kanji tattoo

Literacy began in Japan in the 4th century AD, when they borrowed pictograms from the Chinese and the Koreans, a system of characters called ‘hanzi’. The Japanese called them kanji, meaning ‘han characters’, and they survive to this day as part of the Japanese writing system.

Although the Japanese adopted the Chinese characters, the Chinese language was entirely alien to them. In fact, Chinese and Japanese are from entirely different linguistic families. The Japanese were forced to creatively reconfigure the characters to fit their own tongue. They used them sometimes as ideograms to convey an object or idea, and sometimes they used them phonetically. Japanese grew to include of two more ‘alphabets’ called katakana and hiragana, each with their own function. Reading Japanese, therefore, requires the ability to negotiate between three distinct writing systems.