Japanese Simplification of Chinese Characters in Perspective

By Liu, Xuexin | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Japanese Simplification of Chinese Characters in Perspective


Liu, Xuexin, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


In this scholarly note, Xuexin Liu explains simplification as a Japanese linguistic strategy, focusing on motivations for simplifying certain Chinese characters borrowed into Japanese and the resultant orthographic effects on Japanese kanji.

Beyond Linguistic Borrowing

Although numerous studies of lexical borrowing involving various borrowing languages and source languages have been carried out (e.g., Haugen 1972; Poplack, Sankoff, and Miller 1988; Weinreich 1979), few studies have investigated and explored the idiosyncratic nature of Japanese in relation to its borrowing of Chinese characters. This scholarly note specifically describes and explains the effects of Chinese characters that were borrowed into Japanese after morphological change (that is, a change in word form) or semantic shift or modification (that is, a change in word meaning). To do so, this piece introduces a comparative study of simplification of Chinese characters in Japan and China with a focus on the Japanese linguistic and sociolinguistic motivations for simplification. Accordingly, this paper considers several specific questions: What makes Japanese lexical borrowing of Chinese characters different from the traditional notion of lexical borrowing? What are the particular motivations for simplifying Chinese characters in Japan and China? What are the orthographic effects of simplified traditional Chinese characters in contemporary Japanese? What are the most important implications of the Japanese simplification of Chinese characters for understanding linguistic borrowing, in general, and lexical borrowing, in particular? Here, representative orthographic records are cited as linguistic evidence, assumptions behind and findings from a comparative study are presented, and some tentative implications are offered.

Some Chinese characters once borrowed into the Japanese language--that is, Japanese kanji--show semantic shifts or semantic changes. Certain borrowed Chinese characters, therefore, no longer contain their original Scholarly Note: Japanese Simplification of Chinese Characters 263 lexical content but carry different meaning in Japanese. These differences evince the relationship between lexical borrowing and semantic shifts or semantic changes. In addition, a few kanji, such as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (toge, a mountain pass), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (do/hatara, work), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sakaki, a type of camellia), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (hata/hatake, field or farm), and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (tsuji, a crossroads), though they look like Chinese characters, actually originated in Japan. These kanji are known as wasei kanji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Japanese-made kanji, also known as kokuji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Furthermore, since the Meiji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] period (1868-1912), many Japanese kango [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Chinese words) were created domestically through word combinations, such as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (eisei, satellite), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (kagaku, science), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ginko, bank), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (bento, lunchbox), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sushi), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ninki, popularity), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (shashin, photograph), and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (monogatari, story); these characters may or may not represent the same concepts in Chinese. Also, some words were created from translation of Western concepts to fit Japanese culture and modernization needs; such newly formulated phrases now appear in Chinese as recently borrowed lexical items (Chen 1999; Zhou 2003). Such linguistic phenomena involving lexical borrowing, lexical shift or creation, and new word formation need to be explored and described systematically (Myers-Scotton 2002; Romaine 1995), but these topics are beyond the scope of this piece. …

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