Kanji or not?

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Stone artifact from around the beginning of the first century AD, excavated at the Tawayama remains in Matsue, capital of Shimane Prefecture:

Source of photos:

"Oldest kanji in Japan? Stone fragment may hold the key", by Shunsuke Nakamura, The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 3, 2020

The two groups of black marks to the left of the center of the stone are said to be clerical forms of these Sinograms written in India ink:

 (J. shi; M. zǐ)

戊 (J. bo; M. wù)

That would make them respectively the first of the Twelve Earthly Branches and the fifth of the Ten Heavenly Stems of the Chinese calendrical sexagenary cycle.

The artifact is supposedly part of an inkstone, hundreds of which have been found in various parts of Japan, but mostly in the west, from the succeeding centuries (Kofun Period, late third century to seventh century).

Prior to this discovery (quoting the article by Nakamura),

In Japan, the oldest known letters confirmed to date were jotted down on clay vessels excavated in Fukuoka and Mie prefectures, dating to the second and third century.

The period [of the Tawayama remains] in China falls between the latter part of the Earlier Han period [202 BC-9 AD] and the early years of the Later Han period [25-220 AD].

Some researchers harbor reservations that the dark lines really are written symbols, referring to a study using infrared ray imaging that failed to confirm the existence of characters written in India ink.  Proponents of the view that the dark lines are writing point to marks left by the use of the inkstick elsewhere on the stone.

If the marks on this artifact from the Tawayama site really are kanji, they would constitute the oldest known example of written language in Japan.

Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. John Swindle said,

    February 8, 2020 @ 9:23 pm

    If these do turn out to be characters for an Earthly Branch and a Heavenly Stem, in that order, does that tell us anything about what they might mean in context?

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 8, 2020 @ 10:53 pm

    According to the (Japanese) article there are folks claiming these could be not only「子」and「戊」but also「午」,「壬」,「戌」and「戍」, presumably among others… so I'm inclined to say "tea leaves", just as is the practice wrt Chinese Neolithic postsherds…

  3. Lai Ka Yau said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 3:37 am

    I found the use of 'Earlier Han' and 'Later Han' curious, so I looked up the terms and it appears that 前漢 / 後漢 are used in Japanese. I wonder if these are commonly used in Japanese scholarship written in English. 'Earlier Han' in particular sounds a bit strange to me since 前秦 is more commonly translated as 'Former Qin', I believe.

  4. Lai Ka Yau said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 3:38 am

    (And I am of course aware of uses like 後漢書 or 此後漢之所以傾頹也; I just don't hear 後漢 a lot in modern times…)

  5. Colin Fine said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 4:05 am

    "Proponents of the view that the dark lines are writing point to marks left by the use of the inkstick elsewhere on the stone."

    Garden path much. Took several readings before I noticed that "point" could be the verb.

  6. AntC said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 5:49 am

    Taiwan Indigenous writing system?

    A chance stop at a Taiwan motorway service area tells me the Bunun people (see wikipedia) had a pre-European writing system — or was it only for recording the (lunar) calendar?

    An ancient marked-up wooden panel was found during Japanese rule 1937, it said, with a schematic of the panel.

    Something? Or nothing?

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