第?課: Introduction to Kanji 漢字 II: ON & KUN Readings

In Lesson 6, we learned that Kanji are used to write units of meaning. Each character has one or more meanings, and their components (radicals) help the reader guess what those meanings are. Whereas the last lesson focused on learning about what Kanji are, this lesson will be about how to read them. Before we learn about how pronouncing Kanji works, we’ll need to first learn about the different kinds of Kanji that exist. This will help you figure out how to read Kanji more than you may think!

The Kinds of Kanji

Kanji come in four main kinds based on what they represent and how. Originally, Kanji all began as pictographic representations of what they meant. The ancient Chinese took it upon themselves to turn pictures into meaningful symbols, and over many centuries, those symbols evolved into the Kanji we know today.


Pictograms

Pictograms are the direct descendants of these ancient depictions. Although highly stylized, many pictographic Kanji still greatly resemble what they represent. Below are some examples.

Sun

Moon

Mountain

Bird

Tree

Fish

River

Shellfish

Mouth

Dragon


Ideograms

Whereas pictograms are depictions of concrete entities, ideograms are depictions of abstract entities. This is the only difference between the two. Below are some examples.

One

Two

Three

Up

Down

Heaven

Now

Mother

Sound

Standing


Compound Ideograms

Compound ideograms are the logical next step after simple ideograms. As implied by the name, they are created by combining radicals together to express a more complex meaning. The meaning is always abstract to some degree. Below are some examples.

Woods

Forest

Flame

Bright

Believe

Tree + Tree

Tree + Tree + Tree

Fire + Fire

Sun + Moon

Person + Word

Death

Compare

Light

Man

Rest

Bones + Person

Person + Person

Fire + Person

Rice Field + Strength

Person + Tree



Semasio-Phonetic Characters

The previous types of characters only make up about 10% of the Kanji that exist. This means that for the remaining 90%, not all parts of a Kanji contribute to its meaning. Rather, one or more parts contribute to the meaning while the rest of the character indicates its “sound.” These phonetic elements are deeply tied to Chinese, the language for which Kanji were originally developed for. Nonetheless, because so many words have been borrowed into Japanese from Chinese, it would be a huge mistake to ignore Kanji phonetics.  

To demonstrate all this, let’s first consider the Kanji 官 meaning “bureaucracy.” It is a compound ideogram composed of a pictograph of a roof and meat for ceremonial purposes. This gave about a meaning of “military,” which then eventually led to it being interpreted as “a building where military dwell.” From this, the meaning of “bureaucracy” came about. Its “sound” is KAN. When it is seen in other characters, its meaning is usually irrelevant. Its primary purpose is to indicate that the character it’s in also has the same/similar pronunciation.

Pipe

Large Building

Sedge

Coffin

KAN

KAN

KAN

KAN

Bamboo + 官

Food + 官

Grass + 官

Tree + 官

Kanji Note: 館 can also be viewed as a compound ideogram. A building for the military with lots of resources is naturally large.

ON & KUN Readings

ON Readings 

The “sound” elements found in semasio-phonetic characters refer to what are called ON readings—on’yomi おんよみ. ON readings are associated with Sino-Japanese vocabulary. These are words derived from Chinese roots, and any character read with an ON reading represents one of the many Chinese roots borrowed into Japanese.

ON readings were borrowed along with Kanji, but Kanji weren’t all introduced to Japan at the same time. Over many centuries, Japan would occasionally open itself and then close itself off from direct contact with China and its other neighbors. As time went by, so too did Chinese change. Whenever the flow of linguistic information was reopened, Japan did not simply replace old ON readings for the new ones that came in. Instead, words that had already been made with the old readings stayed as is and the new readings, as well as new meanings in some cases, were used to make even more words.

All this means that any Kanji which came from China will have one or more ON readings. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the Kanji 男 meaning “man.” It has two ON readings: ナン and ダン, with the first one being older than the latter one. You can find words with both readings. Words created with the ON readings of more than one Kanji are technically compounds as each Kanji represents a separate unit of meaning.

Notation Note: ON readings will be given in Katakana カタカナ for the rest of this lesson just like above. Additionally, as was the case in previous lessons, characters in bold have a high pitch in comparison to those which are not in bold.  

男性

男優

男児

男子

男女

ンセイ

ンユウ

ンジ

ンシ

ンジョ

Male

Actor

Boy

Young man

Men and women

長男

次男

三男

美男

下男

チョウナン

ナン

ンナ

ン・ビ

ナン

Eldest son

Second son

Third son

Handsome man

Male servant


Reading Note: As demonstrated by the word 美男, there are cases in which more than one reading is acceptable. 


KUN Readings

Along with ON readings, most Kanji also have KUN readings—kun’yomi くんよみ.  Japanese existed before Chinese loan-words ever crossed the sea into Japan. These Chinese borrowings didn’t just replace the existing vocabulary of Japanese. Instead, both the Chinese loans and native vocabulary ended up coexisting similarly to how words of Germanic and Romance origin coexist in English.

Knowing ON readings is like knowing your Latin roots, and knowing KUN readings is like knowing the core vocabulary used in daily conversation. This is indeed reflected statistically in Japanese. Whereas Sino-Japanese words derived from ON readings make up over 60% of the Japanese lexicon, they only make up about 30% of words used commonly in the spoken language. Native vocabulary represented by KUN readings make up over 60% of the words used in daily conversation.

To demonstrate what KUN readings look like, let’s return our attention to the Kanji 男. It has two KUN readings: お and おとこ. The first KUN reading is a root that refers to “male” entities, and it is seen a lot in Japanese male names. The latter reading おとこ is the word for “man.” The character 男 demonstrates that both more than one ON reading and more than one KUN reading can be assigned to a single Kanji.

