Traditional Chinese characters are still preferred in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Photo: iStock
Traditional Chinese characters are still preferred in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Photo: iStock

How many words in the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国) come from Japanese-invented Chinese writing? Surprisingly, while all of the individual words stem from Chinese characters (汉字 Hanzi in Chinese or 漢字 Kanji in Japanese), but the grouping of words in order to denote certain meanings was invented by the Japanese. Such words are called Wasei Kango (和製漢語, Japan-made Chinese words). Except for the word China (中华), other words such as People’s Republic were all invented by Japan. How did China come to let the Japanese invent new words based on their own writing system? In order to answer this question, we need to go back to the Meiji Restoration, the era of rapid modernization and industrialization that took place in Japan in 1868.

The success of the Meiji Restoration and modernization of Japan in 1868 is attributable to several factors: the mass mobilization of the population into manufacturing and the building of infrastructure by the competent Meiji leadership; the decline of the feudal system and changes to the social structure; the efficient national tax system; and growth of commerce and merchants that paved the way for full-fledged capitalism, to name a few.

However, there is a less-well-known linguistic factor that aided rapid modernization during the Meiji period in Japan: its Kanji writing system.

The biggest challenge faced by the Meiji government was to translate completely new Western concepts that were virtually non-existent in Japanese society before 1868. Words like contract (契約) and philosophy (哲学) were totally new, and Japanese people must have had no idea what they meant. However, one of the Meiji government goals was to learn from Western countries and put Japan on equal footing with them. In order to do so, the Japanese government was ready to adopt whatever ideas and institutions they felt were best for Japan, such as having a postal and savings system copied from Britain a military based on Germany’s.

The perceived need for translation of English into Japanese, rather than adopting English as the lingua-franca of Japan, is evident in the following quote. “If it was believed that new academic knowledge and understanding of culture and its institutions should only be left to a select class, and therefore education belonged only to a small handful of the elite, there would have been absolutely no need to improve or develop Japanese. However, if it was believed that science, technology, philosophy, and all things cultural should be shared by all in Japan and that as many citizens as possible should have the chance to receive a high level of education, Japanese had to be improved.” (Thoughts on the Meiji Era, Kodansha, 1977).

The policy to improve translations rather than adopt English as a primary language by the Meiji government provided nationwide educational opportunities for all Japanese, and ultimately laid the foundation for a well- educated workforce that contributed to economic development. To this day, Japanese translation of English remains very fast and of high quality.

Moreover, famous Japanese scholars at the time, including Fukuzawa Yukichi and Nishi Amane, actively translated Western books and words into Japanese. In 1860, Fukuzawa traveled to San Francisco as a jûboku 従僕 (personal attendant) in the entourage of the official Japanese envoy to the United States, and upon returning to Japan, worked for the Bakufu government as a translator and produced his first publication, a Chinese-English-Japanese dictionary titled Zôtei kaei tsûgo 増訂華英通語 (New and Revised Chinese English Dictionary of Common Speech.) In 1862, he was employed as a translator (翻訳方) with an official Japanese envoy to Europe. In 1864 he received orders from the Japanese government’s Office of Foreign Relations, Chinese Translation branch, and in 1865 completed Tôjin ôrai 唐人往来 (Primer on the Chinese.) Nishi Amane coined terms such as logic (論理), philosophy (哲学), ethics (倫理) and phenomenon (現象). Thanks to their contributions, Japanese-translated words are still used to this day in East Asia.

How were these scholars able to develop advanced translation skills in such a short period of time? The answer to this question lies in East Asia’s unique and common writing system based on Chinese characters.

The most illuminating example of explaining the power of Chinese writing is the word democracy (It is written 民主主义 in Chinese, 민주주의 in Korean, and 民主主義 in Japanese, all of which have the same Chinese character roots, but with different ways of pronunciation in the three East Asian countries). Translation based on literal sounds of words such that a word is pronounced similar to de-mo-cra-cy in Japanese would not be intuitive, because translation based on the sound does not fully grasp the meaning. However, with 民主主義, literally meaning the system (主義) of people (民) becoming the main ruler of the government (主), even if the concept was new to the Japanese people, they would gradually grasp the meaning intuitively after going over it several times.

One of the biggest differences between China’s failed attempt at modernization and Japan’s successful modernization was that China only tried to mimic the surface of Western institutions and preserve the core values of China while Japan completely transformed itself into a society closer to that of the West. The successful translation of new concepts into Japanese was instrumental in Japan’s rapid nationalization by bridging the gap between the West and Japan in a short period of time. And the power of Chinese characters lies in the fact that each character conveys specific meanings so that they could be put together to create a new concept without causing much confusion in the first place.

“Japanese during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) translated knowledge from the West into kanji, which helped China to understand the world,” Liu Meixiang, a Chinese-language instructor living in Tokyo writes. “I wonder what China would be like today if (the) Japanese hadn’t done so.”

This article is originally from Joon’s Blog