Kyoto (Japon): Poem on 9th-century wood could provide missing link between kanji, hiragana

Tomoyoshi Kubo


A poem written on a wooden board dating back to the late ninth century will provide clues on how the hiragana phonetic alphabet derived from kanji characters imported from China, researchers said.

Kyoto 1The Asahi Shimbun

The entire verse of famed tanka poem “Naniwazu” was inscribed in ink on Japanese cypress in an intermediary syllabary between manyogana, one of the earliest Japanese writing systems dating back to the fifth century, and hiragana, the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute said on Nov. 26.

This is something that we will be able to reference as a ‘baseline’ in examining the transformation of Japanese phonetic characters,” said Shuji Yoshino, an associate professor of ancient Japanese history at Kyoto Sangyo University.

The piece of wood, 4 millimeters thick, 34.5 centimeters long and 3.5 cm wide, was from the Heian Period (794-1185). It was unearthed near what was apparently a house that stood on Suzaku Avenue, a street that cut through the ancient capital of Heiankyo, now Kyoto, from north to south.

The 31 characters representing the poem on the right side of the board and the 20 characters of additional text on the left are very similar to hiragana, but not quite the same.

Naniwazu” is believed to have been written by Wani, a scholar who came to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Baekje around the fifth century.

Thirty-seven artifacts featuring the poem have been discovered, some from the Asuka Period (592-710) and mostly written in manyogana, which was based on certain Chinese kanji characters.

The kanji were originally semantic but were read phonetically to suit the Japanese language.

The characters were later simplified and turned into hiragana, but the process of that transformation remains a mystery.

The writing on the latest discovery is neither manyogana nor hiragana, but something in between, the institute said. It is also the first finding of the entire poem written in the intermediary system.

It had become standard for the poem of ‘Naniwazu’ to be written in manyogana, but we can see that the use of intermediary characters was highly widespread by the late ninth century,” said Towao Sakaehara, the director of the Osaka Museum of History in Osaka.

The poem provides an example of how Japanese was written during a transitional period between the two writing systems, researchers said.

Naniwazu” was included in “Kokin Wakashu,” an anthology of waka (tanka) published in 905 by poet Ki no Tsurayuki (868?-945?) as an ideal example for beginner poets to model their works after.

The artifact is on display at the Kyoto City Archaeological Museum through Dec. 13. Admission is free.