4. Wordplay and Written Japanese

The Japanese alphabet is comprised from 46 letters. These letters are called "kana". There are two types to kana, "hiragana" the round kana, and "katakana" the square kana. Both kanas are derived from kanji, the Chinese characters, which were broken down and simplified over the years, and these letters were already in use by the Heian era. Originally, the kana were considered women's letters, and men with education were expected to write in kanji, and able to read "Kanbun", Chinese literature. Through the ages, written Japanese evolved into a mixture of kana and kanji that are in use now. Until the last century, the predominant kana was the katakana, and official documents were written in katakana and kanji, though in private scenes, hiragana was in wide use. It is only after WW II that hiragana came into use in official documents.

There is only one pronunciation to one letter, as Japanese kana is a phonetic symbol in itself, and not a sign as with the western alphabet, where the pronunciation of many letters change depending on the combination of the alphabet. When Japanese is converted into the western alphabet, which we call roma-ji, it is combined with the 5 vowels (they are pronounced only as a short sound), a, i, u, e, o, and the consonants, k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w. The first row is just the vowels, and the 2nd to 10th row is the combination of the vowels and the consonants, i.e., ka, sa, ta, na, etc. the row of the consonant y contains only 3 letters, ya, yu, yo; w only wa, and added to this is "wo" which does not belong to the w line but is another independent vowel that grammatically is a particle, and n without a vowel. These 46 letters comprise the basic Japanese alphabet. There are guttural sounds and popping sounds in Japanese, which, when written, are expressed by sonant marks, two marks that look like apostrophes for the guttural sounds and a small circle for the popping sounds, all written on the right shoulder of the respective kana. The pronunciation of ka changes to ga, sa to za, so, k to g, s to z, t to d, and h to b. H with the small circle changes to p. The vowels and tu (more often written tsu) are sometimes written smaller than the other letters to indicate that the consonant preceding these letters "liaison".

Kanji is more complicated, and there are more than 3000 kanji in daily use. Only a few kanji have a single pronunciation. Most can be read at least in two ways, and some as many as 5 or 6 ways or even more. All kanji can, of course, be interchanged with kana. The fact is, there are many words in Japanese with the same pronunciation, and though the accent will differ in many cases, when written in kana, they look exactly the same. You can usually tell what the words stand for from the context of the sentence, but sometimes, that can be difficult. In these cases, the only way to tell what it stands for will be the kanji. For instance both candy and rain are ame in Japanese. Ko means child, but it can also mean arc. Hence, the necessity to write Japanese with a mixture of kana and kanji.

This is how word play with double and triple meanings that is particular to Japanese comes into conversations and writings. We can write in kana a word that actually have two or three different meanings, or use a kanji that can be read several ways, and put them into a sentence to carry hidden meanings. We can write a word that has Japanese local lingo doubled up with the original meaning and usage of the words for hidden meanings. This kind of wordplay existed even one thousand years ago, and many of the ancient poems that we study at school as classic Japanese carry such innuendos.

Into this Japanese wordplay, English, or Western alphabets have come into the mix, making everything more complicated and interesting. A very good example of this is the promotional logo that a global computer company is using in its TV commercials, "e-business". (I suppose this is copyrighted, I hope I'm not infringing on anything by putting up the explanation of this word.) Now, to the English speaker, "e" would only mean, electronics. In Japanese, "e", or rather, "ii", otherwise "yoi", means, good. Thus, the "e" used here doubles as electronics and good business.

There are many articles in the Japanese version of this site where this kind of wordplay appears, and I will try to introduce and explain them as I notice them. For the moment, one example is up in the "Decoys and Cherry Blossoms" tidbit. If you haven't taken a look there yet, please do so.

To Decoys and Cherry Blossoms
Return to Introduction
The original writer of this site is Shakushigakudo Master who is a guest of Little MANUELA. J to E translater, Sanae gives us an explanation of Japanese wordplay of "Shakushigakudo" here.