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.

Basic sinographic techniques in the Man’yôshû

Though the writing of the poems is intended to convey Japanese utterances, the overall framework of the collection (commentaries, notes, settings, prose passages) is in Classical Chinese, then the standard form of writing in Japan. Æsthetically, this must have caused the impression of an harmonic combination of registers, like a musical composition with alternating tempos. I believe it’s still a matter of debate whether the Chinese parts were read as Chinese, within the tradition of ondoku “sound-reading” recitation, or if they were read as Japanese by using the kundoku techniques for simultaneous translation, or both; in any case, the difference in inscriptional style is not meaningless.

The two essential techniques used for the Yamato register were morphography and phonography, the latter divided in ongana and kungana (see below). The inscription style of the Man’yôshû flows and changes notably in different sections; phonogram writing predominates in books 5, 14, 15, 17, 18 and 20, totalling 1033 poems (out of some 4500+). The remaining poems are in mixed script: morphograms for lexical items and phonograms for inflexions and particles. This follows earlier usage such as senmyôgaki, and is also a predecessor of the modern kanji-kana majiribun practice in Japanese writing.

Ongana (“sound kana”) refers to the Sino-Japanese phonographic readings already established in the period, then based on a relatively late form of Early Middle Chinese (EMC) with some Korean (Paekche) influence (Miyake’s “System D”)—the same system of the earlier Kojiki phonograms. These readings were used to approximate the sounds of two varieties of Old Japanese (OJ): Central, and the Azuma (or Eastern) dialect. As a typical example of mixed writing with morphograms and ongana, poem #1118 has the sequence 「有險人母」。 It reads like this:

Type Morph. Phon. Morph. Phon.
EMC reading (*wuw) *kɨamʰ (?) *məw
Read as ari kěmu pito mo
Meaning exists suffixes: -kǐ [+past] -mu [+probability] person particle: [+emphasis]

The other kind of phonogram, kungana or “translation-kana”, is a somewhat roundabout way of representing sounds, necessitating a two-step mental operation. To illustrate, imagine a reader working with #81. At a certain point she meets the sequence 「見鶴」. The first character is employed morphographically for the verb mi(ru) “to see”, as in modern Japanese, but interpreting the second one takes more work. The reader must first think of the Chinese character as a morpheme, and translate it to a Japanese equivalent; 鶴 is taken semantically as “crane”, which in contemporary OJ was turu. Next, the reader discards the meaning, and reinterpret the phoneme sequence as some other morpheme altogether; in this case -tu-ru, a past suffix inflected in attributive (rentaikei) form. The whole thing read mituru “did see [+attributive]”. Polysyllablic words can be written with a composite of kungana: 「酢堅」 is “vinegar, hard”, which translates to su+kata = sugata “shape” (#778).

The kungana are in minority in the Man’yôshû, and hardly ever appear in other works. In general, and in contrast to later kana, both ongana and kungana can stand for more than one syllable or mora; e.g. ongana 足 (EMC *tsuawk) for the two syllables suku in 足尼 sukune “Lord”, or kungana 村 “village” for mura- “group of” in 村山 murayama “many mountains”.

As for morphographic writing, it’s most often used to represent native Japanese words, like the examples above of 見 for mi(ru) “to look” or 山 for yama “mountain”. Rarely, they’re also used for Sino-Japanese (SJ) words: 餓鬼 gakï “hungry ghost” (#608), 布施 puse “alms” (#906). The reason SJ was avoided is that it still amounted to Han loanwords, and the register here was of Yamato songs, so it was a bit of a stylistic faux pas. (On an unrelated note, these two particular loans are traceable beyond Chinese, to Sanskrit preta and dāna respectively.)

Playful writings

The task of deciding, for each character, whether it should be read as a morphogram, ongana or kungana would be difficult enough as-is, but the Man’yôshû hardly stops there. We should keep in mind that “writing” (sho 書) meant something different for this civilization than it does for us; it was an integrated ensemble of textual composition, calligraphy, inscription, and even papermaking and scroll-mounting. As such, things like the pun-like nature of kungana or the puzzle of deciphering intended uses are just the tip of the iceberg; what to us are inscription-level flourishes were an integral and important part of the classical poetics. LaMarre has noted numerous parallels between techniques at different layers of expression; things like juxtapositions, pivots, and pillow-words were practicised in the same spirit as the incriptional play with characters. It’s a shame that, for reasons of convenience as well as familiarity, modern editions tend to reduce the Man’yô to its strictly linguistic/phonetic register (and even “update” the original OJ phonetics!), which does violence to the whole thing.

The “playful writing” of the Man’yôshû is called in modern Japanese gisho or tawamuregaki; Seeley calls them “derived writings”. Ômori et al. is one attempt to classify gisho play, proposing as its main categories:

  • Grapheme-level: Writing that refers to the nature of characters themselves. The most (in)famous example is a sequence of characters right in the middle of a passage in #1787: 「山上復有山」. This reads semantically as something like “on the top of a mountain there’s another mountain”; this description is not internal to the linguistic meaning of the text, but refers instead to the character 出 “to exit”, which can be written as two “mountain” characters 山 on top of each other. After deciphering the puzzle, the reader then interprets the answer-character 出 morphemically as the OJ verb idu, and conjugates it accordingly.

