Learning Japanese can be quite a challenge for Westerners. To start with, one has to learn three different writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. But if you get frustrated, remember that the Japanese have still another writing system: Manyogana. Manyogana (万葉仮名) is an old system of writing that uses kanji purely for their phonetic values. For example, 波 was read phonetically as ハ, rather than semantically as meaning "waves". ア derives from the left radical of 阿, while あ derives from a cursive form of 安. Manyogana was initially used to record poetry, as in the Man'yōshū (万葉集), compiled sometime before 759, whence the writing system derives its name. Later, both Katakana and Hiragana are derived from Manyogana, as scholars and Buddhist monks began to separately adapt Manyogana to their own purposes.
Scholars believe that Manyogana was created sometime during the Nara period. The earliest known example dates back to the year 471. By the end of the 8th century, 970 kanji were in use to represent the 90 sound combinations of Japanese. There is considerable debate and no clear answer to the origins of this writing system. Many scholars believe that it came from Paekche, the ancient kingdom of Korea. This legend about the ancient Korean kingdom appears in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, Japan's two oldest chronicles.
Of course, due to the large number of words and concepts entering Japan from Chinese which had no native equivalent, many words entered Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original Chinese. That’s where we get onyomi (音読み), the Chinese reading, and this vocabulary as a whole is referred to as Kango (漢語) in Japanese. Meanwhile, kunyomi (訓読み) readings were used when native Japanese already had an existing word. Since Manyogana used entirely Chinese characters, however, it is very difficult to know whether a character was written for its meaning or simply its phonetic value. For example, 見手 would be read as “みて” or see. while 荒足 (fierce, rough, violent + leg) would be “あらし” or storm.
While all particles and most words are represented phonetically (多太 tada, 安佐 asa), other words, such as umi (海) and funekaji (船梶) are rendered semantically. Plus, the sounds mo (母, 毛) and shi (之, 思) are written with multiple characters. Scholars believe that originally, Japanese had more sounds in common use than today and that those sounds disappeared over the course of the next 1500 years. Meanwhile, in China, the mainland continued to use characters exclusively and never developed a separate, phonetic writing system. You can see the Manyogana method used even today in Mandarin Chinese. For example, when Chinese newspapers print English names, “Peter” is phonetically written Bi3-de2 and “George” is written Qiao2-zhi4.
Once you’ve got Manyogana under your belt, don’t get too excited. You’ll still also need to learn hentaigana 変体仮名 - a complete system of alternate, non-standard Hiragana that were in use until about 100 years ago. Places like soba shops and martial arts schools still use them sometimes…but that’s a topic for another day.
Think you are able to read Manyogana? Why not give it a try - there is a quiz on the Internet to test your reading skills - just match the Hiragana to its original Chinese character. Here’s the link