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第5課: Kanji 漢字

 Kanji 漢字かんじ are Chinese characters that are used to write Japanese. Because Japanese is a completely different language from Chinese with no common origin, the use of Kanji in both meaning and sound is often very difficult. Many Kanji can have multiple meanings and readings, creating a complex puzzle with exceptions on top of everything. In this lesson, you will learn about the two kinds of readings Kanji have, what Kanji are made up of, and a little about the exceptions you'll encounter as you learn the over 2,000 Kanji commonly used in Japanese.

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. Japanese is very similar to other world languages such as Korean and Turkish, but there is no agreement as to whether Japanese is related to them or not. 

ON & KUN Readings: オンよみ vs くんよみ

Kanji have meaning and sound. ON readings are pronunciations borrowed into Japanese from various stages of Chinese over the course of several centuries. KUN readings, on the other hand, are native readings attributed to Kanji by semantic association. Reading Kanji is difficult because they often have many readings. Despite the overall patterns that you will be introduced to, educated guessing will be the best skill to have to read Kanji.

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. 


ON readings (オンみ) came from China. All words with them are Chinese in origin except when the readings are used for phonetic reasons only. All Kanji made in China have one or more ON reading(s) with one or more meanings. Even some Kanji that were made in Japan even have ON readings. 

ON readings are frequently used in words with 2 or more Kanji. They are sometimes used in isolation, though, especially when the word doesn't have a native equivalent. However, because there is no way you'll know the etymology of every word right off the bat, you will have to a large degree memorize how to read words individually.

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


訓読     くんよみ are generally native words applied to Kanji. 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 may have one or more KUN readings. They are commonly used in isolation unlike ON readings, but many are used in conjugations with ひらがな following. 

 Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning
 雨 あめ Ame Rain 雨雲 あまぐも Amagumo Rain cloud
 日傘 ひがさ Higasa Parasol 日 ひ Hi Day; sun
 思い おもい Omoi Thought 歌う うたう Utau To sing
 小山 こやま Koyama Hill 高い たかい Takai High

オンくん & くんオン COMPOUNDS 

At times ON and KUN readings are used together to make a compound. These readings are called Jūbako readings (重箱読ジュウばこよみ) and Yutō readings (湯桶読ゆトウよみ) respectively. ジュウばこ and 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 みブン 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


Classify the following words by reading: ON, KUN, Jūbako, or Yutō. As you have only been introduced to Kanji, use a dictionary resource like 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


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

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

2. Write out the Kanji 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. 

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. All Kanji are made up of one or more 214 of them. They are the ABCs to building Kanji to then build words. To get a grasp of what radicals are and what they look like, below you will see a good handful of them. 

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

Just like the alphabet, each one of these has a name. As you learn more about Kanji, we'll find out that how these radicals are used determine whether a character is a pictograph, ideograph, or a mix of the two. 

Kanji 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. Although radicals are like building blocks, but they may or may not contribute to meaning and or sound. 

Some radicals are used for phonetic purposes. In other words, there is a part of the character that hints at what the ON reading is supposed to be. Therefore, Kanji with the same phonetic often have similar ON readings. The Kanji 時, 持, and 侍 all have the ON reading ジ because the phonetic component 寺's ON reading is ジ. There are exceptions to this method of guessing an ON reading, though. For example, 待 and 特 have the readings of タイ and 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 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 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 きょう Kyō Today 昨日 きのう 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.

I'm Moving!

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