Years ago, a colleague at a company where I worked had a surname written using a character so obscure, that when handing out his business card he used to joke apologetically, 名前の漢字、ほとんど誰も読めない (namae no kanji, hotondo dare mo yomenai, hardly anybody can read the kanji in my name).

He dealt with this problem by persuading the company to make an exception when printing up his cards, allowing him to attach furigana (a superscript, usually in hiragana, used to indicate a character’s pronunciation) to his name. No one else in our office was accorded this treatment, but then no one else had the surname Azami — written 莇 and meaning “thistle” — which qualified as a 難読苗字 (nandoku myōji, difficult-to-read surname) and therefore warranting use of furigana.

I looked at some examples of furigana in my last column, but the practice of attaching furigana to names on business cards is fairly uncommon. I, for one, support it, not just for obscure characters like Azami’s but for any name whose characters require rote memorization to read them correctly, such as 長谷川 (Hasegawa), 服部 (Hattori) or 日下 (Kusaka).

As I mentioned last time, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of information about furigana in English. In “The Japanese Language” (1967), Roy Andrew Miller, a professor of linguistics at Tokyo’s International Christian University and Yale, wrote, “One reaction to the burden imposed by this use of large numbers of Chinese characters in writing Japanese was the system of furigana (furi– deverbal from furu “to brandish”). This system used small kana placed along the right-hand side of Chinese characters indicating their correct pronunciation in the particular text in which they were used.” (Italics mine.)

In the introduction to “Complete Course of Japanese Conversation-Grammar” (1952) Oreste and Enko E. Vaccari observe, as does Miller, that furigana had been in much wider use before the sweeping language reforms adopted after World War II.

More searching turned up a recent work about furigana for the layman in Japanese. Its title is 振仮名の歴史 (Furigana no Rekishi, the history of furigana), by 今野真二 (Konno Shinji) (Shueisha, 2009).

Konno traces the evolution of furigana back to an ancient predecessor, the 訓点 (kunten, guide marks) that Japanese embedded in Chinese texts to aid in comprehension. Furigana had to wait for the creation of phonetic writing, but with the appearance of the Wamyō Ruijūshō dictionary in 930 AD, the earliest precursors to furigana began to appear. Some pre-modern texts had furigana both on the left and right sides of kanji simultaneously, and in a few, below the kanji as well.

With Japan’s opening after two and a half centuries of 鎖国 (sakoku, isolation) furigana really came into its own. From the mid-19th century onwards furigana supported the spread of literacy and played a useful role in helping the Japanese language evolve into a vehicle for absorbing scientific and cultural imports. It also served as an essential tool in helping to disseminate the language in Japan’s prewar spheres of influence, in such places as Taiwan, Korea, the Northern Marianas and Caroline Islands, and so on, where Japanese was not the indigenous language.

When teamed up with kanji, furigana also became something of an art form that boosted the versatility of ideographs. For instance, in Masataka Yamada’s 1877 translation of Daniel Defoe’s famous English novel “The Life and Strange Surprizing [sic] Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” Yamada gave the book’s protagonist the kanji name 狗児僧 (kuruso), using slightly ridiculous characters that meant a bonze (ordained Buddhist monk) named “Puppy.”

One of the things that endeared novelist 夏目漱石 (Natsume Soseki, 1867-1916) to his readers was his quirky use of 当て字 (ateji, falsely assigned characters). He would write detarame, meaning “nonsense,” as 出鱈目 — “a codfish (tara) with bulging (de) eyes (me)” — and tonikaku, meaning “anyway,” as 兎に角 “horns (kaku or tsuno) on a rabbit (to or usagi),” using furigana to let readers in on the joke.

When you see furigana attached to a kanji you can safely assume one of three possibilities. First, and the most likely, is that the intended reader is a youngster whose academic grade may not have yet encountered that particular kanji.

Second, the kanji may be somewhat obscure or its reading in this particular situation at variance with the familiar ways of reading it. For instance, you might see the kanji for the first person singular 私 (watakushi or watashi in standard Japanese), accompanied by the hiragana わて (wate), which tells the reader a person is talking in Osaka dialect.

And third, the writer wants to draw readers’ attention to the way a certain kanji is read, particularly in the case of ateji, such as 一寸 (chotto, a little, but here written here as issun meaning “one inch”) or 非道い (hidoi, terrible, but written here as hidōi “not of the morally right way”).

While the Japanese word for bread, pan, is typically written in katakana, kanji for bread do exist, written as 麺包 (mianbao in Mandarin Chinese and menpō in Japanese). I’ve seen cases where a writer chose to use these kanji to which he added the furigana パン (pan). Some readers were no doubt impressed by his erudition; others were perhaps amused by this complicated international mishmash of Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese for such a mundane object.

In books and magazines published before 1945, you’ll see furigana in abundance. Many more kanji were in use back then, and it was common to use kanji for words now written only in hiragana. In an old book, for example, you may see pronouns like 此の (kono, this), and 其の (sono, that) as well as 此処 (koko, here) and 其処 (soko, there).

I’ve found poring over these old tomes to be very instructive. By allowing materials with furigana to serve as your Rosetta Stone, you can expand your knowledge of kanji and develop a more intuitive feel for the nuances of written Japanese.

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