Kuzushi-ji: a lost form of writing?

You can read a french version by clicking here.

In February 2019, the Japanese Studies Library hosted a Kuzushi-ji reading workshop, in collaboration with the CRCAO (Centre de recherche sur les civilisations de l’Asie orientale – East Asian Civilizations Research Centre, CNRS). This free workshop has been organized regularly since 2011, by the NIJL (National Institute of Japanese Literature) and the EAJRS (European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists).

What are Kuzushi-ji? What is this workshop about? What type of audience attends this event and to what end?

To answer these questions and find out more about this little-known form of writing, we interviewed Kaoru Baba, head of the Japanese studies library of the Pôle Extrême-Orient at the Collège de France, who co-organized and took part in this workshop.

— Hello Kaoru, before we delve into the world of Kuzushi-ji, could you very briefly tell us how the Japanese writing system works? Is it an alphabetical system, like in French, or an ideographic system, like in Chinese?

— Actually, Japanese writing combines the two systems: a syllabary (kana), which represents about 50 sounds – so which is not quite an alphabetical system –, and the ideographic system of Chinese writing (kanji), where each sign represents a word or concept. Historically, kanji (which actually means “letter of the Han”, the Han being an ancient Chinese dynasty) were the first to be introduced in Japan, in the fifth century. Then came the invention of the kana system, peculiar to Japanese, of which the oldest known example dates back to the ninth century.

So there was a time when the Japanese only used kanji, and these were also used to represent just one sound. In fact, kanji were the letters of scientists or scholars, senior officials or clerks: essentially the elite with access to a foreign culture, namely that of China. The invention and development of kana, on the other hand, were closely linked to the development of Japan’s indigenous and even popular culture, particularly in literature, and were spurred by the need for a specifically Japanese script that would be easier to learn.

It’s interesting to note here that even after the appearance of the kana, the Japanese did not give up kanji, and have continued to use them to this day. I think it would be very difficult for the Japanese not to use kanji at all. Remember that in the past, the kanji system spread to many other Asian countries with Chinese culture, at the same time spawning a writing system peculiar to each country, like in Vietnam and Korea, to mention only the two most notable cases. But apart from the Chinese, only the Japanese still learn kanji from primary school and use them in everyday life, even though the two languages are quite different.

So since the Middle Ages, the Japanese have used and continue to use these two writing systems with quite different appearances, mixing them in a single text. There is also a long scholarly tradition in Japan of writing in classical Chinese (in other words, entirely in kanji), in much the same way as Westerners used to write in Latin.

— And so how does this relate back to Kuzushi-ji?

— Yes, that’s right, sorry Marie, I got carried away. It’s a fascinating topic1, but it does take us on a bit of a detour from Kuzushi-ji.

Literally, Kuzushi-ji means a “distorted or transformed letter”. In fact, each kana is a simplification of a kanji, and Japanese specialists use the word “jibo”, which literally means “mother letter”, to indicate the kanji from which a kana is derived. In that sense, we can say that a kana is already a kuzushi-ji, compared to its mother kanji. But there are different degrees of simplification for a given kana, which are more or less recognizable, depending on the case. So when it comes to reading manuscripts, we can say that our workshop is a Japanese paleography workshop.

Example of kuzushi-ji

— Is there any relation between this simplification and calligraphy?

— Yes, insofar as when kana were invented (or to be more precise, during their slow formation), the Japanese used brushes and ink. However, I don’t think that this quest for specifically Japanese letters was driven or guided by the aesthetic, artistic or spiritual considerations associated with calligraphy – “Shodō” in Japanese, which translates as “the way of writing”. But once the forms of the kana became more or less set in stone, and their use became widespread, they began to be used with the spirit of calligraphy, just as kanji had long been used in China2. Again – and this is normal –, in Japanese calligraphy, kanji and kana are used together.

In literature especially, where the use of kana was more developed than in scholarly, religious or administrative texts, the appreciation of beautiful writing (calligraphy) conveyed more meaning, particularly since manuscripts and their reproduction had long been the medium for disseminating and sharing literary texts and poems.

