Ancient Script
© Noboru TomuraAncient clay pottery with hiragana written in "sumi" ink on the back.
Kyoto--The oldest and clearest example of hiragana script has been found on ancient clay pottery recovered from the former site of an aristocrat's residence in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, officials from Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute said June 27.

An almost legible iroha uta poem is inscribed on the back of the earthenware dish, which dates back to around 1200. Iroha uta, an ancient Japanese poem that uses 47 Japanese characters only once each, is said to have been created between the late 10th century and the 11th century.

The poem was used for writing practice of hiragana, Japan's basic phonetic script.

In those days, paper was extremely expensive, so someone apparently practiced writing on the dish, said researchers.

Researchers noticed the poem while the institute was re-examining artifacts it unearthed in 1983 from the site of Horikawain, a residence that belonged to the aristocratic Fujiwara family. The dish, measuring 9 centimeters in diameter and 1.5 cm deep, was found inside the ruin of a well.

The earthenware consists of eight fragments, with the hiragana inscribed on the back. Of the 47 characters written in sumi ink, 43 were legible. Four letters had missing portions.

Of the eight lines, written from right to left, the first line showed the last five characters of Iroha uta. The poem starts from the second line. With the space running out for the last five letters, the writer apparently had returned to the beginning, the researchers said.

Shin Yoshizaki, a senior research official at the institute said, "Judging from the unskilled writing, the script may have been a child's practice piece."

Tsutomu Yada, an associate professor of Japanese linguistic history at Osaka University, said it is a significant discovery.

"The script indicates a situation of hiragana learning in the capital during the Heian Period (794-1185) and the Kamakura Period (1192-1333)," he said. "It is quite valuable."