How to bewitch foxes and curse people

As you certainly know, foxes (kitsune) are magical creatures. They can create illusions and take the form of humans; they can become invisible and ethereal, and in this form possess humans, causing illness and madness. But did you know that you, too, can get your very own fox-familiar to obey your every depraved wish?

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Beyond man’yôgana: characters as art in the Man’yôshû

There’s a widespread but simplistic notion of the evolution of writing in Japan that goes like this:

  • Before the Man’yôshû, the Japanese employed Chinese characters “semantically” (morphography, the writing of morphemes);
  • The Man’yôshû innovated the use of characters for their sounds only (phonography), which was called man’yôgana;
  • This system was later refined and evolved to kana;
  • Such innovations allowed the Japanese to write their own language and to end a China-oriented “dark age of native style”, restoring the value of Japanese poetry.

This narrative misconstrues or obscure several facts:

  • Chinese writing was partly phonetic from the beginning (down to the structure of character-formation), and had been used (also) phonographically since forever (notoriously, to transcribe Sanskrit words in Buddhism);
  • At the time of the writing of the Man’yôshû there was no such thing as “Japan” or “China”; and what’s more, the way the Yamato court conceived of the relationship between Yamato and Han cultures was not in terms of opposition, negation, or evolution, but more of a coexistence of modes or styles;
  • In a similar way, phonographic writing wasn’t considered an evolution or replacement of morphography;
  • Phonographic writing in Japan greatly antedated the Man’yôshû, and also continued after it;
  • The writing in the Man’yôshû wasn’t predominantly phonographic at all, and most characters were used morphographically;
  • And, in fact, the Man’yôshû represents a peak in complex writing using Chinese characters (sinography)—what’s most notable about it isn’t the use of phonograms, but the virtuosistic pirouettes of a literate elite.

This is not an scholarly essay; I just want to cite some illustrations of the last bullet-point, because I find them as perplexing as they’re fun. Readers who need more are pointed to the references.

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Phonogram transcriptions of Old Japanese: Miyake’s five systems

“Writing” in Japan up until the Nara period (8c) often meant writing in Literary Chinese (漢文 kanbun), but there are a number of extant texts in Japanese which make up our earliest records of the language—notoriously the songs collected in the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki and the Man’yôshû. The Chinese writing system was designed to represent Chinese-specific morphemes and syllables, and adapting it to represent Japanese was a complex task (since neither morphemes nor sounds coincide between the languages). Contemporary scribes came upwith a number of different techniques to represent Japanese using Chinese characters, some of them quite complicated (indeed, the Man’yôshû actually took delight in scriptural-level complexity and indirectness). However, for modern readers interested in the Old Japanese (OJ) language itself, the most important technique was also the simplest: the technique of simply borrowing Chinese characters phonologically to represent OJ syllables. In this the Japanese followed earlier Chinese and Korean phonological transcription practices, which they learned together with the writing system from their Paekche instructors.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for the modern reader to decipher even this “simple” phonological use of Chinese characters (hereafter “phonograms”). Not only has the phonology of Japanese changed significantly, but the Chinese family of languages also kept changing (often radically), and in any given case it’s not obvious from which variety of Chinese—or Sino-Korean—pronunciations did the Japanese choose their phonograms. The textual evidence makes it clear that at different epochs they’ve used several different, conflicting phonological systems as sources. Marc Hideo Miyake identifies five such “systems of sinographic reading” borrowed to try to write down Japanese. To put it another way, written Chinese was a moving target; every so often the Japanese would come in contact with a new cultural influx that would teach new “correct readings” for the characters, which meant they had to change which phonograms should be used to represent Japanese syllables (which of course were also moving targets).

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