So prior to 1900 there were about 300 kana; it then became necessary to simplify the writing. About 50 kana – the most commonly ones – were selected to establish a standardized writing, based on the principle of one kana per sound.

— 1900: what does this date correspond to?

— This was the year that the Ministry of Education set all the kanas to be taught in school, when it enacted the “Rules Surrounding the Implementation of the Primary Schools Code”. But that was just the outcome or manifestation, in the field of education, of a major historical turn that took place in 1868, namely, the “Meiji Restoration”.

— What was this “Meiji Restoration”? How does it relate to our topic?

— It is called a “restoration” because the emperor, supported by several fiefdoms opposing the former feudal regime, returned to the political scene. And “Meiji” was both the name of this new emperor and the name of the era of his reign. It actually means “enlightened governance”. The old regime, a Shōgun dynasty of the Tokugawa family, had enforced a so-called “closed door” foreign policy since the early seventeenth century, with very limited and regulated relations with just three countries: the Netherlands, China and Korea. But with this restoration, the westernization or modernization of Japan was very deliberately accelerated.

Once the doors were opened in the late 1850s, direct exchanges with the major Western powers multiplied in Japan. For example, the Tokugawa family and its vassals became very close to France, unlike their opponents, who built ties with the British.

To get back to our topic, the introduction of modern printing technology with mobile characters was decisive. The Japanese pioneer in this field, an official Dutch interpreter, had carried out several mobile character printing trials since the late 1850s, but as his knowledge was primarily theoretical, he was not always successful. This type of situation very rapidly changed across all scientific and technological fields after 1868, as direct contact with experts was facilitated, and it became easier to access Western material.

— So the introduction of mobile characters sounded the end of the Kuzuchi-ji?

— Yes, it’s easy to see how mobile characters tie in with the standardization of letter shapes. And then, in order to make public education more efficient, the reform carried out in the name of modernization tended largely to favour simplification. In France, this could be likened to the reform of spelling.

In communist China (and to an extent in Japan), it was only quite recently that a number of kanji were simplified. Why not, if it makes it easier to learn? However, as a result, without specific and further studies beyond secondary education, one becomes almost illiterate when it comes to a fairly large volume of documents, both printed and handwritten. In the case of Japanese, as we have seen, this involves most documents produced before the mid-nineteenth century. Hence the value of the workshop that we just organized.

— You mentioned printed documents. Are there books printed in Kuzushi-ji?

— Yes, plenty! In Japan, the history of printed texts dates back to the eighth century, with the engraved wooden plate technique from China. These were mainly Buddhist texts or Chinese classics, essentially texts in Chinese (at least in appearance, bar a few details that I will not discuss today). This situation began to change only from the sixteenth century, when kana (from Kuzushi-ji!) gradually began to feature in printed books. So paradoxically, for us experts on Japan and modern Japanese people, when it comes to deciphering each letter, a book or printed text from ancient times is easier to read than a book from a later period.

And then, at the very end of the sixteenth century, the mobile characters technique arrived in Japan via two avenues: the Jesuit missionaries, and the Koreans, following the Japanese army’s invasion of Korea. This technique developed quite rapidly with the expansion of readership, which was one of the reasons for the introduction of kana in printing.

Admittedly, although the shape of kanji is more stable and therefore more recognizable, they are difficult to learn as there are so many of them: there are currently between 1,000 and 2,000 kanji for everyday use. A small dictionary will easily feature 15,000 kanji. In short, they are also words…

While we’re on the topic, I should tell you about a printing process used for Chinese ideograms, called “Furi gana3” or more recently “ruby4”. It’s a small kana that specifies how to read a kanji, and is found in Japanese books from all eras. And nowadays, this function features in word processing software (if you use the English version of Word®, it is called “Phonetic Guide”). One is supposed to learn to read kanji with these “furi gana”.

