This article is a guide for you, Japanese learning mates who are struggling with Kanji characters, and you beginners who are yet to reach the wall of logograms. It gathers various information about Kanji characters, their history, their readings, and how to differentiate between them to hopefully drop the veil of confusion, and for you to proceed with your learning.
Of course, if you are intending to start learning Kanji properly, you must learn and master Hiragana and Katakana. The best way to learn a foreign language, not only Japanese, is to familiarise yourself with its writing system and start practising writing right from the beginning instead of focusing on romanisation.
History of Kanji
According to history, the Japanese language was only spoken with no writing system, such as all natural languages were at the beginning. It was only when the Japanese came in contact with the Chinese circa the 4th century that they adopted a writing system. It is generally said that Chinese immigrants who came to Japan brought and used these characters that would later spread across the country.
Thus, the Chinese characters ‘Hanzi’ were introduced to the Japanese folks, and they were later used to represent the Japanese language officially by the 8th century. Hiragana and Katakana are themselves derivatives of the Chinese characters.
However, since the Japanese already had their spoken language, there was no need to completely change the words they used to speak. Instead, they attributed the Chinese logograms to the existing spoken Japanese words to represent them in a written text. The word ‘Shiro‘, for instance, is a pure Japanese word. When spoken, the interlocutor knows that it refers to the colour ‘white‘, yet it had no written equivalent on paper. Thus, the Chinese character ‘白 (Bái)’ was used to represent ‘shiro‘ in a Japanese written text.
Hanzi | pinyin: Hànzì | simplified Chinese: 汉字 | traditional Chinese: 漢字
The Origin of the Chinese Characters
It is said that the origin of the Chinese logograms are pictographs or symbols of simple pictures found through excavations in China that date back to 5000 years ago. Another theory claims that they originated from the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C) where oracle bones were used to communicate with the Gods. They would burn turtle shells and bones and read the cracks to make predictions. These cracks were written with their meaning to compare them later with future predictions. However, these scribbles were not a writing system of the Chinese language but symbols meant for divination.
With the fall of the Shang Dynasty and the Rise of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 BC), the shells were gathered and the symbols written on them were used as a means to communicate with people and other regions. Thus, a writing system was born. Not yet structured and lacking many words, little by little, new logograms were introduced, and through time, they were commonly and widely used then simplified to reach the neighbouring regions Such as Japan that adopted the Chinese characters as Kanji which itself developed through history.
Kunyomi & Onyomi: The Different Readings of a Kanji Character
Unlike the original Chinese characters that have only one reading, a given Kanji character can have more than one reading. Kunyomi and Onyomi are the two main readings of Kanji. The first being the reading of the pure Japanese words, and the second being the Chinese reading (or the approximate reading). Also, each of Kunyomi and Onyomi can have other underlying readings that we will get to later on.
To understand the difference between the two and their use, we will study some basic words while providing definitions.
Kunyomi represents the original reading of the existent words in Japanese. I refer here to the previous example of ‘Shiro’. The word already existed and was used by the Japanese natives with no written equivalent.
|English||Chinese Logogram||Japanese (Kunyomi)|
Onyomi, on the other hand, is the Chinese reading of the Kanji characters. However, since the spoken Japanese language is quite distinct and different from Chinese in terms of pronunciation and variations of sounds, the Onyomi reading of the characters was slightly shifted. Thus, Onyomi is mainly referred to as Seno-Japanese reading rather than purely Chinese. Indeed, some characters still have the pure Chinese pronunciation such as:
|.||Logogram||Chinese (Pinyin)||Japanese (Onyomi)|
Others have their pronunciation slightly or completely different (Seno-Japanese). For instance:
We can also find some similitude aside from the difference between the two languages:
|Feel||感じ Kanji||感覺 Gǎnjué|
|movement/motion||運動 Undō||運動 Yùndòng|
You may have noticed that both of the words in Japanese and Chinese contain the same characters and a pronunciation that is rather close to one another. One thing you must retain, however, is that the comparison here is with traditional Chinese. Though in simplified Chinese the characters are different for some words, the reading remains the same in both. For example, 運動 ‘Yùndòng’ is written as follows in simplified Chinese 运动, yet the reading still is ‘Yùndòng’. Similarly for 愛 ‘Ai’, its counterpart in simplified Chinese is 爱 with the same reading ‘Ai’.
