Japanese Thought Japanese Philosophy
The Production Of Thought: Writing As Philosophy
When the Silk Road and other trade roads were flourishing, when the Han Empire and the Korean kingdoms entertained relations with the emerging Yamato kingdom, not only goods and ideas, but also a new means of communication—the Chinese writing system—reached the Japanese islands. The mastering of reading and writing Chinese characters gave to the populations living on the Japanese islands a new conception of space and time: educated Japanese could now belong to the vast thinking network that had brought together Indian, Chinese, and many other inspiring cultural centers. A few hundred years later, the Utsuho monogatari (976–983) mentions for the first time the word kana (provisional names) to speak about a writing system derived from mana (perfected names), that is, the original Chinese characters. The invention of the kana writing system was interpreted during the Edo era (1600–1867) and up to twenty-first-century Japan as a symbol of Japanese cultural unity, independence, and superiority. Some twenty-first-century scholarship has criticized such an approach and offers new readings of Heian creativity. These new studies tend to emphasize hybridity and hierarchy as the key factors involved in the formation of the classical Japanese community. The kana system has never been a mere tool to transcribe phonemes and was never really thought of as independent from the mana system. These studies underline the importance of looking at the Japanese writing system as a whole entity ensuring the intelligibility of inscription. In brief, a study of Japanese thought requires an in-depth study of the working out of "philosophies of writing" shared by cultures using Chinese characters. From the Heian period (794–1185) up to contemporary Japan, Japanese have been using an ever-increasing variety of writing systems in order to preserve the intelligibility (not to be confused with clarity or efficiency) of written communication. The combination of Chinese characters, kana scripts, Sanskrit syllabary, and, later, the Western alphabet in the Japanese writing system is a constant reminder of the importance of inscription as a symbol of the complex correspondence between the social, political, and cosmological orders.
At the time of the formation of the Japanese writing system, the power and authority received through the mastering of the art of calligraphy gave to Heian scholars the possibility of uniting the social order of the kingdom with the cosmological order found in Buddhist texts. Furthermore, the reading of written works gave to Japanese scholars the sense that texts written in the past were the ultimate source of authority and perfection from which the present derived its legitimacy. Finally, written works gave access to Buddhist teachings, adding new figures such as Sanskrit letters to symbolize new types of associations.
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