第6課: Kanji 漢字: An Introduction

 Kanji 漢字かんじ are Chinese characters used in Japanese writing. Japanese is not a part of the same language family as Chinese, but thousands of words have been borrowed from Chinese to make Kanji 漢字 a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture. When Kanji 漢字 are used to write a word, they may provide meaning, sound, or both. Each character may have multiple meanings and readings, which are then chosen on a case-by-case basis. 

Kanji 漢字 are primarily used to write words of Chinese origin. However, they are also important in writing the stems of verbs and adjectives and much more. Because there are at least 3,000 characters that are commonly used in Japanese today, it's not possible to learn them all in one go. However, this lesson will help you become familiar with the system as a whole so that learning them may be easier.  


Linguistic Note: Japanese has received major influence from Chinese, but it is in its own language family called the Japonic language family. Japanese is related to other Japanese languages spoken in Okinawa.


Notation Note: Pitch contours are included in this lesson. High pitch morae are marked in bold and pitch falls are denoted by ↓. 

ON & KUN Readings

There are two broad kinds of readings that Kanji 漢字 may have: ON and KUN. ON readings are pronunciations that were borrowed into Japanese from various stage of Chinese over several centuries. KUN readings, on the other hand, come from native vocabulary with some semantic association with the Kanji 漢字 in question. Consequently, most characters have more than one reading of each kind. Despite how complex all this may seem, there are patterns that you can utilize to make things easier.  

Spelling Note: In the charts below, ON readings are rendered in Katakana カタカナ and KUN readings are rendered in Hiragana ひらがな. In reality, readings of words are normally usually given in Hiragana ひらがな unless the phrase is a loan-word. 


    オン READINGS

Almost all phrases composed of ON readings (on'yomi み) are Chinese in origin. All Kanji 漢字 that were made in China have one or more ON readings with one or more meanings. Even some Kanji 漢字 that were made in Japan have ON readings.

Kanji 漢字 were borrowed from China in several waves from various time periods and locales in China, and in each wave, new characters as well as new readings of previously introduced characters were brought to Japan.

ON readings are frequently used in phrases made up of two or more Kanji 漢字. However, they can also be seen in single-character phrases, especially when the phrase has no native equivalent. Because etymology is not a source of information readily ascertainable right off the bat, it is always best to learn the readings of phrases on a case-by-case basis.  

 Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning
 知識 シキ Chishiki Knowledge 天  Ten Heaven
 円  En Yen 評価 ヒョウカ Hyōka Evaluation
 理由 リユウ Riyū Reason 工場 コウジョ Kōjō Factory
 知事  Chiji Governor 死  Shi Death

 くん READINGS

KUN readings (kun'yomi 訓読み)are generally native words applied to Kanji 漢字. 北 means north. The Japanese word for north is kita きた, and in words from Chinese its ON reading hoku ホク is used. Kanji 漢字 may have one or more KUN readings. They are commonly used in isolation unlike ON readings, but many are used in conjugations with Hiragana ひらがな following. 

 Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning
 雨  Ame Rain 雨雲 あまぐ Amagumo Rain cloud
 日傘 ひ Higasa Parasol 日 ひ Hi Day
 思い お Omoi Thought 歌う うたう Utau To sing
 小山 こやま Koyama Hillock 高い た Takai High

ON-KUN & KUN-ON COMPOUNDS 

At times ON and KUN readings are used together to make a compound. These readings are called Jūbako readings (jūbakoyomi 重箱読み) and Yutō readings (yutōyomi 湯桶読み) respectively. Jūbako ジュウばこ and Yutō ゆトウ happen to be examples of the phenomena they represent.

 Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning
 場所 ばショ Basho Place 路肩 ロかた Rokata Road shoulder
 身分 ブン Mibun Position; status 台所 ダイどころ Daidokoro Kitchen
 消印 けしイン Keshi'in Postmark 見本 みホン Mihon Sample

Practice

Classify the following words by reading: ON, KUN, Jūbako, or Yutō. As you have only been introduced to Kanji 漢字, use a dictionary resource like jisho.org to look up the readings of the words and of the individual characters. As you do this, if you find any peculiar things, take note of them as those notes may be helpful to you. 

1. 美しい
2. 花
3. 新聞
4. 番組
5. 手帳

Exercises:

1. Kanji 漢字 are typically written top-down and left to right. This is largely simplified, but it can prevent frivolous errors. Use a dictionary resource like jisho.org to look up the following Kanji 漢字

生  雨  長  金  風  中  円  魚  日  刀  土 小  上  山  女  男  子  海  耳

2. Write out each Kanji 漢字 above 10 times. 

3. Write out the readings, meanings, and examples on another sheet of paper. 

Spelling Noteオン readings are in カタカナ; くん readings are in ひらがな. In reality readings are normally only given in ひらがな unless the word is a loan. 

Radicals 部首(ぶしゅ)

Radicals are the building blocks of Kanji 漢字. All Kanji 漢字 are made up of one or more of them. There are 214 radicals that exist in Japanese, and these are all neatly organized by stroke count below:

  

Resource/Citation Note: Image taken from www.jisho.org, an amazing online dictionary perfect for researching what you want to know about Kanji 漢字.  

Kanji 漢字 with the same radical usually have similar meaning. For example, the Kanji 語, 訳, 訓, and 許 all have the radical for speech, which is 言, and they all have meanings related to speech. Sometimes, radicals are used for phonetic purposes. Therefore, Kanji 漢字 with the same phonetic often have similar ON readings. The characters 時, 持, and 侍 all have the ON reading ji ジ because the phonetic component 寺's ON reading is ji ジ. There are exceptions to this method of guessing an ON reading, though. For example, 待 and 特 have the readings of tai タイ and toku トク.  Phonetics themselves may not always play a semantic role and don't help with KUN readings. 

Radicals do have names. However, it isn't essential for you to know what the names of the building blocks are. It is beneficial, though, to take note of what the components of the characters you learn are. 


Curriculum Note: The Kanji 漢字 curriculum is still currently in its infancy, so there will eventually be more coverage concerning radicals.  

Exceptional Readings

Even as you reasonably progress in acquiring the various readings of Kanji 漢字 as you travel down the road of Japanese literacy, you will come across many words that have irregular meanings. There are different kinds of irregularities that you will come across, but for you as the beginner, you need to simply realize that there will be words that will not have readings corresponding to the given readings of the characters. 

 Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning
 今日 きょ Kyō Today 昨日 き Kinō Yesterday
 大人 おとな Otona Adult 合羽 かっぱ Kappa Raincoat

Exceptions are not fun, but it is important to understand that it is because Japanese is not related to Chinese that there are words with irregular spellings. Not all phrases are made the same way in both languages.