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Open Access Thesis

Document Type


Degree Program


Degree Type

Master of Arts (M.A.)

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Month Degree Awarded



The study of kana 仮名 development has only begun in the last fifteen years, with much scholarship focused upon discerning either the Heian origins of kana or such later developments as furigana 振り仮名 (phonetic guides) and spelling rules. However, these perspectives have largely overlooked a key moment in Japanese writing history: in 1900, the Meiji government standardized the kana, from hundreds of possible variant graphemes to the forty-six used today, one symbol per sound. From then on, what had commonly been known only as kana were divided into two groups: hiragana 平仮名, the standard set, and hentaigana 変体仮名, the set of all non-standard graphemes. This standardization represented a seismic shift in Japanese writing culture, affecting everything from education to aesthetics, and yet it occurred without any bureaucratic debate—or, it seems, any post-legislation public outcry. This study addresses the apparent incongruity by examining a variety of primary sources for evidence of a pre-Meiji acceptance of a standardized set of graphemes, before the official standardization in 1900. Arguing from this evidence, a convincing case is made that the kana made standard in 1900 had been historically recognized as distinct from all other variants, despite there being no demonstrable difference in their use in context. This project, by closely examining long-neglected sources, sheds new light on the issue of pre-modern Japanese script usage.


First Advisor

Stephen M. Forrest