• Kyodo

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Writings believed to be the earliest known form of katakana have been found in a Buddhist sutra owned by Todaiji Temple, a professor at Tokushima Bunri University said Thursday.

Yoshinori Kobayashi, a professor of Japanese language studies, revealed his discovery at an international academic conference on how Chinese characters came into acceptance in Japan and Korea. The two-day conference runs through Friday at Toyama University.

The “Daihokobutsu Kegonkyo” sutra from the Nara Period (710-794) contains inscriptions that resemble the katakana letters that phonetically read “i” and “ri,” Kobayashi said.

Such inscriptions were made using sharpened bamboo and served as conjugational endings added to Chinese characters to help monks read the scriptures. They are believed to be the origins of katakana.

Similar markings, also thought to have been early forms of katakana, have been found in sutras at Kyoto’s Daigoji Temple and Ishiyamadera Temple in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. The ones at Todaiji Temple are from the oldest period so far.

Kobayashi said katakana and a separate set of symbols called “wokototen,” which was used in Japanese from around the ninth century to conjugate Chinese characters, originated on the Korean Peninsula.

The professor said he has discovered the same wokototen symbols in sutras that were introduced from the Korean Peninsula to Japan around the ninth century as well as those that currently exist in South Korea.

Kobayashi said his findings indicate that katakana, which had been thought to have originated in the Heian Period (794-1185), could possibly be from the earlier Nara Period.

The Todaiji Temple complex was built in the mid-eighth century during the reign of Emperor Shomu (701-756).