However, most of the options floated by educators, scholars and government officials were much more moderate and included such possibilities as the abandonment of Chinese characters and the exclusive use of Japanese syllabary (kana). None of these options was ultimately adopted.
The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 acted as a catalyst to spur late Meiji-era policymakers to consider seriously how the Japanese language could be made to act as a positive force for strengthening the nation. Though the Japanese won, it became clear that the military sometimes could not communicate as quickly or efficiently as possible. In addition, Japan had just defeated the nation from which kanbun had originated. Therefore, many of the policymakers no longer felt the same reluctance to abandon the ancient Chinese forms of writing as in the previous decades of the Meiji era. The question remained however, what would emerge as the modern form of the language--and who would decide what it would be?
By the late 1890s, the numerous options which had been bandied about by language-reformers in the early Meiji years had been narrowed to two. Either they would select a simplified version of the classical language (futsūbun) or a written form of the colloquial language spoken by upper-class residents of Tokyo (genbun'itchi, which literally means "unity of the spoken and written language"). Advocates of these two forms competed to decide the future of the language. Since genbun'itchi would ultimately become the national standard, let us first examine the movement which led to the creation of this form.
Genbun'itchi Undō and Futsūbun
Many authors and educators in the middle Meiji years had grown tired of attempting to manipulate kanbun and began to experiment with a new writing system they hoped would be both capable of conveying ideas found in the new Japan and acceptable in polite society. As more and more examples of English, German, French and Russian novels began to appear in Japan after the Meiji Restoration, it became clear that novelists writing in every other language, including Chinese, used a written form closely linked to the spoken language. Translators in Japan experienced great difficulty rendering these works into one of the classical forms. Japanese literary specialists therefore began to cultivate an interest in developing a writing style more closely approximating spoken Japanese. The problem with kanbun was both syntactic and conceptual. The classical forms were not elastic enough to incorporate into the text modern ideas having no ancient antecedent. Translators were therefore seldom able to convey more than the basic story, thereby stripping many works of their essential qualities.
In the 1880s, a number of young authors became interested in creating a writing style that was true to contemporary use. Perhaps the most important is Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909). While still a student, Futabatei began working on translations of several works from Russian into Japanese, including those written by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. However, he discovered he was unable to convey effectively their essence using one of the classical forms of Japanese. Accordingly, he decided to render them into the colloquial but had been frustrated by the lack of a suitable form. He struggled to determine which of the spoken dialects would be most appropriate. Because no adequate language structures existed, he could not even decide on basic sentence structure. Following the advice of Tsubouchi Shōyō (1859-1935), a friend and fellow author, Futabatei constructed a new style based on the performances of San'yūtei Enchō (1839-1900), a famous yose (Japanese vaudeville) performer of rakugo story-telling, who allowed his stories to be transcribed.