Additionally, just as ON readings are used to make compounds, so too are KUN readings. This is because Japanese has always had means of creating compound expressions.

Notation Note: KUN readings will be given in Hiragana ひらがな for the rest of this lesson just like above.

男心

男湯

男前

男神

保男

とこごころ

とこゆ

とこまえ

がみ

すお

Male instincts

Men’s bath

Man’s looks

Male deity

Yasuo


 Choosing Between ON & KUN Readings

So, how exactly do you know which reading to choose for any given word?

  • Both ON and KUN readings can be used in single-Kanji words. For words like this read with an ON reading, a KUN reading rarely exists. Even if a KUN reading does exist, the readings are used as completely different words. For single-Kanji that are read with a KUN reading, it tends to be a basic vocabulary word.

King

Heaven

Line

Train station

Gold

Rain

Mountain

Country

Bird

Money

  • Both ON and KUN readings can be used in compounds. Typically, the more Kanji there are stringed together, the more likely they’re read as ON readings. Also, ON readings are associated with technical words, many of which may be best suited for the written language instead of conversation. Contrary to this, KUN reading compounds are associated with simple words common in conversation. They also tend to be core vocabulary of the language that you would expect Japanese to have always had.

王国

天気

京浜東北線

火山

光年

金魚

ウコク

ンキ

イヒントウホクセン

ザン

ウネン

ンギョ

Kingdom

Weather

Keihin-Tōhoku Line

Volcano

Lightyear

Goldfish

雨雲

母親

足音

小鳥

子供

貝殻

まぐも

ははおや

しお

とり

ども

いが

Raincloud

Mother

Footstep

Small bird

Child(ren)

Shell


 ON-KUN & KUN-ON Compounds

It is also possible to see ON-KUN compounds, which are called ジュウばこよみ.  In Kanji, ジュウばこ is 重箱. It uses the ON reading ジュウ of 重 and the KUN reading ばこ of 箱. The word refers to a “multi-tiered food box.” It itself is an example of an ON-KUN compound.

The reverse, KUN-ON readings, is also possible, and these readings are called ゆトウよみ. In Kanji, ゆトウ is 湯桶. It uses the KUN reading ゆ of 湯 and the ON reading トウ of 桶. The word refers to a “pail-like wooden container for hot liquids.” It itself is an example of a KUN-ON compound.

台所

番組

路肩

残高

団子

イどころ

ンぐみ

かた

ンだか

ンご

Kitchen

(TV) program

Road shoulder

Bank balance

Dumpling(s)

場所

見本

身分

消印

手帳

ショ

ホン

ブン

しイン

チョウ

Place

Specimen

Status/position

Postmark

Notebook


Okurigana

It is also important to note that many KUN readings are only used when certain Hiragana follows. This is called Okurigana おくりがな, which, again, is Hiragana that follows Kanji. Okurigana is entirely composed of the parts of word that change in conjugation. Although there are instances in which ON readings can be followed by Okurigana, most instances involve KUN readings (native vocabulary).

思う

高い

歌う

大きい

行く

たう

おき

To think

To be high/tall

To sing

To be big

To go


Kokuji

Though Kanji are Chinese characters, not all of them were made in China. There are, in fact, many important Kanji that were made in Japan following the same principles. These characters are called kokuji こくじ. Kokuji, being indigenous to Japan, typically only have KUN readings. Again, though, this is unfortunately not a solid rule either. If you're a reader of Chinese, most of the characters will likely not be familiar to you.

Notation Note: Parts of a reading in parentheses indicate that it is okurigana.

Work

Mountain pass

Spasms

 

ON: ドウ
KUN: はたら(く)

 

KUN: とうげ

ON: シャク

Sardine

Field

Gland

KUN: いわし

KUN: はた・はたけ

ON: セン

Crowded

Fragrant

Fence

KUN: こ(む)

KUN: にお(う)

ON: ヘイ

Crossroad

Sacred Shinto tree

Thumbtack

KUN: つじ

KUN: さかき

ON: ビョウ



Exceptions

Aside from ON and KUN readings are completely exceptional readings. Though they can be viewed as KUN readings, the difference is that more than one Kanji is involved, and it's not possible to assign any part of the reading to the individual characters. Instead, you read the word as a whole a particular way. Each exception must be learned individually, and there are unfortunately quite a few such exceptions. Consider the following examples.

昨日

今日

明日

明後日

大人

きょ

した・あ

って

とな

Yesterday

Today

Tomorrow

Day after tomorrow

Adult

一日

今朝

煙草

一昨日

梅雨

いたち

ばこ

ととい

First day of the month

This morning

Tobacco

Day before yesterday

Rainy season

雪崩

大和

田舎

太刀

紅葉

だれ

まと

なか

みじ

Avalanche

Yamato

Countryside

Long sword

Colored leaves

Conclusion

Ultimately, reading Kanji is very complex. Most characters have multiple readings, and the general patterns discussed above are still not good enough to guess with complete accuracy what reading should be used for any given word. Even though these guidelines can help you guess which reading to choose, you still have to know the readings of the Kanji present to make a proper guess.

There is also the reality that there are many Kanji which share the same readings. After all, there are far more Kanji than there are unique morae in the language. Similarly to how English readers learn how to spell words, it is always safest to simply learn how individual words are read, and along the way, the guidelines mentioned above will gradually become more practical.

Don’t let all this be intimidating. Japanese natives aren’t perfect either, and there are plenty of words everyone stumbles over—both non-native and native speakers. In our digital age, reading Kanji has become easier than ever due to the ease of typing. The more exposure you have with Japanese text, the easier reading Kanji becomes, despite how many individual Kanji are used. Take your time, but most importantly, practice diligently.


Next Lesson 第7課: The 10 Major Aspects of Japanese