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「けふ」 is 「きょう」?! Really?

In next month's issue of Makoto (#49), we dissect a haiku by the Edo period poet Kobayashi Issa 小林(こばやし)一茶(いっさ). It goes like this:)

(ゆう)ざくら けふ(むかし)に (なり)にけり

Evening cherry blossoms | Now today also | has become the distant past

For a breakdown of the grammar, vocabulary, and our interpretation, please see Makoto #49 -- it will be released February 25th, 2022.

But for today, I want to look at the word in red, けふ, which means "today" and is pronounced (drum roll, please) 「きょう」.

So, pardon the rōmaji, but the haiku would be read, "yuu zakura / kyou mo mukashi ni / nari ni keri."

Yes, the meaning and pronunciation is the same as today's 今日(きょう) (today). But it is written as けふ.


The Mystery of Prewar (Japanese) Characters

Wait, it gets worse. Not only was 「きょう」 written as 「けふ」 in hiragana, but there were many other words that also weren't pronounced as they were written in kana.

Here are a few common words that had surprising hiragana spellings: (Today's spelling and pronunciation on the left and the historical orthography on the right)

  • きょう (today) → けふ
  • ゆる (what is called; the so-called; so to speak) → いゆる
  • こう (let's go) → い
  • えば (so to speak) → い
  • におう (to smell) → にほふ
  • かった (thank goodness; that's good) → よかた [Has a big つ instead of the small っ.]
  • (かわ) (river) → か

And we aren't talking about the Heian period [794-1185] either. This orthography remained in official use until 1946.


Historical Kana Orthography

Speaking of the Heian period [794-1185], the spelling was thought to corresponded to the way the words sounded during that time period and before. Over the past thousand years, the sounds of the language changed until the spelling no longer matched the pronunciation for some words.

This spelling convention is called 「歴史的(れきしてき)仮名遣(かなづか)い」 (Historical kana orthography).

In the above-mentioned haiku by Issa, a poet who lived in the Edo period (1763-1828), you should read the けふ as「きょう」 and, most likely, he did too!

A few characteristics of the 歴史的れきしてき仮名遣かなづかい historical kana orthography:

  • The small 「ゃ、ゅ、ょ、っ」 where all written with the larger forms:「や、ゆ、よ、つ」
  • The small っ was written with the big つ [よかた (thank goodness; that's good)]
  • The dictionary form of verbs ending in う was written with ふ.
  • ましょう was written as ませう
  • でしょう was written as でせう
  • Both づ and ず sound the same. ぢ and じ also. Today, most words only use ず and じ (although there are still a few exceptions). Historically, however, many words used づ and ぢ.
  • Prewar horizontal Japanese was written from right to left. This should be considered as vertical characters each in a single column rather than actually horizontal writing. This method was used in small spaces such as signs that didn't have room for vertical text. Since Japanese reads right to left when written vertically, the "single column" horizontal writings would be right to left.


Japanese Script Problem

In modern Japanese history, there have been two major periods of rapid change. The first was at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) when Japan modernized at a crazy pace. The second major period of change was after WWII. 

Decades prior to the end of the war, many Japanese realized there was a problem with the way Japanese was written. It often didn't line up with how the language was actually spoken. This was called 国語国字問題(こくごこくじもんだい) (Japanese script problem).

This led to a series of reforms in 1946 with the purpose of standardizing orthography, kanji, and names. In fact, according to the Wikipedia entry on script reform, the purpose for standardizing the kanji in the 当用漢字(とうようかんじ) list (precursor to today's 常用漢字(じょうようかんじ) list) was the eventual abolition of kanji altogether! 

The plan was to write everything in rōmaji.

Kanji is tough, but with Japanese having comparatively few sounds, the sheer number of homonyms would make trying read a page full of rōmaji a nightmare. Kanji may be inefficient to learn, but once you do, you can often grab the meaning at a glance even if you have never seen the word before. Honest.


The above three particles are a residue of the historical kana orthography.

As a beginner,  you learned the topic marker, は, was pronounced "wa" instead of "ha." You also learned へ (as a particle) was pronounced "e" instead of "he," and を when typed on a keyboard is written "wo" instead of "o."

You may have noticed the above river example (かわ (river) → か). The "wa" sound was originally written in hiragana with a は, just like today's topic marker.

But why weren't these three particles changed with all the other words? Because は、へ、 and を were so common, it was thought changing them would overly confuse readers.

Now they just overly confuse new language learners!

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  • I once asked a Japanese friend to translate some text carved on an old monument or possibly memorial stone sitting on its own on a wooded hillside near a small shrine. She replied “it’s old few people can translate it nowadays“. Such a shame, the text was beautiful, long flowing character’s almost like pictures.

  • Very interesting! Thanks for sharing this combined language and history lesson. 🙂
    I have a book with Hiroshige woodblock prints and I’ve been trying to read the titles from the prints. Sometimes I found that the hiragana did not match what I have learned. Now I understand better why that is so.

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