PS: In case you are planning to learn Chinese at the same time as Japanese, take note of these small differences that can confuse you while learning. Since the Japanese language was influenced by Chinese when the traditional writing system of characters was still used in China, it is obvious that it would adopt that writing system. Years later, many of the Chinese characters were simplified by lessening the number of strokes for those complex characters. You can read more about Traditional and Simplified Chinese in this article.
Differentiating between the two readings
The first thing you need to do is dropping the romanization of Japanese or as it is called ‘Rōmaji.’ Memorising Kana is essential to be able to read Japanese. Before the Kanji step, familiarise yourself with Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) to be able to learn Kanji efficiently.
In any given dictionary, the Kanji character is written bold and big. Next to or under it, there is the various translations of the word, the Kunyomi reading in Hiragana and the Onyomi reading in Katakan as in the following example:
- love, affection, favourite
- Kun: いと.しい、 かな.しい、 め.でる、 お.しむ、 まな
- On: アイ
As you may have already noticed, kanji characters can have more than one reading, and here begins the confusion. When to use what reading, and what is the difference between them?
Kunyomi is mainly used when the Kanji character is standing alone in a sentence providing a full meaning. The different readings in Kunyomi can refer to a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb. The dot in the middle separates the stem from the verb ending. For instance:
- はこ の なか に はな を いれます
- Hako no naka ni hana o iremasu
- put the flowers in the box
The words in bold are all read with Kunyomi and every one of them has its own meaning, The syllables standing alone are the particles, and the underlined syllables are the verb 入.れる (い.れる)’s ending in the present simple, formal -masu form. The ‘ru る‘ has changed to ‘masu ます.’
When two or more Kanji characters are combined together to make one word with its own meaning, the Onyomi reading of each Kanji is used. I will illustrate using the tables from above:
When used alone, the Kanji character for inside 中 is read ‘naka なか’ and the Kanji for country 国 is read ‘kuni くに‘ (Kunyomi). However, when put together as such 中国 it forms a new word which means China which is read ‘chūgoku ちゅうごく.’ ‘Chū チュウ’ for 中, and ‘goku コ”ク‘ for 国 (Onyomi).
Another example: 花心 This word means the centre or heart of the flower. The kanji for flower 花 is read ‘hana はな‘ and the kanji for heart 心 is read ‘kokoro こころ‘ (Kunyomi). When put together they become 花心 which is read as ‘kashin かしん.’ ‘Ka カ‘ for 花 and ‘shin シン’ for 心 which is their Onyomi reading. It is as easy as this.
Other Rules to Read Kanji Combinations
There are, however, a few extra things you must take note of.
KUNyomi reading of kanji combination
On some occasions, the Kunyomi reading can still be used for some kanji combinations. For instance, the word 花心 ‘kashin かしん’ that we have just learned can also be read as ‘hanagokoro はなごころ.’
Addition of the dakuten [ ” ] and the handakuten [ ° ]
Another exception is the shifting of the first kana of the second kanji when necessary to make the pronunciation much easier. You may have noticed in the previous example that instead of using the reading ‘kokoro こころ‘ that we know, the first ‘こ ko‘ of the word shifted into ‘ご go‘ making the full word ‘はなごころ hanagokoro’ instead of ‘はなこころ hanakokoro.’
In such cases either the Dakuten [ ” ] also called ten-ten, or the Handakuten [ ° ] also called maru is added to that given kana. A second example is the word volcano 火山 which again takes the Onyomi reading of both kanji fire ‘火‘ and mountain ‘山 ‘ as ‘kazan かざん‘and not ‘kasan かさん,’ The ‘さ sa‘ becomes ‘ざ za.’
|Kanji||Kunyomi (hiragana)||Onyomi (katakana)|
|火||hi ひ||ka カ|
|山||yama やま||san サン|
|Word||Literal reading||Correct reading|
|火山||kasan かさん||kazan かざん|
Also, in the word Japan 日本, it can either be read as にほん nihon or as にっぽん nippon where the ‘ほ ho’ takes the handakuten/maru [ ° ] and becomes ‘ぽ po‘
Shifting of the second kana of the first kanji into a stress
In this case, it is the first Kanji that is affected. However, instead of adding the dakuten [ ” ] or handakuten [ ° ] to the given kana, the second kana of the first Kanji changes to a stress which is represented in Japanese by a small tsu ッ. For instance, the word ‘musical instrument 楽器 which is made by combining the kanji ‘fun/music 楽‘ and ‘instrument 器‘ becomes ‘がっき gak’ki’ and not ‘がくき gakuki’.
