In my never ending quest to understand a little more of the Japanese language (and never succeeding because I never invest enough time in it), one thing that consistently frustrates me is old and ancient script. In the title wrote Chinese/Japanese because 1.) The Japanese kanji come from Chinese as everyone knows, and 2.) For many centuries after writing was first introduced to Japan from China, all writing in Japan was done in Chinese. In Japanese this is called kobun (古文, lit. old writing), and as Westerners we may think of it as analogous to medieval and renaissance Europe where all scholarly work was done in Latin, regardless of whatever language you might actually be speaking (i.e. Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin).
I have no hope of reading this ancient Japanese/Chinese, but that’s actually not what I’m referring to. I’m instead talking about the old way to write the characters. Just like how vocabulary and grammar for a language evolve and change over time, so did the way of writing the characters. In this picture from Wikipedia you can see the evolution of the character for tiger.
So even if I’m not trying to read ancient Japanese or Chinese texts, the old style of writing still shows up fairly frequently (similar to how old Gothic and Latin scripts and such still get used in English), but they can be nearly impossible to read, even if you can read the modern form of the character! One place they show up fairly often is in seals. In Japanese legal documents, instead of signing with a signature, you place a red stamp with your official seal (think of royalty using their signet ring to seal letters and documents). In order to prevent forgery, ideally your seal is hand made by a licensed seal craftsman so that it is unique, and then the seal itself is registered in your name at the government offices. The characters often used on these seals are called seal script, and it is the style that evolved during the Qin dynasty of ancient China. Some examples of seals using the seal script I got on google search are here, here, here, and some here.
For example, here are two seal script characters:
If I hadn’t looked up these specific two characters, I would have no chance in reading them even though their modern forms are characters I am very familiar with. In fact, the modern form of these two characters is:
Which is in fact the name of my blog, moroha.
So the question is, where did I look these up? Japanese dictionaries invariably never have them, but I did find a Chinese/English language site that has them. Just put the kanji you want to look up in the blank and click the button that says Etymology, and it will give you the modern character in both traditional and simplified Chinese, in addition to all known variants of seal script, bronze script, and oracle bone script (the really old stuff). As long as you’re using unicode the characters are interchangeable, so you can still do the input in Japanese.
For some real craziness, check out all the old variations for the character of horse, one of the oldest. All this craziness about having many different ways to write the same character was one thing that the 1st emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, tried to do away with when he standardized the writing system for all of China.