Katakana system may be Korean, professor says

Kyodo

New evidence suggests part of the Japanese writing system may have originated in Korea.

A Japanese scholar has discovered, in a Korean Buddhist text introduced to Japan in the early eighth century, letters that look like katakana, indicating the kana system could have originated in Korea.

Yoshinori Kobayashi, professor of Japanese at Tokushima Bunri University, announced his findings Tuesday at a lecture at Otani University in Kyoto.

Kobayashi said that while katakana script is believed to have been invented in Japan around the ninth century, his findings suggest it may have originated in the eighth century on the Korean Peninsula and introduced to Japan through Buddhist texts.

Katakana is a syllabic writing system incorporating parts of Chinese ideographs that is used in modern Japanese to denote foreign loan words, to create emphasis, or to represent a kanji pronunciation.

According to Kobayashi, two letters that appear to be katakana characters were inscribed in the “Hanhiryoron,” a guide to Kegon sect scriptures. They were apparently engraved on the paper with a sharp wooden or ivory writing implement, he said.

The letters seem to be parts of two Chinese characters pronounced “pu” and “ri” in Korean and were written in a running style on the right side of a Chinese character meaning “root.” The inscribed letters sound similar to the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character, Kobayashi said.

The “Hanhiryoron” was written by a monk known as Gangyo in Japan who lived in the Silla kingdom of ancient Korea. The kingdom was established in 57 B.C. and eventually ruled Korea until 935.

Kobayashi believes the text with the inscriptions was a transcript of the “Hanhiryoron” that was made in Silla and later brought to Japan, because it contains script characteristic of the Korean Peninsula.

The transcript contains a collection stamp of Empress Komyo (701-760) and was recorded in the collection list of Nara’s Shosoin storehouse, written in 740.

The transcript is now owned by Otani University and has been designated as an important national cultural property.

Kobayashi discovered the inscriptions when he inspected the transcript after a visitor pointed out, last November when it was put on exhibition, that there were several holes in the paper.