it's written variously, occasionally with kanji. http://www.sumoforum.net/forums/index.php?showtopic=33901

  20. Ross Bender said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 7:30 pm

    Recently I purchased the paperback edition (2010) of the massive and masterful Columbia History of Chinese Literature, noted by Victor above. The two chapters by Emanuel Pastreich "The Reception of Chinese Literature in Korea" and "The Reception of Chinese Literature in Japan" particularly caught my interest.

    Dr. Pastreich rightly notes that Nihon Shoki (720) was the "first history of Japan in Classical Chinese." However, he fails to note the second such history, Shoku Nihongi. There were a series of six national histories, the Rikkokushi 六国史. In their entirety they told the story of Japan from the Age of the Gods through the year 887 AD.

    Nihon Shoki is by far the best-known of these, partly because of its emphasis on the Age of the Gods, which is far more interesting reading than the laconic Classical Chinese court chronicles that follow.

    My particular interest is the Shoku Nihongi, covering roughly 697-791. I am currently engaged in a project to translate "The Edicts of the Last Empress, 749-770." The unusual feature of this chronicle is that the text is in Classical Chinese, but the imperial edicts known as Senmyō are inscribed in Old Japanese. There are 62 of these Senmyō, but a far larger number of imperial edicts written in Classical Chinese. These Old Japanese edicts account for Norinaga's interest in them; he wrote a massive commentary, and his readings are still the basis for modern editions of the texts.

    Unfortunately, Shoku Nihongi is, as early translators noted, "dry as dust" and translating it is certainly "a painful process", as Sir George Sansom remarked almost 100 years ago. While it does not have the literary qualities and excitement of the shinwa in Nihon Shoki (or Nihongi as it is sometimes called), it does narrate the history of the Nara period in what is now agreed to be quite accurate fashion.

    My paper "Middle Chinese, Old Japanese, and the Senmyō, presented as a paper in Victor's Seminar on Chinese Language, Script and Society in 2007 is available on my Academia website at:
    https://independent.academia.edu/RossBender

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    Ross's mention of the Shoku Nihongi in the previous comment brings back fond memories. Around the middle of 2012, Ross organized an online reading group for this text, and we went through selected passages a line at a time; sometimes only a word or two would be the focus of our attention.

    Ross, of course, was the guiding force — he would put forward a tentative translation with detailed annotations. If there were problems, he would point them out. As I recall, there were perhaps half a dozen other participants, but I remember that the contributions of John Bentley and Bryan Lowe were particularly outstanding. I was amazed at the attention they paid to the slightest nuances and textual difficulties. Above all, I was so impressed that all of this was being done enthusiastically in the spirit of pure academic inquiry.

    This went on for a couple of years, I believe, and to me it was supremely satisfying that, through the combined efforts of John, Bryan, Ross, and the others in the small group (occasionally I would make a small contribution), we were usually able to solve all of the problems we confronted, no matter how refractory they were.

    The feeling was similar to that experienced here on Language Log when we all pull together and figure out the answers to tough issues, as we are doing in this thread and in many other threads.

  22. Jongseong Park said,

    April 25, 2015 @ 3:06 am

    @DMT, thanks for linking to the images!
    I'm particularly intrigued by what seems to be a transcription of the Japanese kana table into hangul, followed by the equivalent in katakana. I've tried to transcribe them:

    五十字和音
    아이우예어 アイウヱヲ
    가기그계고 カキクケコ
    사시츠셰소 サシスセソ
    다지즈뎨도 タチツテト
    나니느녜노 ナニヌ(ネ)ノ
    하히후혜허 ハヒフヘホ
    마미므몌모 マミムメモ
    야이유예요 ヤイユヱヨ
    라리루례ᄅᆞ ラリルレロ
    와이우예어 ワイウヱヲ

    I'm not sure I've got all the katakana right. To me it looks like we have ヱ where we'd expect エ, and where we'd expect ネ, it looks like a miniature version of 子, though I don't know if this is just a glyph variant.

