|Languages||Japanese and Okinawan|
|Time period||ca 650 CE to ?|
|Child systems||Hiragana, katakana|
|Sister systems||Contemporary kanji|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.|
Man'yōgana (万葉仮名) is an ancient writing system that employs Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language. The date of the earliest usage of this type of kana is not clear, but it was in use since at least the mid seventh century. The name "man'yōgana" is from the Man'yōshū, a Japanese poetry anthology from the Nara period written in man'yōgana.
A possible oldest example of Man'yōgana is the iron Inariyama Sword that was excavated at the Inariyama Kofun in 1968. In 1978, X-ray analysis revealed a gold-inlaid inscription consisting of more than 115 Chinese characters and this text, written in Chinese, included Japanese personal names which were supposedly phonetically written. This sword is thought to have been made in the year 辛亥年 (471 A.D. in commonly accepted theory), and analysis of the rust on the sword implies that the metal used may have been refined from magnetite found in the eastern region of China, imported into Japan, and used to forge the sword there. There is a possibility that the inscription of Inariyama sword is written in a version of the Chinese language used by some ancient Koreans.
Man'yōgana usually employ kanji for their phonetic value (借音 shakuon; "borrowed sound") rather than their meaning (借訓 shakkun; "borrowed meaning"). Several kanji can represent the same sound, the choice of which to use often being decided for stylistic reasons. For example, the Man'yōshū poem 17/4025 was written as follows:
The sounds mo (母, 毛) and shi (之, 思) are written with multiple characters. While all particles and most words are represented phonetically (多太 tada, 安佐 asa), the words umi (海) and funekaji (船梶) are rendered semantically.
In some cases, specific syllables in particular words are consistently represented by specific characters. This usage is known as Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai. It has led historical linguists to conclude that certain sounds in Old Japanese, represented by differing sets of man'yōgana characters, may have merged since then.
In man'yōgana, kanji are mapped to sounds in a number of different ways, some of which were straightforward and others which are less so.
|Morae||1 character, complete||1 character, partial|
|1||以 (い), 呂 (ろ), 波 (は)||安 (あ), 楽 (ら), 天 (て)|
|2||信 (しな), 覧 (らむ), 相 (さが)|
Shakkun kana (借訓仮名) are based on native kun'yomi reading, one to three characters represent one to three morae.
|Morae||1 character, complete||1 character, partial||2 characters||3 characters|
|1||女 (め), 毛 (け), 蚊 (か)||石 (し), 跡 (と), 市 (ち)||嗚呼 (あ), 五十 (い), 可愛 (え), 二二 (し), 蜂音 (ぶ)|
|2||蟻 (あり), 巻 (まく), 鴨 (かも)||八十一 (くく), 神楽声 (ささ)|
|3||慍 (いかり), 下 (おろし), 炊 (かしき)|
Kanji that were used as man'yōgana eventually gave rise to hiragana and katakana. Hiragana developed from man'yōgana written in the highly cursive sōsho style; katakana is based upon man'yōgana, and was developed by Buddhist monks as a form of shorthand. In some cases, one man'yōgana character for a given syllable gave rise to the current hiragana equivalent, and a different one gave rise to the current katakana equivalent. For example, the hiragana る (ru) is derived from the man'yōgana 留, the katakana ル (ru) is derived from the man'yōgana 流.
The use of multiple kanji for a single syllable also led to hentaigana (変体仮名), alternate letterforms for hiragana. Hentaigana were officially discouraged in 1900.
Man'yōgana continues to appear in some regional names of present-day Japan, especially in Kyūshū. A phenomenon similar to man'yōgana, called ateji (当て字), still occurs, where words (including loanwords) are spelled out using kanji for their phonetic value: for example, 倶楽部 (kurabu, club), or 珈琲 (kōhii, coffee).
- Seeley, Christopher. A History of Writing in Japan. University of Hawaii: 2000. 19-23.
- X線がいざなう古代の世界 －埼玉県・熊本県出土金銀象嵌銘刀剣が伝えた時代－
- Sacred texts and buried treasures: issues in the historical archaeology of ancient Japan by William Wayne Farris P102  "it seems likely that the Korean organization to provide tribute to the ruler would have been influential with the Yamato king as well. To be sure, the Korean model may have harked back to Chinese example"