Writing reforms in modern Japan

Meiji period

The reforms of the 19th century Meiji period (1868-1912) did not initially impact the Japanese writing system, but the language itself was changing due to an influx of new words, both borrowed from other languages and newly coined, and also because of movements such as genbun-itchi (言文一致) which resulted in written Japanese being in the colloquial form of the language instead of the classical styles used previously. The difficulty of written Japanese was a topic of debate, with several proposals in the late 19th century to limit the number of kanji in use. 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 hiragana, eliminating hentaigana (変体仮名) (see What is ?);
  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were generally accepted, but the third was hotly contested, particularly by conservatives, to the extent that it was withdrawn in 1908 (Seeley, 1991).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 prevented further 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 What is ?), but there was no official endorsement of these, and indeed much opposition.


The period following World War II saw a rapid reform of the writing system. This was due to influence of the Occupation authorities, and the removal of conservatives from control of the educational system. The major reforms were:

In addition, the practice of writing signs going from right to left, was generally replaced by left-to-right writing. See Can Japanese be written right to left? for details.

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 What are the ?



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

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