This Question Came to My Inbox: “Do the Koreans have something like the Japanese Kanji?”

The answer is emphatically, “Yes! The Koreans originated the kanji and taught it to the Japanese, but called it hanmoon, and they don’t use it so much any more.” Many people call kanji Chinese characters because that is the first time those of us from the west saw them. When Marco Polo went to China was the first time anyone saw the kanji, so we began calling them Chinese characters. However, they were actually invented by the Bekjae people of Korea. Bekjae is the name of one of the three kingdoms of Korea during their three kingdom period of history. This is ancient history. The Koreans are thinkers, very complicated thinkers. Their language is one of the most complicated languages in the world. Every culture has their major characteristics, and being complicated thinkers is a major Korean characteristics.

The Bekjae people were located along the Chinese coast that is closest to Korea and along the Korean Peninsula down at Busan, just across the Japan sea, or as the Koreans call it, the East Sea, from Japan. The body of water is so thin down there that there is a ferry from Korea to Japan there now a days. The Bekjae people and the Japanese people did a lot of sharing back and forth, and the kanji, or the hanmoon were carried across to Japan from Korea. Japan, Korea, and China have done a lot of sharing over the centuries, so much so that often it gets confusing where different foods, different customs, etc., came from, Japan, China, or Korea. There are still people living in China along the eastern coast close to Korea who speak an ancient form of Korean at home and Chinese when they leave the house. Their ancestors were Bekjae just as many on the Korean peninsula’s ancestors were. The Bekjae were known for having very high culture.

This is King Sejong. He wears red and gold because those are the colors of royalty in Korea. He also wears a scholar’s cap instead of a crown.

The problem that the Koreans found with the hanmoon or kanji is that only the noblemen had the time to spend their lives studying it. It left most of the population illiterate. The Koreans had a king, King Sejong, who wanted all his people to read. He gathered scholars and worked with them and went about inventing an easier alphabet for his people called hangul. The hangul has letters even though it looks like Chinese characters, it isn’t. They are separate and distinct letters like we have in English, some with a consonant sound and some with a vowel sound. They are not like the hiragana that the Japanese use. The hiragana, the Japanese alphabet, has five vowel sounds, and the rest of the letters are a consonant and a vowel sound together except for a letter that is pronounced something like “ng.” When they write the hangul, the Korean alphabet, it looks like hanmoon, or kanji, because of the way it is written. We write English letters from left to right, one letter right after the other. They write hangul from left to right only they use syllable groupings with letters on top of the group and letters below the group.

I will give you some examples of the hangul, then perhaps you will understand better what I am talking about. ㅋ= k, 크= ku, 큰 = kun, which means , “big.” That is a one syllable word. To make a two syllable word, ㅋ= k, ㅓ= eo, ㅕ= yeo, 켜= kyeo, ㅇ= no sound if it begins a syllable, but “ng” at the end of a word. ㅗ= o, ㅛ= yo. 요 = yo. You never write a vowel without a consonant first, so if there is no consonant, you must put the “ㅇ” in front of it. 켜요= kyeo yo, meaning “is big.” Each syllable grouping puts you in mind of the kanji or hanmoon, but they are actually letters put together in syllables.

Here is the statue of King Sejong that is in the middle of Seoul. It is in Gangwamoon, in front of Gyeongbuk Palace and the American embassy. It is huge. He is a major hero of the Korean people. He invented more than hangul. I don’t remember everything he invented, but he also invented the sun dial for telling time.

King Sejong accomplished his purpose, and the general population learned to read the hangul. The Koreans wanted to less complicated their language, so they eventually began using the hanmoon, the Korean kanji or Chinese characters, less and less. Today, if you look at the Korean signs or their modern books, you won’t see the hanmoon, only the hangul, their alphabet. However, if you read their ancient texts, you must know how to read the hanmoon. Many of their words are based on the hanmoon, the Chinese characters. They have the trouble that the Japanese have. Many words sound the same, but the only way the Japanese can tell them apart is by using the kanji, the Chinese characters. The Koreans have the same problem, and it causes the hanmoon not to be completely eradicated because they have to go back to the hanmoon to know the exact meaning at times. The most scholarly people in Korea still study the hanmoon. Many Korean preachers insist on using Bibles with hanmoon in them because they say it gives the text a fuller meaning and helps them understand the Bible better.

The hangul was invented for a much different purpose than the hiragana. The hangul was invented to help the general population, to elevate their culture. That is always what the Koreans have been all about. Their heroes are people who have elevated their culture in some way, so King Sejong became a huge hero in Korea. As for the hiragana, it was invented so the ladies in the king’s court could write poetry. They were worried about the elite, not the general population. Eventually, everyone began using the hiragana along with the kanji. In Japan, the heroes are great samurai, warriors like in America. Our great American heroes are usually frontiersmen and generals from the military. Every culture holds a different kind of people in esteem. In Romania, their heroes are poets and men of great learning. In Romania, university presidents become president of the nation. In America, we worry about whether or not someone has been in the military. In Korea, it is the people who brought higher culture to the people. King Sejong is one of their biggest heroes. Their biggest hero is King Dangun, the man who came from the Tower of Babel into Korea and brought them out of the caves and taught them to make houses, grow gardens, and comb their hair. There are others, but they idolize the men who do things to elevate their culture.

Many wonder if the Japanese will ever get rid of the kanji like the Koreans have the hanmoon, but probably not because of the character of the people. As the Koreans are very complicated thinkers, the Japanese are very strict. There is no rule breaking in Japan. I used to travel around with my knitting or crocheting when I went in airplanes, and my small scissors I needed to do the job went through airport security everywhere, in America, in Romania, in Nigeria, in England, all over the world, but when I went to Japan, they took those little scissors away from me. When you are in Japan or in Korea, you take your shoes off at the door. However, it is done for different reasons. In Korea, it is done for comfort. In Japan, it is done because it is right!! The line is drawn, and no one ever passes it, but you could get by with it in Korea. In Japan, the Japanese Christians think it is a sin to wear your shoes in the house. The strictness carries over to their schools also, and they consider it right to use the kanji to help the understanding when they write, and they could never put up with the general meaning of words like the Koreans do by putting the hanmoon aside. In Japan, the line is drawn, and you can never cross it. They are very strict. So, yes, the Koreans have hanmoon, but they don’t put the emphasis on it that the Japanese put on kanji.

Leave a Reply