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Features of Hepburn's dictionary

(1)The first authentic Japanese language dictionary created by the modern Western world

As the countries of Western Europe approached the end of the Second Great Age of Discovery, Japan (tucked away in the Far East) opened its borders through means of peace treaties with various nations, starting with the 1854 Convention of Kanagawa. However, the most substantial Japanese dictionary at this time was the Nippo Jisho(The Japanese-Portuguese Dictionary), compiled in Nagasaki in 1603 by Jesuit missionaries. While efforts had been made to translate it into other languages, starting in France with the completion of the Nichifutsu Jiten(The Japanese-French Dictionary), these endeavors were limited to the translation of a dictionary that had been written 250 years previously. Although works such as W.H. Medhurst's Eiwa Waei Goi (published in 1830) also existed—which had been written by drawing upon texts such as the Nagasaki Dutch trading house's Rango Yakusen without any actual contact with Japanese people—they were insufficient.
In the midst of this all, appearing on the scene in 1867 was the London edition of the Waei Gorin Shūsei—the first edition of a modern Japanese dictionary—from London-based Trübner and Company. It was then that the Waei Gorin Shūsei came to hold worldwide historical importance. A superb edition, it can be seen as the one that connected Japan to the rest of the world.

(2)The first Japanese-English dictionary in Japan

Japan's very first Japanese-English dictionary was the Waei Gorin Shūsei (commonly known as Hepburn's dictionary), which was published in 1867. An English-Japanese index was attached to the Japanese-English content. The dictionary was revised by Hepburn and republished as a second edition in 1872, followed by a third in 1886. It was also released in London, New York, and Shanghai, and the small and convenient abridged version was used until the end of the Meiji era.
The Hepburn romanization system was used to transliterate the Japanese language for the dictionary. Dr. Hepburn made direct descriptions of many of the words included in the dictionary from all strata of Japanese society, making it a valuable Japanese dictionary for its record of words from the Bakumatsu and Meiji eras, and remains so for researchers today.
It is remarkable that during the Bakumatsu and Meiji years, when the Japanese were most engaged in the study of the English language—a period of 29 years—no other dictionary came close to equaling Hepburn's dictionary in popularity.
The only Japanese-English dictionary compiled by a Japanese person that could be seen as bettering Hepburn's is Sanseidō's 1896 Waei Daijiten, which was edited by Brinkley, Nanjō, and Iwasaki.

(3)The dictionary that recorded the words of the Japanese as they lived

As stated in the preface of the first edition, the dictionaries used by Hepburn to compile his own were primarily the Jesuit's Nippo Jisho and W.H. Medhurst's An English and Japanese, and Japanese and English Vocabulary, both of which were flawed. Hepburn opted instead to record the colloquial language and local dialects employed in everyday life by "living teachers." This approach led to the creation of important dictionaries that reflected the language of the times in which they were written and captured the essence of the nation: the first edition captured the language of the Bakumatsu era, the second edition documented the language in use during the Meiji Restoration, and the third edition is a record of the language spoken in the years that followed. The third edition also included ancient and archaic language from the Kojiki and Manyōshū.
It is for this reason that even today researchers of the Japanese language consider Hepburn's dictionary to be essential.

(4)Faithful descriptions of Japanese language pronunciations

Hepburn made faithful descriptions of the way Japanese was pronounced by directly noting the way that the Japanese people from all strata of society spoke during the Bakumatsu era, particularly in the first edition of his dictionary. Just as he wrote in the introduction of the first edition that "his principal dependence, however, has been upon the living teacher," he searched out the words that formed the Japanese language from the mouths of "living teachers."
Possessing a keen ear, Hepburn correctly recorded the sounds mistakenly thought by the Japanese to be pronounced the same as the separate, distinct sounds that they were.

(5)Understanding and explaining Japan and its culture

Because Hepburn had volunteered as a missionary doctor, many reported his dictionary as having been created expressly for the purpose of translating the Bible, but this was a highly ignorant viewpoint.
Hepburn had indeed written to a representative of his missionary school that "I am getting on slowly but I hope surely with Dictionary although you seem to underestimate it, I feel it to be the very best thing I can do, just now, for missionary work in this country;" however, this was done in order to gain acceptance for his work on the dictionary, and his ambitions extended far beyond.
He wrote in the same letter: "I am making it just as complete as possible, and not mere mercantile vocabulary." "This Dict.,if it should be finished, will be the greatest boon that could be composed foreigners here, as well as natives, for the latter are just as anxious for it, as the former. I tremble to thinkof the mighty task I have undertaken, and the weighty resposibility" (November 28, 1864).
It is clear from the entries in the dictionary that it was intended to be far more than an instrument for translating the Bible. When one considers the inclusion of ancient and archaic language from the Kojiki and Manyōshū in the third edition, it becomes increasingly apparent that Hepburn's true intention differed greatly from his declaration that his dictionary would be used merely "for the purpose of translating the Bible."
Given that both foreigners and Japanese had anticipated the dictionary's release with equal fervor, it is amazing that for the 30 years in which it was widely used it had no competitor.

