Historical kana orthography

The historical kana orthography (歴史的仮名遣 rekishi-teki kana-zukai, or "rekishi-teki kana-dukahi" in the old system), or old orthography (旧仮名遣 kyū kana-zukai, or "kiu kana-dukahi" in the old system), refers to the kana orthography (正仮名遣 sei kana-zukai) in general use until orthographic reforms after World War II; the current orthography was adopted by Cabinet order in 1946. By that point the historical orthography was no longer in accord with Japanese pronunciation. It differs from modern usage (Gendai kana-zukai) in the number of characters and the way those characters are used. There was considerable opposition to the official adoption of the current orthography, on the grounds that the historical orthography conveys meanings better, and some writers continued to use it for many years since.

The historical orthography is found in most Japanese dictionaries, such as Kōjien. In the current edition of the Kōjien, if the historical orthography is different from the modern spelling, the old spelling is printed in tiny katakana between the modern kana and kanji transcriptions of the word. Ellipses are used to save space when the historical and modern spellings are identical. Older editions of the Kōjien gave priority to the historical orthography.

The historical orthography should not be confused with hentaigana, alternate kana that were declared obsolete with the orthographic reforms of 1900.

General differences

This section uses Nihon-shiki romanization for , , , , , and .

In historical kana usage:

Most of the historical kana usage has been found to accurately represent certain aspects of the way words sounded during the Heian period. As the spoken language has continued to develop, some orthography looks odd to the modern eye. As these peculiarities follow fairly regular patterns, they are not difficult to learn. However, some of the historical kana usages are simply mistakes. For example,

或いは aruiwa (or) might be found written incorrectly as: 或ひは *aruhiwa or 或ゐは *aruwiwa
用ゐる mochiwiru (use) might be found written incorrectly as: 用ひる *mochihiru
つくえ tsukue (desk, table) might be found written incorrectly as: つくゑ *tsukuwe

Those familiar with Japanese writing may notice that most of the differences apply to words which are usually written in Kanji anyway, and so would require no changes to switch from one Kana system to another (unless furigana are employed). In particular, yōon sounds occur almost exclusively in the Chinese-derived readings that are usually only seen in Kanji compounds (although not entirely; 今日 kyō "today," written けふ kefu in the old system, is a native Japanese word), and therefore do not look any different (without furigana). The relative lack of difference in appearance in practice between the two systems was a major reason the spelling reform succeeded, and also why the three grammatical particles o, e, wa continue to be written as wo, he, and ha instead of o, e, and wa; many felt that changing these exceedingly common spellings would unnecessarily confuse readers. It is also for this reason that many character dictionaries continue to include the historical spellings, since they are relevant there.

Some forms of unusual kana usage are not, in fact, historical kana usage. For example, writing どじょう (泥鰌/鰌) dojō (loach, a sardine-like fish) in the form どぜう dozeu is not historical kana usage (which was どぢやう dodiyau), but a kind of slang writing originating in the Edo period.


Here are some representative examples showing the historical and modern spellings and the kanji representation.

Historical usage Current usage New Old Translation
けふ kefuきょうkyō今日today
かは kahaかわkawariver
こゑ koweこえkoevoice
みづ miduみずmizuwater
わう wauおうōking
れきしてきかなづかひ rekishitekikanadukahiれきしてきかなづかいrekishitekikanadukai歴史的仮名遣い史的假名遣いHistorical kana orthography
てふ tefuちょうchōbutterfly
ゐる wiruいるiru居るthere is/are (humans/animals)
あはれ ahareあわれaware哀れsorrow; grief; pathos
かへる kaheruかえるkaeru帰る歸るto return home
くわし kuwashi (kwashi)かしkashi菓子sweets
とうきやう Tōkiyau (Tōkyau)とうきょうTōkyō東京Tokyo

The table at the bottom gives a more complete list of the changes in spelling patterns.

Current usage

Historical kana usage can be used to look up words in larger dictionaries and dictionaries specializing in old vocabulary, which are in print in Japan. Because of the great discrepancy between the pronunciation and spelling and the widespread adoption of modern kana usage, historical kana usage is almost never seen, except in a few special cases. Companies, shrines and people occasionally use historical kana conventions such as ゑびす (Ebisu), notably in Yebisu beer, which is written ヱビス webisu but pronounced ebisu. Also, some long-standing company names retain yo-on in full-sized kana, like キヤノン (Canon) and 富士フイルム (Fujifilm).

In addition, alternate kana letterforms, known as hentaigana (変体仮名), have nearly disappeared. A few uses remain, such as kisoba, often written using obsolete kana on the signs of soba shops.