|Kanji||Kunyomi (hiragana)||Onyomi (katakana)|
|楽||tano.shii たの.しい||gaku ガク|
|器||utsuwa うつわ||ki キ|
|Word||Literal reading||Correct reading|
|楽器||gakuki がくき||gakki がっき|
The two exceptions above might occur at the same time
Indeed you can also find both the stress and the dakuten or handakuten together in some cases. To clarify, the word announcement ‘発表‘ which is the combination of the kanji departure ‘発‘ and surface ‘表‘ become ‘hatsuhyo はつひょう‘ using Onyomi. Since the reading may be quite unnatural for Japanese people, the ‘tsu つ‘ of ‘hatsu はつ‘ shifted into a small stress ‘ッ‘, and the ‘hi ひ‘ of ‘hyou ひょう’ took the handakuten [ ° ] and became ‘pi ぴ‘ Thus the correct reading is ‘happyo はっぴょう’
|Kanji||Kunyomi (hiragana)||Onyomi (katakana)|
|発||ta.tsu た.つ||hatsu ハツ|
|表||omote おもて||hyou ヒョウ|
|Word||Literal reading||Correct reading|
|発表||hatsuhyou はつひょう||happyo はっぴょう|
NB: You must know, however, that all of the above already exist in the Japanese language, and it does not require you to search for the correct reading or adding and omitting as you wish. You will come across such occurrences along your way of learning. This article is just to prepare you and to clear what is ambiguous.
PS: These examples and explanations were provided by Cours de Japonais! a french YouTube channel that offers free Japanese courses designed by Julien Fontanier in French.
When beginning to learn Kanji, the Japanese students are taught three (3) rules to correctly write a Kanji character. They are also taught by rewriting the characters several times so that they can remember them. Though it is not an obligation to follow them, these rules are still important in the aspect that they will make the written character much more balanced and correct i.e. without going out of the lines or having one Kanji character bigger or smaller than the other. Moreover, as characters become more complex as one advance in his studies, knowing these rules alongside repetition will strengthen your memory muscles and you will be less prone to forgetting how a certain character is written.
NB: The rules to write the Japanese Kanji, as well as the Chinese Hanzi, are rooted in calligraphy.
1 . Stroke order:
Whatever kanji textbook you may learn from, it will include the stroke order of each Kanji to be learned. The illustrations will guide you to correctly trace each stroke from beginning to end. There are about 8 to 11 rules to write a Kanji or Hanzi character:
- From top to bottom
- From left to right
- Horizontal before vertical
- Center strokes that cuts through/passes through many stokes comes last
- Diagonal line starts from right-to-left before the diagonal line from left-to-right
- Outside enclosure before inside in all enclosed characters such as 月 or when having a radical such as 厂 | 匚 | 冂 | 几
- Left vertical before enclosing
- Inside before bottom enclosing ⻌ | 廴 | 凵
- Center verticals before outside in vertically symmetrical characters
- Top or upper-left dots first
- Inside or upper-right dots last
The two important rules to imperatively remember are to write from top to bottom and from left to right.
2 . Stroke ending types: tome, harai, hane:
Tome, harai and hane refer to how a given stroke in a kanji character is supposed to end.
Tome とめ ‘stop’ is when a stroke is written, for example, from point A to point B stopping at the end of point B.
Harai はらい ‘sweeping’ is when a stroke is written from point A sweeping to point B, such as when ticking a box in a checklist.
Hane はね ‘wing’ is the small curve at the end of a given stroke i.e. starting from point A and when reaching point B, instead of stopping you add a small wing, either to the left or the right depending on how the stroke is written.
PS: To know more about Tome, Harai, Hane, check Kanji Art.
3 . Balance:
Since you are learning Japanese, or intending to, you must be familiar with the worksheets which are blank boxes meant for you to fill. These boxes, or squares, actually help with keeping a character balanced and not out of line. Printable blank worksheets are available online to practice your writing and to memorise Kanji. You can also get yourself a Genkouyoushi notebook or use a regular grid notebook you have at hand.
PS: You can find free printable sheets here.
NB: From the various articles I have read, It is not an obligation to know these rules, at least not all of them, because there is no exam or test you need to take to prove you are writing the Kanji characters correctly. However, it is highly recommended to learn them, especially the stroke order which are indicated in textbooks and workbooks because they do indeed help to learn the Kanji characters, and they make the learning of new ones much easier to grasp and remember.
