If you’ve watched anime for any period of time you’ve probably gotten somewhat used to the basic Japanese writing system of hiragana and katakana. At least enough to differentiate it from other Asian languages. But if you’ve tried to actually connect them to their proper sounds and searched for a chart, you might have seen a rather… odd symbol. Yeah, that one pictured there on the left. Turns out that used to be the “we” sound. And here’s the craziest part. It wasn’t all that long ago that it was.
Back when I first started learning Japanese as a language academically, I noticed that my textbook insisted that it taught “contemporary” Japanese. At first I wrote it off as just something the company did to make them sound hip-to-popular-trends, but as I continued my classes, I saw it more frequently. And then I saw these odd symbols and when they stopped being used. It was after World War II. Now, that may seem like a long time ago, but in terms of history it really isn’t. That war ended in 1945, only 67 years ago!
When we think of a language we don’t think about it changing too rapidly. In fact, most languages don’t. Slang may change quickly, but larger elements of a language, for example, writing systems, traditionally only change over very long periods of time. But Japan had some huge political changes on its doorstep after WWII. Previous to the war, Japan’s educational system, that teaches children how to read and write in the first place, was strictly controlled by the ruling parties and reforms were forbidden. Old and worn out systems dwindled on for decades until Japan surrendered to a western power after the war and their government was reformed. Changes flooded the nation and the language was the first to change. Teaching procedures became standardized for use all over the nation. This allowed kanji to be learned by a larger number of people and that meant simplifying the basic hiragana and katakana systems as well. Overly complicated or duplicate symbols were discarded or sectioned off for only the oldest forms of Japanese learning and art, such as calligraphy and pre-WWII literature.
So that means that all those textbooks that advertize being “hip” actually, for once, aren’t lying. They may not have all the slang down, but at least you don’t have to learn “basic” symbols that aren’t even used anymore.
Unless you’re learning traditional calligraphy, in which case, may the force be with you.
For more information on old symbols used in Japan, see this wiki article on the topic.