The use of wo, he, and ha instead of o, e, and wa for the grammatical particles o, e, wa is a remnant of historical kana usage.

Complete tables of differences

The following tables summarize every possible historical spelling for the syllables which were spelled differently under the historical system. When more than one historical spelling is given for a particular modern spelling, the various historical spellings were etymologically (and at one point phonetically) distinct and occurred in different words (i.e., are not merely different ways to spell the same word). The tables are sorted using the gojūon ordering system.

Word-medial , , , , and
Modern spelling Historical spellings

, , and
Modern spelling Historical spellings

くゎ and ぐゎ
Modern spelling Historical spellings

Modern spelling Historical spellings

Modern spelling Historical spelling

Classical auxilary verb ~む
Modern spelling Historical spelling

~おう Chōon
Modern spelling Historical spellings
おう あう、あふ、おう、おふ、わう、わふ、をう、をふ
こう かう、かふ、くわう、こう、こふ
ごう がう、がふ、ぐわう、ごう、ごふ
そう さう、さふ、そう、そふ
ぞう ざう、ざふ、ぞう、ぞふ
とう たう、たふ、とう、とふ
どう だう、だふ、どう、どふ
ほう はう、はふ、ほう、ほふ
ぼう ばう、ばふ、ぼう、ぼふ
ぽう ぱう、ぱふ、ぽう、ぽふ
のう なう、なふ、のう、のふ
もう まう、まふ、もう、もふ
ろう らう、らふ、ろう、ろふ

~ゃ Yōon
Modern spelling Historical spelling(s)
きゃ きや
ぎゃ ぎや
しゃ しや
じゃ じや、ぢや
ちゃ ちや
ぢゃ ぢや
にゃ にや
ひゃ ひや
びゃ びや
ぴゃ ぴや
みゃ みや
りゃ りや

~ゅ Yōon
Modern spelling Historical spelling(s)
きゅ きゆ
ぎゅ ぎゆ
しゅ しゆ
じゅ じゆ、ぢゆ
ちゅ ちゆ
ぢゅ ぢゆ
にゅ にゆ
ひゅ ひゆ
びゅ びゆ
ぴゅ ぴゆ
みゅ みゆ
りゅ りゆ

~ょ Yōon
Modern spelling Historical spelling(s)
きょ きよ
ぎょ ぎよ
しょ しよ
じょ じよ、ぢよ
ちょ ちよ
ぢょ ぢよ
にょ によ
ひょ ひよ
びょ びよ
ぴょ ぴよ
みょ みよ
りょ りよ

~ゅう Yōchōon
Modern spelling Historical spellings
きゅう きう、きふ、きゆう
ぎゅう ぎう、ぎふ、ぎゆう
しゅう しう、しふ、しゆう
じゅう じう、じふ、じゆう、ぢう、ぢふ、ぢゆう
ちゅう ちう、ちふ、ちゆう
ぢゅう ぢう、ぢふ、ぢゆう
にゅう にう、にふ、にゆう
ひゅう ひう、ひふ、ひゆう
びゅう びう、びふ、びゆう
ぴゅう ぴう、ぴふ、ぴゆう
みゅう みう、みふ、みゆう
ゆう いう、いふ、ゆう、ゆふ
りゅう りう、りふ、りゆう

~ょう Yōchōon
Modern spelling Historical spellings
きょう けう、けふ、きやう、きよう
ぎょう げう、げふ、ぎやう、ぎよう
しょう せう、せふ、しやう、しよう
じょう ぜう、ぜふ、じやう、じよう、ぢやう、ぢよう、でう、でふ
ちょう てう、てふ、ちやう、ちよう
ぢょう でう、でふ、ぢやう、ぢよう
にょう ねう、ねふ、にやう、によう
ひょう へう、へふ、ひやう、ひよう
びょう べう、べふ、びやう、びよう
ぴょう ぺう、ぺふ、ぴやう、ぴよう
みょう めう、めふ、みやう、みよう
よう えう、えふ、やう、よう
りょう れう、れふ、りやう、りよう

Table references




Readers of English occasionally encounter words romanized according to historical kana usage, in which e was typically rendered ye, in accordance with the pronunciation of the 16th through 19th centuries. Here are some examples, with modern romanizations in parentheses:


  1. 1 2 Yaniv, Boaz (8 June 2011). "How did "little tsu" become a lengthener?". StackExchange. Stack Exchange, Inc. Retrieved 12 May 2016.
  2. "Historical kana usage:How to read". BIGLOBE. Biglobe, Inc. 2016. Retrieved 12 May 2016.

External links

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