(6)The introduction of the Hepburn romanization system

The Japanese in the Waei Gorin Shūsei was transliterated using the Hepburn romanization system.
Before the introduction of the Hepburn romanization system, three methods were used to communicate the Japanese language in writing: Kanji, kana, and katakana. The Hepburn romanization system became a fourth way to communicate Japanese through the use of rōmaji(Japanese transliterated using the Roman alphabet), which is a system in ubiquitous use today that has enriched the expression of the Japanese language. This system underwent gradual change after initial publication, and was finalized in the third edition.

(7)Identifying word classes with numerous examples

Neither the Nippo Jisho nor Eiwa Waei Goi made mention of word classes. Hepburn's dictionary included a section at the end of the introductory chapter that provided an explanation of the abbreviations that were used. Entries were recorded in the renyōkei (continuative form) rather than the shūshikei (predicative form) with references to conjugated forms and word classes. Of course, these Japanese "word classes" had to be fitted into English grammatical terms, thus a distinction was made between the transitive and intransitive forms of verbs (whether or not the verb requires a direct object). One of the other characteristics of Hepburn's dictionary was its liberal use of example sentences.

(8)More than a Japanese-English dictionary— it is also a Japanese language dictionary

While the majority of today's Japanese-English dictionaries are chiefly aimed towards understanding the English language, the intention behind Hepburn's dictionary was to understand the Japanese language.
Akira Matsumura wrote in his commentary for the reprinted edition of the Waei Gorin Shūsei (Hokushin, 1966) that "this work is fundamentally a Japanese language dictionary, a dictionary for the nation." Shinchō's Modern Japanese Dictionary and other present day dictionaries include numerous entries and example sentences from Hepburn's dictionary in order to demonstrate changes in the language and help readers understand examples. Shogakukan's Modern Japanese Dictionary also includes 5,825 words from Hepburn's dictionary.

(9)Not just a Japanese-English dictionary—it is also an English-Japanese dictionary

Around 10,000 words of English were included in Part Two of the first edition. This section was given the English heading "English-Japanese Index" because it was compiled while the dictionary was being typeset and printed in Shanghai. With each new edition the number of entries grew, thus increasing the size of Part Two; as a result, when the dictionary was republished Part Two's name was changed to Japanese-English Dictionary. In the third edition the Japanese heading was changed to Waei Eiwa Gorin Shūsei(Japanese-English and English Japanese Dictionary).

(10)The first dictionary to typeset Japanese horizontally

It has been suggested that the dictionary was typeset horizontally because it was printed by the American Presbyterian Mission Press in Shanghai, but a more persuasive argument can be found by looking at Hepburn's own manuscripts, in which Japanese is written horizontally.
Inquiries were made at the Bakufu Kaiseijo School to print Hepburn's dictionary there, but these were rebuffed for a massive volume of the book, we may not support your goals" (Meiji Jibutsu Kigen), leaving Hepburn to have his dictionary printed by the American Presbyterian Mission Press in Shanghai, which was managed by the missionary school he was affiliated with. His dictionary was then published in Yokohama.
Ginkō Ishihara, who had aided Hepburn in the compilation of his dictionary and travelled with him to Shanghai, wrote the original manuscripts for its kana printing types (later published as the Wayaku Eigo Renjū in 1873 and sometimes regarded as the fourth edition of the Waei Taiyaku Shūchin), although this presented Japanese in a vertical format.
Two years after Hepburn's dictionary was published, the American Presbyterian Mission Press released Verbeck's Wayaku Ei-jisho (The Satsuma Dictionary), but this also presented Japanese vertically.
This shows that the horizontal format of Hepburn's dictionary was not a decision made by the American Presbyterian Mission Press, but the directive of Hepburn himself.
The first book to be printed that presented Japanese in a horizontal format was Colloquial Japanese, which was written by S.R. Brown and published in 1863 by the very same American Presbyterian Mission Press—here, the Japanese was written in horizontal katakana.