sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.3. Other questions on writing

1.3.12. Writing reforms in modern Japan

Meiji period

The significant reforms of the 19th century Meiji period (1868-1912) did not initially impact on the Japanese writing system, however the language itself was changing due to a massive influx of new words, both borrowed from other languages or newly coined, and also as a result of movements such as the influential genbun-itchi (言文一致) which resulted in written Japanese being in the colloquial form of the language instead of the wide range of historical and classical styles used previously.The difficulty of written Japanese was a topic of debate, with several proposals in the late 1800s that the number of kanji in use be limited. In addition, exposure to non-Japanese texts led to (unsuccessful) proposals that Japanese be written entirely in kana or romaji. This period saw Western-style punctuation marks introduced into Japanese writing.

In 1900, the Education Ministry introduced three reforms aimed at improving the education in Japanese writing:

  1. standardization of the hiragana script, eliminating the range of hentaigana (変体仮名) then in use;
  2. restriction of the number of kanji taught in elementary schools to about 1,200;
  3. reform of the irregular kana representation of the Sino-Japanese readings of kanji to make them conform with the pronunciation.

The first two of these were generally accepted, but the third was hotly contested, particularly by conservatives, to the extent that it was withdrawn in 1908 (Seeley, 1991).


The partial failure of the 1900 reforms combined with the rise of nationalism in Japan effectively prevented further significant reform of the writing system. The period before World War II saw numerous proposals to restrict the number of kanji in use, and several newspapers voluntarily restricted their kanji usage and increased usage of furigana (see 1.3.3. What is ?), however there was no official endorsement of these, and indeed much opposition.


The period immediately following World War II saw a rapid and significant reform of the writing system. This was in part due to influence of the Occupation authorities, but to a significant extent was due to the removal of conservatives from control of the educational system, which meant that previously stalled revisions could proceed. The major reforms were:

(At one stage there was a proposal from an advisor in the Occupation administration to change the writing system to rōmaji, however it was not supported by other specialists and did not proceed.) (Unger, 1996)

In addition, the practice or writing signs, etc. in a migi yokogaki, e.g. the Tokyo station sign was 駅京東. (which was regarded as a variant of the regular column script, but with columns one character high) was generally replaced by left-to-right writing. Right-to-left writing is still seen on the right (or starboard) side of vehicles, ships, etc. so that the text runs from the front of the vehicle to the back (or from bow to stern).

The post-war reforms have remained, although some of the restrictions have been relaxed. The replacement of the Tōyō kanji in 1981 with the 1,945 Jōyō Kanji (常用漢字) was accompanied by a change from "restriction" to "recommendation", and in general the educational authorities have become less active in continued reform of the writing system (Gottlieb, 1996).

In 2004, a large increase was made in the number of kanji in the Jinmeiyō kanji. This list is the responsibility of the Justice Ministry. See 1.2.14. What are the Jinmeiyō Kanji?



This page was written by Jim Breen and is used with permission.

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