What I suggest is instead of studying or memorising every single reading of all Kanji characters one by one, you can focus on learning new vocabulary because any language’s core is vocabulary. I believe many people find difficulty remembering the Onyomi reading of Kanji compared to Kunyomi. Therefore, by focusing on words, you can learn both the different readings and meanings of the Kanji characters, either when alone or when combined at the same time.
To study and Learn Kanji, there are, actually, different types of lists available online. Each of these lists targets a specific group of learners. For instance, 1- lists of kanji characters set by the Japanese Ministry of Education for Japanese students according to their grades, 2- lists that target foreign language learners of Japanese according to their level, and 3- lists that were made according to the frequency and common use of kanji characters.
MEXT grading system: Kyōiku, Jōyō, and Jinmeiyō
The Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) has divided the 2,999 Kanji characters with their readings and meaning into 3 categories: Kyōiku, Jōyō, and Jinmeiyō. Each category has its own purpose and is meant to be introduced to students and taught at schools according to every level from elementary school until the end of high school.
Kyōiku Kanji consists of 1,026 characters taught throughout primary school. It is divided into 6 lists which are associated with every grade or school year. Each list has a set number of Kanji characters.
- First grade (80 kanji)
- Second grade (160 kanji)
- Third grade (200 kanji)
- Fourth grade (200 kanji)
- Fifth grade (185 kanji)
- Sixth grade (181 kanji)
Jōyō Kanji consists of 1,110 characters which are taught throughout secondary and high school plus the previous 1,026 Kyōiku kanji to make the 2,136 commonly used kanji characters.
Jinmeiyō Kanji consists of 863-900 characters not included in Jōyō. It is a list of characters that are used for people’s names only. Jinmeiyō kanji can also refer to all characters found in Jōyō and Jinmeiyō since people’s names can include commonly used kanji characters as well.
Hyōgai Kanji is a list that contains unlisted characters that are not included in the Jōyō and Jinmeiyō lists.
JLPT or the Japanese Language Proficiency Test is an exam that measures the level of foreigners who learn Japanese as a second or foreign language. To get a certificate of language proficiency, to teach Japanese for example, one must sit the exam and get a decent score to pass. The JLPT is divided into 5 levels, from basic conversational N5 to upper-advanced or fluent N1. Each level has a set of grammar rules, verbs and their conjugations, vocabulary and kanji characters, historical and cultural points, and exercises to practice. Classes at language schools and textbooks are also made to suit every level.
Thus, every JLPT level has a set of vocabulary which, unlike the grades system, does not focus only on every kanji character, its readings and meanings but focuses instead on the whole word that can be one kanji character or a combination of two or three kanji characters. Within a given textbook, a list of the vocabulary introduced is given at the end of every course or section. And at the back of the textbook, a list of the kanji characters is given with their Kunyomi and Onyomi readings.
N5 – is the basic level where Japanese is introduced with some basic grammar, vocabulary and conjugation. There are 800 vocabulary to be learned which include 100 kanji.
N4 – is the elementary level where the learner is supposed to understand basic conversational Japanese. There are about 1,500 vocabulary and 300 kanji to be learned.
N3 – is the intermediate level where the learner is supposed to understand Japanese used in everyday situations to some extent. There are about 3,700 vocabulary and 650 kanji to be learned.
N2 – is the pre-advanced level where the learner is supposed to understand Japanese used in everyday situations, and in a variety of circumstances to a certain degree. There are about 6,000 vocabulary and 1,000 kanji to be learned.
N1 – is the advanced and highest level where the learner is supposed to understand Japanese used in a variety of circumstances. There are about 10,000 vocabulary and 2,000 kanji to be learned.
Though it is not a necessity to sit the exam if the person intends to learn Japanese for self-growth or out of interest, many people take the exam to measure how proficient and good they are at the language.
Frequency and Usefulness
Kanji characters are also categorised according to their frequent use and usefulness. The characters are grouped and listed from the 100 most commonly used kanji characters until the less frequently used. Since this type of listing does not necessarily follow the grade or level system, one list of frequency of use can contain various characters from different levels.
PS: There are lists available online for every category and every level. They are ready to be downloaded and printed for free to practice. Kanji lists ordered by grade, level and frequency. You can also create your own lists and flashcards to memorise kanji characters as many websites and apps such as Kanshudo, wanikani, memrise or Anki along many others.
Photo by Danis Lou.
The Japanese Series:
Japanese in a Nutshell
All the information a beginner needs to know when starting to learn Japanese.
Find what suits you best among these selected useful resources to learn Japanese.