Japan and the Japanese did not develop their own fully-fledged writing system, but imported one from China during the early 5th century or perhaps even slightly earlier.
Use of this writing subsequently expanded as Buddhism arrived in Japan alongside Chinese Buddhist monks, eventually helping elevate calligraphy to a respected art form in Japan.
The introduction of a writing system for the first time like this from another country had a major impact on Japanese folklore, as well as Japan’s oral traditions of storytelling, and the Japanese language itself.
Initially, it was a struggle for Japan and Japanese people to absorb a writing system designed for a completely different language, with new words and concepts, and match it to their spoken language.
Today many Japanese words are actually derived from Chinese such as the Japanese word for novel, shosetsu, but Japanese grammar, word order and sentences were then and still are distinct and the two languages are unrelated linguistically. Because of this some type of phonetic script had to be developed to express inflected endings of Japanese words, reflect Japanese grammar, and to record Japanese proper names and more. This took time.
In fact, two original syllabaries (sets of written characters) were subsequently developed hiragana and katakana leading to Japanese being written with a script that combines and mixes Chinese characters (kanji) and the locally developed ones hiragana and katakana. There are, however, some people who argue, somewhat unconvincingly, that katakana is actually derived from ancient Hebrew.
One of the earliest examples of Japanese being written like this combing scripts is Japan’s oldest poetry anthology, the Manyoshu, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, compiled during Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) from which the name of Japan’s new imperial age Reiwa is derived. Japanese writing that uses Chinese lettering exclusively, kanji, is known as kanbun.
That said, initially, hiragana was often referred to as Onna-de, women’s hand, as it was used mostly by women and for writing poetry, while men generally used kanji and katakana.
The Tale of Genji written by a women, Murasaki Shikibu (973-1025), in 1010, during Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185), said to be Japan’s oldest novel and perhaps even the world’s oldest novel, if a novel is defined as prose narrative of significant length, was written completely in hiragana.
Later as literacy rates increased in Japan in the medieval era, books were written for the first time based on well-known oral tales and new works were created specifically to provide new tales that priests and entertainers could introduce in the oral tradition, creating a dynamic interaction between the oral and the newer written traditions of storytelling.
An important work that facilitated this parallel growth in the oral and written traditions was the Heike Monogatari, a collection of tales written between 1190 and 1221, and another similarly important example is The Gikeiki, The Chronicle of Yoshitsune, which tells the tale of the warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189). Both tales were influenced by and helped propagate the Buddhist beliefs and values of the period. Narrative scrolls, emaki-mono, which blend painting and prose have also historically played a foundational role in the development of Japanese literature.
Many years later, following increasing interactions with the West, alongside another new wave of new technologies, ideas, concepts and vocabulary and people, a new fourth syllabary, script, was introduced romaji, which is based on the Latin script that most European languages use.
Romaji was initially created to help Westerners learning Japanese, but a new version designed for use by Japanese people was developed in 1885. This has led to a situation where four different scripts are used in written Japanese, kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji.
There is also the added complexity, due to this linguistic history, that kanji letters have two different pronunciations in Japanese depending on how the letters are used: a Chinese derived one, known as on-yomi, the sound reading, and a Japanese one called kun-yomi, meaning reading, for the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji letter.
These quirks of history and the development of written Japanese with its complex writing system, with multiple syllabary, has probably made it difficult for readers outside Japan to enjoy and fully appreciate the breadth and depth of Japanese literature reducing the number of books translated or read by non-Japanese people.
Nevertheless, it has in its own unique way helped enriched the Japanese language, and the myriad forms of Japanese storytelling, creative writing, and narrative fiction.