Languages Japanese and Okinawan
Time period
c. 650 CE to Meiji era
Parent systems
Child systems
Hiragana, katakana
Sister systems
Contemporary kanji

Man'yōgana (万葉仮名) is an ancient writing system that employs Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language and was the first known kana system to be developed as a means to represent the Japanese language phonetically. The date of the earliest usage of this type of kana is not clear, but it was in use since at least the mid seventh century. The name "man'yōgana" is from the Man'yōshū, a Japanese poetry anthology from the Nara period written in man'yōgana.


A possible oldest example of Man'yōgana is the iron Inariyama Sword that was excavated at the Inariyama Kofun in 1968. In 1978, X-ray analysis revealed a gold-inlaid inscription consisting of at least 115 Chinese characters and this text, written in Chinese, included Japanese personal names which were supposedly phonetically written. This sword is thought to have been made in the year 辛亥年 (471 A.D. in commonly accepted theory),.[1] There is a possibility that the inscription of the Inariyama sword may be written in a version of the Chinese language used in the Korean-peninsula kingdom of Baekje.[2]


Man'yōgana uses kanji characters for their phonetic[lower-alpha 1] rather than semantic[lower-alpha 2] qualities—in other words, they are used for their sounds and not their meanings. There was no standard system for choice of kanji; different kanji could represent a similar sound, the choice made on the whims of the writer. By the end of the 8th century, 970 kanji were in use to represent the 90 morae of Japanese,[3] far more than what was needed. For example, the Man'yōshū poem 17/4025 was written as follows:

Man'yōgana 之乎路可良 多太古要久礼婆 波久比能海 安佐奈藝思多理 船梶母我毛
Katakana シオジカラ タダコエクレバ ハクヒノウミ アサナギシタリ フネカジモガモ
Modern 志雄路から ただ越え来れば 羽咋の海 朝凪したり 船梶もがも
Romanized Shioji kara tadakoe kureba Hakuhi no umi asanagi shitari funekaji mogamo

The sounds mo (母, 毛) and shi (之, 思) are written with multiple characters. While all particles and most words are represented phonetically (多太 tada, 安佐 asa), the words umi () and funekaji (船梶) are rendered semantically.

In some cases, specific syllables in particular words are consistently represented by specific characters. This usage is known as Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai. It has led historical linguists to conclude that certain sounds in Old Japanese, represented by differing sets of man'yōgana characters, may have merged since then.


In man'yōgana, kanji are mapped to sounds in a number of different ways, some of which were straightforward and others which are less so.

Shakuon kana (借音仮名) are based on Sino-Japanese on'yomi reading, in which one character represents either one mora or two morae.

Shakuon kana
Morae 1 character, complete 1 character, partial
1 以 (い), 呂 (ろ), 波 (は) 安 (あ), 楽 (ら), 天 (て)
2 信 (しな), 覧 (らむ), 相 (さが)

Shakkun kana (借訓仮名) are based on native kun'yomi reading, one to three characters represent one to three morae.

Shakkun kana
Morae 1 character, complete 1 character, partial 2 characters 3 characters
1 女 (め), 毛 (け), 蚊 (か) 石 (し), 跡 (と), 市 (ち) 嗚呼 (あ), 五十 (い), 可愛 (え), 二二 (し), 蜂音 (ぶ)
2 蟻 (あり), 巻 (まく), 鴨 (かも) 八十一 (くく), 神楽声 (ささ)
3 慍 (いかり), 下 (おろし), 炊 (かしき)
Table of man'yōgana
one character represents one mora
a 阿安英足鞅 可何加架香蚊迦 左佐沙作者柴紗草散 太多他丹駄田手立 那男奈南寧難七名魚菜 八方芳房半伴倍泊波婆破薄播幡羽早者速葉歯 万末馬麻摩磨満前真間鬼 也移夜楊耶野八矢屋 良浪郎楽羅等 和丸輪 我何賀 社射謝耶奢装蔵 陀太大嚢 伐婆磨魔
i1 伊怡以異已移射五 支伎岐企棄寸吉杵來 子之芝水四司詞斯志思信偲寺侍時歌詩師紫新旨指次此死事准磯為 知智陳千乳血茅 二人日仁爾迩尼耳柔丹荷似煮煎 比必卑賓日氷飯負嬪臂避匱 民彌美三水見視御 里理利梨隣入煎 位為謂井猪藍 伎祇芸岐儀蟻 自士仕司時尽慈耳餌児弐爾 遅治地恥尼泥 婢鼻弥
i2 貴紀記奇寄忌幾木城 非悲斐火肥飛樋干乾彼被秘 未味尾微身実箕 疑宜義擬 備肥飛乾眉媚
u 宇羽于有卯烏得 久九口丘苦鳩来 寸須周酒州洲珠数酢栖渚 都豆通追川津 奴努怒農濃沼宿 不否布負部敷経歴 牟武無模務謀六 由喩遊湯 留流類 具遇隅求愚虞 受授殊儒 豆頭弩 夫扶府文柔歩部
e1 衣依愛榎 祁家計係價結鶏 世西斉勢施背脊迫瀬 堤天帝底手代直 禰尼泥年根宿 平反返弁弊陛遍覇部辺重隔 売馬面女 曳延要遥叡兄江吉枝衣 礼列例烈連 廻恵面咲 下牙雅夏 是湍 代田泥庭伝殿而涅提弟 弁便別部
e2 気既毛飼消 閉倍陪拝戸経 梅米迷昧目眼海 義気宜礙削 倍毎
o1 意憶於應 古姑枯故侯孤児粉 宗祖素蘇十 刀土斗度戸利速 努怒野 凡方抱朋倍保宝富百帆穂本 毛畝蒙木問聞 用容欲夜 路漏 乎呼遠鳥怨越少小尾麻男緒雄 吾呉胡娯後籠児悟誤 土度渡奴怒 煩菩番蕃
o2 己巨去居忌許虚興木 所則曾僧増憎衣背苑 止等登澄得騰十鳥常跡 乃能笑荷 方面忘母文茂記勿物望門喪裳藻 与余四世代吉 呂侶 其期碁語御馭凝 序叙賊存茹鋤 特藤騰等耐抒杼


