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01 July, 2007:
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Chinese Japanese

Historically, Japan has been greatly influenced by China. China’s influence on the small island nation can be seen in everything from religion to language.

Linguistically, Japanese is quite different from Chinese. Unlike Chinese, Japanese is highly inflected: verbs need to be conjugated, nouns need to be declined and tense must be specified. Chinese, on the other hand, has no inflection. Also, Japanese word order is the reverse of Chinese—in Japanese the verb does not come until the end of the sentence.

Despite these significant differences in language, Japanese was highly influenced by Chinese language. The most obvious outlet of Chinese influence on Japanese is the writing system. In the 4th century BCE, Chinese characters made their way from China to Japan via Korea. In Japan, Chinese characters, han4zi4 汉字 are known as Kanji, 漢字. The Japanese characters are essentially identical to Chinese characters, although some Japanese characters have been simplified differently than they were simplified in Mainland China.Owing to the differences between Japanese and Chinese, Chinese characters are not well suited to recording Japanese. The imperfect fit has had two interesting results: one is the invention of two auxiliary alphabets, and the other is the importation of Chinese pronunciations for places where native Japanese words just don't fit.

What are On'yomi?

Chinese readings of Japanese characters are called on’yomi. These readings are essentially the pronunciations of individual Chinese characters. In context, a character may be read a number of ways. It could be pronounced as a purely Japanese word, or its on’yomi could be pronounced. With a few exceptions, on’yomi readings are used when two Kanji characters are written next to each other. Exceptions to this rule include words concepts that have a word in Japanese but not Chinese, surnames and place names. Usually the pronunciation is evident by the context, but sometimes auxiliary Furigana syllables must be used to clarify the pronunciation.

Essentially, on’yomi are Chinese words that have become part of the Japanese language. They fill in the gaps where the Chinese writing system was stretched to fit Japanese. They also demonstrate the power of China’s influence in Asia.

Certain characters may have multiple on’yomi. The different readings exist because Chinese pronunciations entered Japanese at different times. Whereas in China, language change was constant, a pronunciation from a particular time made its way to Japan and was essentially frozen there. While Chinese continued to evolve, the particular on’yomi remained the same in Japan. The different on’yomi are interesting to look at because the provide a historical view of change in Chinese.

Different types of on’yomi


Go’on 吴音(wu2yin1)These Chinese readings were introduced to Japan during the fifth and sixth centuries CE. The name “Go’on” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese wu2yin1, 吴音. The name indicates that these readings have to do with the Wu kingdom in Southern China. The Wu region first became a kingdom in the Spring and Autumn period (chun1qiu1shi2dai4 春秋时代 ,722-481 BCE), and it remained a significant area and sometimes kingdom until the tenth century CE. Today, there are more speakers of the Wu dialect of Chinese, which includes Shanghainese (Shang4hai3hua4 上海话) and Suzhou dialect (su1zhou4hua4 苏州话), than of any other dialect aside from Mandarin.Go’on readings began to be used in Japan very early on. They tend to be used for Buddhist terms and other specialized readings. Also, the Go’on readings were the basis for Japan’s first syllabic alphabet, which was developed for the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Matters” (gu3shi4ji4 古事记). Although the Kojiki was written in Classical Chinese, it contains songs in ancient Japanese that are recorded phonetically with a limited set of Chinese characters.Kan’on 汉音 (han4yin1)These readings were imported after the Go’on from the seventh to ninth centuries CE. Kan’on literally means the “sounds of Han,” in Chinese, Han4yin1 汉音. These sounds are based on Tang Dynasty (tangchao 唐朝, 618-906) Chinese spoken in Northern China.To’on 唐音 (tang2yin1)To’on literally means “Tang sound.” However, these readings are the pronunciations imported from later dynasties such as the Song (song 宋, 960-1279) and the Ming (ming2 明, 1368-1644). To’on describes all the readings adopted from the tenth to the nineteenth centuries.Kan yo’on 惯用音 (guan1yong4yin1)The final category of on’yomi are not readings that were adopted at any particular time. Rather, the Kan yo’on are sounds that changed either by mistake or natural development. These readings are not the same as the original Chinese readings, but they are accepted as legitimate pronunciations of Chinese characters. The classification, Kan yon’on can be translated as “habitually used sounds” (guan1yong4yin1 惯用音).