Example of furi-gana

Anyhow, book printing soared in the early seventeenth century, to such an extent that the older wood engraving technique became more profitable and easier, especially with the combination of text and illustration, and the Japanese dropped the new mobile character technique from the middle of the century. This very short-lived publishing is called “ko-katsuji-ban” (old typography), to distinguish it from that which started with the Meiji era. Thus, for the two and a half centuries of the Tokugawa dynasty’s reign, known as the Edo period (Edo is the former name of Tokyo), the Japanese produced a considerable quantity of books, quite often illustrated5. Most of the ancient Japanese books found in the West are actually from this period. The majority left Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration and were especially appreciated for their illustrations. One could perhaps call this the “Japonism of books”.

— Could you quantify the volume of this body of old books?

— The General Catalog of National Books, which provides a record of books published in Japan in Japanese prior to 1867, features 1.7 million titles. But according to an article6 by Professor Yamamoto, one of the two guest facilitators of our workshop, there are over three million books that have not yet been recorded. And even with the books listed in this catalogue – which is now also available online –, many have no modern edition, because they are written in Kuzushi-ji. So we still have a huge field to explore, and reading Kuzushi-ji is key to this.

Professor Yamamoto with a kakemono, from his private collection

— And in our library at the Collège de France ?

— Some of the engravings on the maps and prints in the Kreitmann collection7 are written in Kuzushi-ji. We don’t have that many old Japanese books, fewer than at the Musée Guimet, the Bibliothèque Nationale or the Bulac, but there are still over two hundred titles, including a number that are very interesting or rare, even in Japan, such as those of the Castillon collection8. Even just to catalogue them, or to make them known, if not to fully understand them, we need to be able to read Kuzushi-ji.

And then we have an archive collection, which we call the Mitsui collection. It’s a collection of about 10,000 historical documents, which were kept by an old eminent family, called the Mitsui, that had settled in the Kōshū region (now Yamanashi), bordering the Tokyo region to its west. These archives span more than a century, from the late eighteenth century to the 1920s. We have 63,000 digitized files. Another one of the facilitators for our workshop, the historian Professor Ōta, actually chose some of the pieces in this collection as material for our workshop.

— And how did your workshop actually go?

— The workshop took place over three days, with three sessions a day. It was an intensive workshop, adding up to 15 hours in total. The teaching approach was simple: people read texts that were quite difficult to read, first on their own, sometimes discussing them with their neighbours, and then the facilitators corrected them. As for the choice of texts, Mrs Hasegawa, a librarian at the Musée Guimet, and I had been liaising with the two professors working at the National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL) – a literature specialist and a historian – since November 2018. And from the very start of that conversation, we felt it would be good for us to valorize the texts that are held in Paris. With regard to the history side, which I handled, I offered Mr. Ōta documents from the Mitsui collection, which he had already heard about. The NIJL also has the digitized files of the collection, which allowed him to select and study some of these texts, without leaving Japan. Thus a week before the workshop, we were able to send all participants the PDF copies of the texts to read, and on the day, we handed out the 64-page paper version, printed in colour, thanks to the superb reprographics department of the Collège de France. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them.

Professor Ôta and attendees reading a document

— Were the literature and history sessions organized consecutively or in parallel? And actually, are they so different when it comes to the study of Kuzuchi-ji?

— Consecutively: first Professor Yamamoto facilitated the workshop on literary texts (seven hours in total), then Professor Ōta facilitated the workshop on historical documents (eight hours in total). In literary texts, whether handwritten or printed, there are more kana. The difficulty in reading stems above all from the fact that there are multiple kana for a single sound, as I explained earlier. Conversely, in archive texts there are more kanji, which are often very distorted, so that they can be written quickly. But in the latter case, the sentences are basically set and quite repetitive.

Professor Ōta had the excellent idea of comparing the documents of the Mitsui collection with those of another collection, the Marega collection, discovered in 2011 and held in the Vatican library.

— In the Vatican?

— Yes. The collection is named after the Italian priest Mario Marega (1902-1978). He arrived in Japan in 1929 and settled in the region of Oita, in the south of the country, where he spent 18 years carrying out historical and ethnographic research alongside his ecclesiastical work. This collection is the fruit of his research, and includes important sources for the history of Christianity in the region. Professor Ōta regularly visits Italy as a member of the international research team studying this collection.

