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Chapter 12. Japanophone Glosses (kunten) in Printed and Digitized Manuscripts

Kimiko Kono


Two characteristics make books written in Japan during the pre-modern era unique. The first of these is that among books composed by Japanese authors, in addition to those written in the Japanese language, or wabun 和文(lit. “Japanese (wa) writing (bun)”), there were also a large number of books written in Classical Chinese, or kanbun 漢文(lit. “Chinese (kan) writing (bun)”). The second characteristic is that the literary world of premodern Japan consisted not merely of books by such Japanese authors alone, but also allotted a prominent place to Chinese and Buddhist Classics, both of these being likewise composed not in Japanophone wabun, but in the Sinographic kanbun of Classical Chinese.

Learned people in ancient Japan expended a great deal of effort on the reading and understanding of such kanbun texts. At the same time, they also developed a system for graphically assigning the Chinese characters and Chinese vocabulary found in these texts to specific words in their native Japanese, creating thereby a script suitable for the recording of that language. Later, around the 9th century, a separate script called kana, itself graphically derived from Chinese characters, was developed to write Japanese phonetically. The modern custom of writing Japanese in a mixture of Sinographic characters and phonetic kana is a direct result of this process, and throughout the history of Japanese language and writing, the question of how to assign Chinese characters and vocabulary to Japanese words - the method known as kundoku, or “gloss-reading” - has been an issue of crucial importance.

Known collectively as kanbun kundoku - the Japanophone gloss-reading of Sinographic text - this practice was born together with, and has persisted throughout, the history of Japanese language, learning, and culture. In this article, I look at texts that embodied this practice, examining in particular documents of the Japanophone “gloss-pointing” method known as kunten. I focus on how shifts and transformations in media - originally from manuscript to print, and now from print to digital - have produced changes in the page layouts used to convey such gloss-borne intellectual information. I also consider how these changes in media and page layout have influenced people’s learning habits and knowledge. Indeed, precisely because of its adoption and re-adoption across various successive forms of media, the Japanese practice of kanbun kundoku, together with its kunten glossing, has a relevance far beyond the East Asian sphere where Sinographic script and literary culture were shared. It harbors the potential, I believe, to open up an entirely new perspective for the pursuit of a world philology as a whole.

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