Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1

Chapter 4

Kanji

We are back in our series “Introduction to Japanese”. Last time, we learned how to speak and write Katakana, one of three scripts used to write the Japanese language. In this article, we are going to learn the basics of Kanji, by far the most complex (and unfortunately, used) script.

Kanji is the most used script for writing Japanese, but it is not native to Japan. Actually, Kanji (漢字) means “Han (Chinese) Letters”, and were brought from China to Japan around the fifth century AD; before that, the Japanese language had no written form. Since Kanji is also the origin for the other two scripts (Hiragana and Katakana) used to write Japanese, it is no exaggeration to say that it has been the single most impactful development for the Japanese language. On the other hand, as we will see later, this late adoption has created some issues that can still create hurdles for learners of Japanese.

Learning Kanji is a continuous process (Japanese children learn it over nine years from age 6 to 15). Differently from Hiragana and Katakana, there is no way we can cover all 2,136 Kanji characters in one article. Instead, we will learn the very basics: what are Kanji, how we use them, how we write them, and how we speak them.

We will be using Hiragana and Katakana in this article, so if you cannot read them and haven’t checked our previous articles, we strongly recommend you to read them first.

What you need to know

Kanji, differently from Hiragana and Katakana, is not a syllabary. The characters do not necessarily represent any particular sound or phoneme; instead, each Kanji represent an idea or concept. For example, the character 人 does not instruct you on how to read it, as ひ or カ do; 人 represents the concept of a “person”, a “human being”.

Kanjis are ideograms (ok, linguists will tell you that they actually are logograms, but the difference will not matter for our studies). They convey meaning rather than sound. That can be confusing for Western learners, as the opposite is true to our Latin alphabet – after all, the letter “m” by itself has no meaning. While we combine letters to create meaning – say, writing the word “human” – Japanese speakers have already one symbol just for that: 人.

Still confused? Let’s think about some “kanji” that we already use in our day-to-day life, like this symbol here: 🚺. Like Kanji, that symbol has meaning, but no indication of how to read it, in other words, no indication of how it sounds. That can be very useful: if you write something like “female toilet”, only English speakers will be able to understand it, while 🚺 would be understood by a far greater number of people, even though most would not be able to speak it (in English, at least).

How do we use Kanji

Kanji is the most used script for writing Japanese, which means that unfortunately you will not get very far with just Hiragana and Katakana. Thanks to their ability to compactly convey meaning, most nouns, as well as adjective and verb stems (verb and adjective inflections, as we have seen before, are normally written in Hiragana) are written using one or more Kanji.

Let’s go back to our known vocabulary of Japanese. While it is possible to write the word “samurai” in Hiragana (さむらい), most Japanese would write it in Kanji instead: 侍. “Japan” could be written in Hiragana as にほん or にっぽん, but it is much more commonly written with two Kanji: 日本.

Now let’s see how you can use the greatest virtue of Kanji – their ability to easily convey meaning – to your advatange. You already know that 日本 means Japan and 人 means person, so you can now guess the meaning of 日本人: “Japanese person/people” or “a Japanese”. Similarly, if I told you that 大 means “big”, maybe you would have been able to guess that 大人 means “adult”.

Once your Kanji vocabulary starts picking up, you will be able to immediately infer the meaning of new words you find, while in English knowing the words “big” and “person” would not help you the first time you met the word “adult”. However, don’t always be too literal. You would be excused, after all, if you thought that “big” and “person” combined to mean “giant”. Guessing some words really ask a lot from your imagination. Take 売 and 春 – “sell” and “spring”, respectively. I’ve actually asked many of my friends over the years to try and guess the meaning when these two kanji are put together, and so far no one was able to properly guess the meaning: “prostitution”.

How Kanji sounds

As much as Kanji can be a boon to learners of Japanese, there is no way around the fact that not knowing how to speak something even though you are able to understand its meaning is one of the hardest parts of learning Japanese. That means that whenever we learn Kanji, in addition to learning how to write it, we need to learn how it sounds.

