In what is described as the biggest disaster and challenge to the people of Japan in the post-war era, emperor Akihito has, interestingly enough, appeared on television for the first time to address his people. Reminding many of how emperor Hirohito spoke on the radio to his people for the first time on 15th August 1945 to announce that Japan was surrendering. Although Akihito spoke normal modern Japanese, Hirohito’s speech was in a Japanese so formal that it was unintelligible to ordinary Japanese – so much so, in fact, that they had to wait until his words were summed up by the broadcaster at the end before they understood anything.
Media are increasingly comparing the recent earthquake in Japan to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; sudden devastating disasters with high death tolls, unfathomable destruction, confusion and fear, as well as and the scare of intangible radioactivity.
Minamisariku today, Hiroshima 1945
As many of you probably know, Chinese characters carry meaning rather than sound. (I know there are also what’s called phono-semantic compounds, but give me a break). In fact though it contains both meaning and sound, and although people speaking in different languages may connect different sounds to the same character, the character always has the same meaning. This has made it possible for various dialects or languages throughout China to exist while still being able to understand each other by writing. Convenient, right?
And this extends not only to mainland China and Taiwan. Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese – all of which are linguistically unrelated to Sinitic languages – have created their own pronunciation for Chinese characters known as Kanji, Hanja and Chữ Nho.
This brings me to the real point of today’s post, which is a funny little tale about the clumsy early adoption of the Chinese system of writing in Japan.
Back in the day, Japanese elites had to learn to read and write in Chinese. Unlike the Chinese however, they had no written language of their own, which led to some bizarre occurrences. For example using the sounds of Chinese characters to form Japanese words, even if the actual meaning was just plain silly. If a Chinese person was to sit down and read the Kojiki, a collection of myths from 8th century Japan, he wouldn’t be able to understand much if it at all despite the fact that it would be written in Chinese characters. If he were to read it out loud, a Japanese person passing by would be able understand it perfectly. The Chinese on the other hand would probably end up seriously worrying about what was wrong with the people of Japan as well as wondering what “secret-tea-sky” meant and if perhaps “wooden-chicken-river-pot” had anything to do with it.