A document from Mitsui collection, presented during the workshop

— Christianity in Japan? And how does this relate to the Mitsui collection?

— When I was talking about the first prints with mobile characters, I mentioned the arrival of missionaries in Japan in the sixteenth century. Well, as a result, Christianity spread fairly quickly in Japan, especially in the south where missionaries had landed, until the first shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, concerned about this development, imposed a ban on Christianity, with many very violent forms of repression. That was from 1610 onwards. And the “closed door” diplomacy that I mentioned earlier dates back to that time. In domestic politics, the Bakufu (that was what the military government was called in Japan) started exerting pretty strict control over the religious affiliation of the whole population, among other things. Professor Ōta found a few documents in the Mitsui collection related to this control. This enabled him to show us how widely it differed between the region of Oita (so with a document from the Maraga collection), where there had been many Christians9, and the region of Kōshū, about 1,000 km from Oita, where there had not previously been any Christian tradition. In fact, his lecture was a lecture on the history of Japan at the same time, with supporting documents. What’s more, as regards the Mitsui collection, we were able to take out the real archive documents, kept in our precious collections, which greatly impressed the participants.

— Indeed. In this respect, what was the profile of the other participants? Other librarians and archivists?

— As the EAJRS is an association of library and museum professionals, this type of audience is generally given priority, especially when there are too many requests to join. But this time, all applications were accepted, and there were also many Japanese studies academic researchers and PhD students. The background of the participants – 27 in total –, was also widely diverse: about half came from France and the other half from Russia, the United Kingdom, and so on10.

— So sometimes you have to make a selection?

— In theory, yes. At least that’s what we state when we invite participants to sign up, because we don’t know ahead of time how many requests we will get. Some experience, a basic level of Kuzushi-ji reading and a certain level in Japanese are also required. The latter condition is imposed not because the teaching is in Japanese, but because the Japanese in the texts to be read is not current Japanese and is a little more difficult to read.

— Are there any other workshops?

— Yes, for example, Cambridge University also regularly organizes this type of workshop, but without inviting a Japanese facilitator; in other words, it’s in English, with local specialists. During the workshop, I met two PhD students, a Brazilian man who was preparing his thesis in France, and a Russian woman, both of whom had already attended this workshop in Cambridge. Their Kuzushi-ji reading level was pretty high.

Outside of Japan, academic specialists do offer some Kuzushi-ji lessons, but it is often as part of, or in addition to, their history or literature lectures. The workshop format is quite a recent phenomenon, which in my opinion goes to show that Japanese studies have reached a certain maturity outside of Japan. Let’s just say that the need to read sources directly is now well recognized. I don’t know the situation in North America very well, but in Europe, apart from our workshop and the one in Cambridge, there is the one that Nagoya University recently set up here. This Japanese university sends its postdoc students in classical Japanese literature to Europe and they are responsible for facilitating the workshop. It is presented as an introductory workshop. It’s not intensive; it’s a class about two hours long, once a week, for a few months. During their spare time, the facilitators carry out their personal research, including on Japanese documents held in Europe. They have already been to Heidelberg and Strasbourg, and are currently in Paris, at the EFEO. I must admit that I am taking part in their workshop, as I’m a beginner! Next year, I heard that they will be in Helsinki and Oslo.

— And to conclude, could you introduce the two organizations that run this workshop? Will they be offering a Kuzushi-ji workshop next year?

This workshop is indeed run by two organizations: the European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists (EAJRS), of which I am a board member, and the National Institute of Japanese Literature (NIJL).

The latter is a major Japanese national institution dedicated to supporting researchers in the field of Japanese literature from all eras. One could say it’s the Japanese equivalent of a large CNRS laboratory, in the sense that its researchers are not required to teach. It hosts a vast body of Japanese literature from all over the country in a single place, and offers many useful databases on its website. At the same time, it is very active in the field of international collaboration, of which our workshop is just one example. The appointment of the North American, Robert Campbell, as the new Director is also telling of this spirit of openness. In fact, Professor Robert intends to invite him to the Collège de France.