    As for the hangul, the e series is transcribed with ㅖ ye /je/, I'm guessing based on the Japanese pronunciation of the time; the u series uses both ㅡ eu /ɯ/ and ㅜ u /u/; the o series uses both ㅗ o /o/ and ㅓ eo /ʌ/, and in addition ロ ro transcribed as ᄅᆞ using the archaic back vowel ㆍ. This vowel is pronounced /ɒ/ in the Jeju dialect where it barely survives. I've given the IPA transcriptions based on modern Korean pronunciation, but it's difficult to tell what the actual pronunciations of the vowels were like at any of the earlier stages.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2015 @ 8:13 am

    From Alexander Vovin:

    THis is funny, although Kamo-no Mabuchi was a great scholar. This reminds me of the Chinese perspective on alphabetic writing described in Van Gulik's Murder in Canton. I do not remember who the characters are exactly, probably two lieutenants of Judge Dee:

    #1 You know, Arabs have only 28 characters in their language.

    #2 But how can they express all their thoughts with 28 characters?

    #1 But do they have so many thoughts in the first place?

  24. DMT said,

    April 25, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    Jongseong – your transcription looks pretty good to me. The distinction between え /e/ and ゑ /we/ had been lost in most dialects of Japanese well before the Edo period, so it isn't too surprising that they got mixed up. (The same was true for the distinctions お/o/ vs. を/wo/ and い /i/ vs. ゐ/i/ – note that the table has ヲ where we would expect to see オ and イ where we would expect to see ヰ.)

    In the eighteenth century, the pronunciation of merged え/ゑ was in the process of shifting from the earlier [je] to the modern [e]. (The older pronunciation can be seen in older European texts that refer to the shogunal capital as "Yedo", as well as the deliberately archaic romanization of the beer brand "Yebisu".) The use of hangul 예 to transcribe katakana reflects the older pronunciation of the Japanese syllable. However, the use of ㅖ for the other entries in the /-e/ series probably just reflects a desire for consistency – I don't think that ケ /ke/ was ever pronounced as [kje], etc.

    As you have correctly guessed, 子 is an alternative form for the katakana ネ (since 子, the first of the Earthly Branches 地支, is represented by the Rat, called nezumi in Japanese.)

    If anything, the transcription of hangul into katakana is even more fascinating as an amateur attempt to capture Korean vowel and consonant distinctions that didn't exist in Japanese. Unlike the transcriptions of katakana into hangul, there doesn't seem to be any attempt to make the katakana representations consistent across the series, so for example the distinction between Korean ㅡ eu /ɯ/ and ㅜ u /u/ is sometimes shown in the katakana transcriptions as a quality distinction, sometimes as a length distinction, and sometimes is simply ignored.

  25. DMT said,

    April 25, 2015 @ 9:59 am

    Jongseong – your transcription looks pretty good to me. The distinction between え /e/ and ゑ /we/ had been lost in most dialects of Japanese well before the Edo period, so it isn't too surprising that they got mixed up. (The same was true for the distinctions お/o/ vs. を/wo/ and い /i/ vs. ゐ/i/ – note that the table has ヲ where we would expect to see オ and イ where we would expect to see ヰ.)

    In the eighteenth century, the pronunciation of merged え/ゑ was in the process of shifting from the earlier [je] to the modern [e]. (The older pronunciation can be seen in older European texts that refer to the shogunal capital as "Yedo", as well as the deliberately archaic romanization of the beer brand "Yebisu".) The use of hangul 예 to transcribe katakana reflects the older pronunciation of the Japanese syllable. However, the use of ㅖ for the other entries in the /-e/ series probably just reflects a desire for consistency – I don't think that ケ /ke/ was ever pronounced as [kje], etc.

    As you have correctly guessed, 子 is an alternative form for the katakana ネ (since 子, the first of the Earthly Branches 地支, is represented by the Rat, called nezumi in Japanese.)

    If anything, the transcription of hangul into katakana is even more fascinating as an attempt to understand Korean vowel and consonant distinctions that don't exist in Japanese. Unlike the transcriptions of katakana into hangul, there doesn't seem to be any attempt to make the katakana representations consistent across the series, so for example the distinction between Korean ㅡ eu /ɯ/ and ㅜ u /u/ is sometimes shown in the katakana transcriptions as a quality distinction, sometimes as a length distinction, and sometimes is simply ignored.

  26. Jongseong Park said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 9:43 am

    @DMT: Yes, the transcription of the hangul open syllables and the Sino-Korean text into katakana looks fascinating. I'll have to remember to go through these at some point…

    The transcription 츠 cheu for ス is astounding, and I wonder what the story is there.
    The hangul syllable 수 su was transcribed as スウ, which is less unexpected, so maybe it's simply a mistake.

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