What is man'yōgana?

Man'yōgana (万葉仮名), also known as shakuji (借字), is an obsolete form of kana in which kanji were used for their sounds rather than their meanings. It is the oldest native Japanese writing system, dating to circa 759. In this system, kanji were used for their pronunciation as well as meaning. The name man'yōgana comes from an ancient book of poetry, the man'yōshū (万葉集), which was written in the mid-eighth century using this kana system.[2]

In the Nara era , when the man'yōgana were invented, there were no yōon (i kana plus small ya, yu, or yo representing a glide, such as きゃ or ちょ, see What is ?) or sokuon (small tsu representing a doubled consonant, such as しぷ, see What is the small kana "tsu" used for?) sounds, so these symbols do not have any man'yōgana equivalents. In the Japanese language of the time, there were more vowels than in modern Japanese, and so the man'yōgana have two vowels where present-day Japanese has only one. This is called the kōotsu (甲乙) distinction.

The man'yōgana system was extremely complex, with some kanji being used for their meaning, some kanji used to represent a single mora (see What is the difference between a mora and a syllable?), some kanji used to represent two moras, and yet more used to create puns and complex wordplay, such as , kanji meaning "the sound of a bee", used to represent the sound bu.[1]

The man'yōgana system formed the basis of the hiragana and katakana. See How did and originate?


  1. Seeley, Christopher (1991). A History of Writing in Japan pages 49-53
  2. Takagi, Ichinosuke (1957-1962). Man'yōshū

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