The European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists (EAJRS11) is a European association currently presided by a Belgian researcher. Its aim is to promote the development and dissemination of information and resources on Japan in Europe. To this end, every year since 1994 it has organized an annual conference and has set up or supported other initiatives and related activities.

Paris has already hosted the annual conference twice (at the Maison de la culture du Japon in 2002 and at the BULAC in 2013), and Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, will host it in September 2019. There is also a similar association for sinologists: the European Association of Sinological Librarians (EASL). Our colleague in charge of the Chinese studies library, Delphine Spicq, regularly takes part in their annual conference. Delphine would like the next EASL conference to be hosted in our future Institute of Civilizations in September 2020. And then the question naturally arises for us Japan experts as well. But in any case, thanks to this NIJL/EAJRS partnership, we are confident that we will be able to set up a Kuzushi-ji workshop in 2020, and we will keep you posted.


Pour citer cet article : Kaoru Baba, Marie Preziosi, "Kuzushi-ji: a lost form of writing?," in Colligere, 09/09/2019, https://archibibscdf.hypotheses.org/4375. Consulté le 21/09/2019.

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  1. This transposition of two languages – which does not occur only within writing since the Japanese know and use the meaning of kanji, and therefore of Chinese words (without pronouncing them like the Chinese) – is one of the major subjects discussed by Professor Jean-Noël Robert in his lectures at the Collège de France. Readers can refer to his inaugural lecture, “Japanese Hieroglossia”, as well as the symposiums he organizes on the theme of hieroglossia, which show that this phenomenon was by no means limited to Japanese. On the influence and significance of Chinese culture which is reflected in writing and books throughout East Asia and its long history, see Peter Francis Kornicki’s Languages, scripts, and Chinese texts in East Asia (Oxford University Press, 2018). []
  2. In Chinese, calligraphy is called “Shufa“, which can be translated as “the art of writing”. Its history is as long as that of Chinese ideograms. []
  3. Literally, “added kana”. []
  4. English technical name for a small point mobile character. The Japanese naturally adopted this term only after the Meiji restoration, while upholding the practice of “furi gana”. []
  5. See Bunkichi FUJIMORI “Techniques de fabrication et diffusion des livres à l’époque d’Edo”. Identités, marges, médiations : regards croisés sur la société japonaise, collection Études thématiques, EFEO, 2001, pp. 151-155, followed by Roger CHARTIER’s commentary, “Gutenberg vu de l’Est”, pp. 156-161. []
  6. “Deep Learning for Classical Japanese Literature”. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1812.01718.pdf (last accessed on 20/03/2019). []
  7. Louis Kreitmann (1851-1914), who brought back many precious objects and documents from his stay in Japan where he had been appointed military instructor. See our publication: Deux ans au Japon (1876-1878) : journal et correspondance de Louis Kreitmann, officier du génie. Kreitmann, Louis; Kreitmann, Pierre; Baba, Kaoru [et al.]; Paris : Collège de France, Institute of Advanced Japanese Studies, 2015, 672 p.; and the digitized images of the collection in Salamandre, the Collège’s digital heritage library. []
  8. See “La Bibliothèque botanique du comte Hippolyte de Castillon de Saint-Victor (1830-1898)” by Suzanne Esmein and Seiichi Kitayama, L’Ethnographie, t. LXXXVI, 2 (1990), 108, pp. 211-224. []
  9. A source from the region’s church reported that there were about 30,000 Christians there in the second half of the sixteenth century, out of a population of about 200,000. Even the feudal lord of this region converted to Christianity from Zen Buddhism. []
  10. France 15, United Kingdom 4, Russia 2, Denmark 1, Norway 1, Germany 1, Ireland 1, United States 1, Japan 1. []
  11. https://www.eajrs.net/nijleajrs-kuzushi-ji-workshop (last accessed on 21/03/2019). []

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