Are Kanji remix?

Kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with Hiragana and Katakana.

Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, Indo Arabic numerals, and Latin alphabets

The Japanese language had no written form at the time Chinese characters were introduced, and texts were written and read only in Chinese. Over time, however, a system known as Kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to restructure and read Chinese sentences, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar.


Chinese characters also came to be used to write Japanese words, resulting in the modern Kana syllabaries. A writing system called Manyoogana (used in the ancient poetry anthology Mayooshuu) evolved that used a number of Chinese characters for their sound, rather than for their meaning.  Manyoogana written in cursive style transformed into Hiragana.

Katakana emerged via a parallel path: monastery students simplified Manyoogana to a single constituent element. Thus the two other writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana, referred to collectively as Kana, are actually descended from Kanji.

In modern Japanese, Kanji are used to write parts of the language such as nouns, adjective stems, and verb stems, while Hiragana are used to write inflected verb and adjective endings (okurigana), particles, and miscellaneous words which have no kanji or whose kanji is considered obscure or too difficult to read or remember. Katakana are used for representing onomatopoeia, non-Japanese loanwords (except those borrowed from Chinese), and for emphasis on certain words.

Image: my own

I can say “Remix” culture is not a new concept and not limited to digital technology. As you can see from the Japanese writing system, we didn’t simply grab or use those of characters; we modified and recombined Chinese characters, and created a new writing system. Not only the writing system, our culture has been enriched by other cultures; besides we are still building something new upon something already exist.

At the beginning of the year, I post the essential questions to make the students to think the course goals.

1. What is the value of learning about other cultures? Why should I learn about Japan?

2. What can we learn about our own culture from studying another? How does Japanese culture affect me?

3. How did Japanese culture grow?  Why did it grow differently than mine?

4. What motivates me to learn about my country / other countries?

I’ve been trying to make my students to understand how closely our cultures are connected to one other and affect each other. Geography (climate, physical landscape, the environment), history, politics, economic activities, society and faith influence the development of culture, and at times, cultures have different perspectives. I want my students to identify ways how people can work together for mutual benefit.

I would like to incorporate aspects of “Remix” culture to make them think our mutual benefit in the 21st century.

7 thoughts on “Are Kanji remix?

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. It’s funny, just a few days ago, my friend (non-Asian) made a comment along the lines of “don’t ever tell a Japanese person that their language comes from Chinese.” It was off-hand and the topic changed quickly so I never really got to comment or think more about it. But I do wonder, are Japanese people “offended” when hearing that the Japanese language has roots from the Chinese language? Your explanation is just perfect, by stating that for example, one Japanese system evolves from Chinese “by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar.”

    I love the “Everything is a Remix” series by Kirby Ferguson and I find it very fitting to suggest the Chinese/Japanese language relationship to be a remix. English as a language is borrowed from so many others too, I don’t think this is something for people to be offended over.

  2. Very interesting ideas! And if you think about it the individual Kanji themselves are kind of like remix projects in a way because they are each all made of a certain limited set of building blocks – yet they can produce almost infinite variations! There’s an art project / book I read about which only contains hundreds of plausible Kanji which don’t mean anything: link to

  3. Thanks for the post. I find written Japanese to be a very rich form of culture. Having studied Chinese, I see where some traditional characters continue to be used while others have been abbreviated which gives them a new aesthetic. It is also interesting to read in the dictionary words for concepts that seem universal but are written in katakana.
    What do you think would be best way to help students explore the wide range of remix that cultures like Japan’s have experienced, even just in the 20C?

  4. Awesome! I love this idea! It’s true that we see remix everywhere. After reading so many posts for this course, it’s great to see that we are teaching students to understand the concept of remixing in so many different subject areas for so many different purposes. This is providing the foundation for understanding remix as a culture and a digital art form. Exciting!

  5. I love your explanation of the development of the written Japanese language in the first half of your post, it’s very informative, thank you! Do you explain this to your students? You should make them read this post at the start of the year so they have an understanding of how the written Japanese language came to be. It would be awesome if you could develop this into a project where they make a short video on this topic.

  6. Thank you for the post, Hosoi-sensei. I like the idea of relating the remix culture and looking through this lens as you examine kanji and other aspects of Japanese language and culture.
    For my own resources, I have a kanji pictograph book and now there is an application for the iPad (link to by Michael Rowley to help learn kanji through his remixes. Do you have recommendations?
    ありがとうございました。m(_ _)m

  7. Great post! Yes, Japanese Kanji are remix, and I am fascinated to find out how you came up with that idea. I have been stuck thinking about “remix” only relavent to music, visuals, and films, and your post made me realized that it is not limiting at all. Cultures, language, and food can all be remix. I have been thinking about the word “fusion” (when I think about food), and wonder if that is the same thing as “remix.” What do you think?

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