Due to the major differences between the Japanese language (which was polysyllabic) and the Chinese language (which was monosyllabic) from which kanji came, man'yōgana proved to be very cumbersome to read and write. As stated earlier, since kanji has two different sets of pronunciation, one based on Sino-Japanese pronunciation and the other on native Japanese pronunciation, it was difficult to determine whether or not a certain character was either used to represent its pronunciation or its meaning, whether it was man'yōgana or actual kanji, or both.[4] On top of that, Buddhist monks found recording oral teachings time-consuming since every syllable would be written using an entire kanji,[5] which might have up to 23 strokes even if one considers only the most common Kanji.[6]

To alleviate the confusion and to save time writing, kanji that were used as man'yōgana eventually gave rise to hiragana and katakana. Hiragana was developed from man'yōgana written in the highly cursive sōsho style by women; katakana is based upon man'yōgana, and was developed by Buddhist monks as a form of shorthand. In some cases, one man'yōgana character for a given syllable gave rise to the current hiragana equivalent, and a different one gave rise to the current katakana equivalent. For example, the hiragana る (ru) is derived from the man'yōgana , the katakana ル (ru) is derived from the man'yōgana .

The use of multiple kanji for a single syllable also led to hentaigana (変体仮名), alternate letterforms for hiragana. Hentaigana were officially made obsolete in 1900.

Man'yōgana continues to appear in some regional names of present-day Japan, especially in Kyūshū. A phenomenon similar to man'yōgana, called ateji (当て字), still occurs, where words (including loanwords) are spelled out using kanji for their phonetic value. Examples include 倶楽部 (kurabu, club), 仏蘭西 (Furansu, France), 阿弗利加 (Afurika, Africa) and 亜米利加 (Amerika, America).

Katakana with man'yōgana equivalents (segments of man'yōgana adapted into katakana highlighted)
Katakana's Man'yōgana
including obsolete syllabograms
Development of hiragana from man'yōgana
Hiragana's Man'yōgana
including obsolete syllabograms

See also


  1. 借音 shakuon; "borrowed sound"
  2. 借訓 shakkun; "borrowed meaning"


  1. Seeley, Christopher. A History of Writing in Japan. University of Hawaii: 2000. 19-23.
  2. Sacred texts and buried treasures: issues in the historical archaeology of ancient Japan by William Wayne Farris P102 "The writing style of several other inscriptions also betrays Korean influence... Researchers discovered the longest inscription to date, the 115-character engraving on the Inariyama sword, in Saitama in the Kanto, seemingly far away from any Korean emigrés. The style that the author chose for the inscription, however, was highly popular in Paekche."
  3. Joshi & Aaron 2006, p. 483.
  4. "L335: Manyogana". Retrieved 2016-02-17.
  5. "Learn Japanese with". JapanesePod101. Retrieved 2016-02-17.
  6. "Highest stroke count: crazy crazy kanji.". Retrieved 2016-02-17.

Works cited

Look up Appendix:Comparison of hiragana and katakana derivations in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Look up man'yōgana in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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