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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

"The Birth of Written Japanese: 7th Century Grave Markers, Stelae, and Inscribed Statues"

10. Februar 2000

David Lurie, Columbia University

It was during the 7th century that Korean scribes and their descendants and proteges completed the initial work of adapting the Chinese writing system to the Japanese language. The presence in the Japanese archipelago of Chinese written material, in the form of inscribed coins, mirrors, swords, and other artifacts, can be confirmed from the mid-Yayoi period onward, and domestically produced Chinese texts (in particular, several famous inscribed swords) are known in the 5th and 6th centuries, but the earliest archaeological evidence of widespread use of writing for communication and administration is provided by the increasing numbers of wooden tablets (mokkan) datable from the first half of the 7th century on. In this presentation, I will examine the emergence of written Japanese by correlating information gained from these mokkan with a group of famous early epigraphs (inscriptions on grave markers, stelae, and Buddhist images).

Although the familiar hiragana and katakana scripts did not develop until the 9th century, the man’yogana (characters used for their sounds to spell out words syllable by syllable) on which they were based had long been used in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese texts to write proper names and certain nouns; there are also 7th century examples of poems written with these phonographic characters. I believe, however, that the emergence of characters used to write Japanese words (kunji or seikun) was a development of equal or greater significance: such characters are the primary medium of the Kojiki’s prose and of many of the poems in the Man’yoshu, and they are also the source of the kun’yomi used in modern Japanese orthography.

After summarizing the 7th century development of this logographic use of Chinese characters, emphasizing in particular its Korean precedents and its intimate relationship with the nascent kanbun kundoku system of reading, I will examine some of the most renowned inscriptions of the period. Recent criticism of the dating of many of these texts–much of it centering on the problematic origins of the term quote;tennoquote;–has made it increasingly difficult to conceive of early writing as simply evolving toward more precise recording of the Japanese language. Rather, the emerging picture of 7th century inscription is one of complex interaction among various written registers which were in use simultaneously.