I will not hide the truth from you: learning how each Kanji sounds is hard. First, there is obviously the issue of remembering the sounds of 2,136 characters. There is the additional issue of Japanese being quite phonologically limited, and therefore, many of these Kanji sound exactly alike.

However, the biggest hurdle is that most of the Kanji have more than one reading, and a few have more than 10. This is what I meant when I mentioned, in the beginning of the article, that the late adoption of Kanji from China imposes some issues for us; in addition to their Chinese original pronunciation, many Kanji have additional, native Japanese pronunciations.

Let’s go back to the Kanji for “person”: 人. Written by itself (as in “a person”) it is read ひと in Japanese. However, once we combine it with other Kanji, its sound changes. For example, 日本人 (Japanese) is not read にほんひと, but rather にほんじん. To get a third example, in the word “adult” (大人) 人 is neither ひと nor じん – that word is actually spoken おとな (although this is an exceptional reading).

There is a silver lining, though – these readings are not completely random, and you can predict patters to your advantage. For example, since in the word “Japanese person” the Kanji 人 sounds like じん, you can already guess both meaning AND sound of the word アメリカ人. The meaning is, as you can imagine, “an American person” or “someone from the United States”, and 人 is again read as じん. Similarly, “Brazilian” is ブラジル人 (“burajirujin”) and “French” is フランス人 (“furansujin”).

On-yomi and Kun-yomi

Another useful pattern to guessing the sound of Kanji is knowing when to use the Chinese reading, and when to use the Japanese one, since most characters only have two readings: On’yomi (“sound reading”) tends to mimic the original Chinese pronunciation of the character; kun’yomi (“meaning reading”) is the native Japanese sound (while you do not need to remember these names, it is important to understand their difference).

Here is the deal: on’yomi is normally used in Kanji compounds (words made from two or more Kanji) while kun’yomi is used for single Kanji words. Let’s try to understand it by examining the character 東, which means “East”. When written by itself (as in the sentence “I live east of the river”), we use the native Japanese reading, ひがし. However, when used in a compound word, we use the Chinese reading, とう; for example, 東京, aka とうきょう, aka Tokyo, aka “Eastern Capital” (as compared to Kyoto, the original capital).

The cool thing is how you can quickly build your Kanji knowledge as you establish connections between the characters. I just told you that Tokyo means Eastern Capital. I also just told you that Kyoto was the previous capital. Both capitals, both have “kyo” in their name… that is right: Kyoto (aka 京都) not only has the same Kanji as Tokyo, it also has the same reading. Its meaning, by the way, is “Capital City”.

On’yomi, the Chinese reading, is normally monosyllabic, which makes sense if you know some Chinese. Japanese readings, on the other hand, tend to be quite long, containing from two up to five syllables. Compare 新 (“new”); its Chinese reading is しん; its Japanese one, あたら.

With this information, you can progress by making tables for each of the Kanji you learn, writing down for each character its respective Chinese and Japanese readings, as well as their meaning. Please note, by the way, that many like to write the Chinese readings in Katakana to emphasize their foreign origin and/or to make it clearer to see which are Chinese and which are Japanese readings. Some people would also want to write exceptional readings, that is to say, readings that happen in a single word, such as our earlier 大人・おとな example. As a suggestion, here goes the table for some of the characters we have seen in this article.

Kanji Chinese Reading Japanese Reading Meaning
にち, じつ ひ, び, か Sun, day
ほん もと Origin, main, book
じん, にん ひと, り, と Person
しん あたら, あら New
とう ひがし East

Wrap-up

In our next article, as we introduce grammar and vocabulary, we will also gradually introduce new Kanji, including its sounds and stroke order. Again, learning Kanji takes years. How you learn is up to you; some readers may want to start a specific practice to learn them all, as in setting a goal (say, learning and memorizing 20 Kanji a week), while others may choose to simply learn them as they learn vocabulary. What is important is that you do not stop learning them.

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