    Character consciousness appears in other forms. #2581, #40, #1781 all choose as phonograms sets of characters that originally represent numerals, creating a kind of visual variation on a theme (not very far from the Pound/Fenollosa Orientalist fantasies about Chinese writing!). In #1431, five out of the last six characters have the “bird” radical, while #2991 has six nearby characters relating to flora and fauna.

  • Onomatopœia: #2839 uses two characters 牛鳴 “cow cry” to represent the single syllable -mu in the verb suffix -amu [+tentative]. The rationale, of course, is that a cow cry sounds like mu.

  • Arithmetic: #3318 writes the second syllable of the suffix -isi [+retrospective] as 二二 “two two”. Two times two equals four, which in SJ is the homophonous si. #3330 writes kukuri “to tie up” as 八十一里 “eight ten one ri”, because 81 is 9×9, which in SJ gives kuku. Several poems (#239, #926, #3278) write “boar” as 十六 “sixteen”, because 16 = 4×4 = sisi = boar.

Other than these three Ômori categories, there are even more ways of writing in the Man’yôshû, often requiring subtle cultural inferences to work. A few examples from Seeley include:

  • 金 is often used as a morphogram for kane “metal”, and 風 for kaze “wind”, but 金風 (#1700) is not supposed to be taken as *kanekaze “metal wind”; it’s read akikaze “autumn wind”. Though the text is to be read in the Yamato register (i.e. as Japanese), these two characters are a reference to the homographous Han expression jīn fēng, which has the connotation of autumn wind thanks to correspondences in the Five Elements system (Metal being related to Autumn).
  • 朝烏 “morning crow” (#1844) doesn’t represent an hypothetical asagarasu bird, but asapi “morning sun”, because in Chinese mythology a three-legged crow is said to live in the sun.
  • 寒 “cold” can stand for fuyu “winter” (#1844, #1884), and 暖 “warm” for haru “spring”. 少熱 “a little hot” in #2579 suggests “lukewarm”, Jap. nuru-si, which is then taken rebus-style for -nuru ([+perfective, +attributive] suffix).
  • I left my favourite for last: 大王 in #1321. It works like this. The most celebrated calligrapher, in Japan as in China, was Wang Xizhi 王羲之. Old Japanese had a word 手師 tesi “hand master” for calligraphers, and on this association, several poems (#394, #664, #1324) use Xizhi’s given name, 羲之, to represent the verbal suffix -tesi [+past]. Now Xizhi had many sons, and one of them, Wang Xianzhi 王獻之, became a renowed calligrapher on his own right; together, they were called The Two Wangs, the son being Lesser Wang 小王 and the father the Greater Wang 大王 (no pun intended!). So, obviously, #1321’s 結大王 “tie big king” reads musubitesi “tied”.


In light of the above, I find it hard to agree with theorists who say Chinese writing was an obstacle, hindrance, or handicap to the Japanese, which was supposedly overcome only with the creation of kana. Clearly Yamato scribes were quite at ease with Chinese characters.

The alphabetic conventions used in this post are:

  • OJ is transcribed as in Modified Mathias-Miller notation, with inverted circumflexes marking series-A (甲類) rhymes.
  • LOC and MC are Pulleyblank’s reconstructions. Keep in mind that this is still a debated area & there are a number of competing theories.


  • Christopher Seeley. A History of Writing in Japan.
  • Marc Hideo Miyake, Old Japanese: A phonetic reconstruction, and apud:
    • Ômori Akihisa, et al. Man’yôdô shirube. Osaka: Izumi shoin, 1982.
  • Thomas LaMarre. Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription.

I also consulted these helpful online editions of primary sources:

3 thoughts on “Beyond man’yôgana: characters as art in the Man’yôshû

  1. This is nice. I totally support your opening comments. The notions about the development of Japanese writing that you present seem to me to have their origins in ideology and politics. It’s a view that adopts an idealised picture of growth from Chinese beginnings to the final development of a Japanese writing system that can (superficially at least) be ‘divorced’ from its Chinese roots and stand on its own two feet. Like all nationalistic narratives, it needs to simplify history to make the facts fit the ‘story’.

    Personally, it actually took me quite a while to realise how intertwined the Chinese and Japanese writing systems are. Like many others, I took at face value the neat way that the modern Japanese language has been systematised. It was only after I came to China that I gradually came to realise how much of what is treated as quaint or irregular in Japanese is actually a direct reflection of Chinese. There is a lot of character usage that can’t be understood without reference to Chinese. The whole situation is summed up best by the Kanwa Jiten — that very strange beast, a dictionary of Chinese, written in Japanese!

    At any rate, since I’ve never studied much about ancient Japanese writing (it always seemed too old or dusty or difficult), so it’s nice to see what you’ve presented here.

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