Kanji Explained

Kanji, Explained

So, you’ve learned both sets of kana (hiragana and katakana) and gotten the basics of the Japanese writing systems down. Now what? The infamous kanji come next in how to read Japanese. Yes, the characters that look like Chinese at first glance rather than Japanese. 

While there are several thousand characters (hold on, stay with me!), you will find that they are actually an invaluable tool in learning Japanese vocabulary and may even help you decipher words that you’ve never seen before. If you are looking for how to learn Japanese on your own, kanji will be your best friend.

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Kanji basics

First, what are kanji? Kanji refers to the characters that were originally brought in from China in the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Before this language exchange, Japanese did not have a writing system at all. It was a completely oral language. From there, the Japanese adopted the characters to match their own corresponding words. 

While there are a total of 46 hiragana and katakana characters respectively, there are over 50,000 kanji. That sounds crazy, but even the average Japanese person can only read a few thousand. To obtain relative fluency, you only need to learn a fraction of them: just over 2,000. These are known as jōyō kanji, which contain all the kanji that are taught in Japanese grade school. 

Still, 2,000 is a big number! How are you supposed to learn them all? Thankfully, they are all unique have have specific concepts associated with them to aid you. 

Kanji are, at their most basic, characters that represent a word or concept. For example, the kanji 木 means “tree.” In a way, you can consider these to be similar to Greek and Latin roots, which form the basis of most English words. For example, many will be familiar with “arachnophobia,” coming from the Greek roots “arachne” (spider) and “phobos” (fear). 

Kanji work similarly. For “this week” (今週), “this month” (今月), or even “today” (今日), you need only take the kanji for “now” (今) and add it to the corresponding period of time: “week” (週), “month” (月), and “day” (日). This results in something like “the week that is now,” which we simplify to “this week.” If you know the kanji and their meanings individually, you can combine their meanings to take an educated guess at what the entire word means, even if you’ve never seen it before!

This even applies to names. The capital of Japan, Tōkyō (東京), literally means “east capital” from the kanji for “east” (東) and “capital” (京). This refers to the city’s founding after the capital was moved east of the original capital, Kyōto.  

Now, you may be wondering: if I’ve already learned hiragana and katakana, then why do I have to learn this third writing system? There are a few reasons. First, know that all three writing systems are used simultaneously. For instance, the word for “eating” is tabeteiru 食べている. The first letter is indeed kanji, but not the rest. Then, if we wanted to say “eating a banana,” we will be using all three writing systems: banana wo tabeteiru バナナを食べている. 

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When consuming any native Japanese media, you cannot escape kanji. They are arguably the most important of the three writing systems, as they provide meaning to the words at a glance. Whether you are moving into intermediate or advanced textbooks, watching Japanese news, or following your favorite Japanese celebrities on Twitter, kanji are essential to understanding the content you are reading. Japanese self learning is almost impossible without knowing kanji.

Also, remember that Japanese does not use spaces between words. If we were to use hiragana exclusively, sentences would very quickly become an overwhelming mix of letters with no immediately discernable separation between words. Let’s take a look at this sentence, meaning “I will study Japanese,” written out in hiragana vs the normal mix of kanji and hiragana:

Watashi wa nihongo wo benkyoushimasu.

わたしはにほんごをべんきょうします。

日本語勉強します

If you can read hiragana you will notice that there are only five hiragana characters remaining (in bold) after the kanji replace their corresponding words. Once you’ve learned what each of those kanji mean, dividing up the words in any given sentence becomes a breeze!

How to read kanji

Before we talk about how to read kanji, let’s remember where they came from: China. When Japan adopted the Chinese characters, they naturally already had their own word for, say, “tree.” There was also a Chinese word for “tree.” Rather than using one reading over the other, both the Chinese and Japanese words became associated with each kanji. This resulted in the two groups of readings for kanji: on’yomi and kun’yomi.

Simply put, on’yomi readings are derived from the Chinese pronunciations and kun’yomi readings are derived from the native Japanese word. All kanji dictionaries will display both options, like so:

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This image, taken from jisho.org’s entry on the 木 kanji, shows that there are two kun’yomi (“kun”) readings and two on’yomi (“on”) readings. The number of readings will vary from kanji to kanji. Some will only have one reading for each, or five. Some will only have kun’yomi but no on’yomi, or vice versa.

How are you supposed to know which reading to use?

While there are exceptions to every rule, a general rule of thumb to use when determining what reading a kanji uses is whether it is a word made of a single kanji (or mix of kanji and hiragana) or if it is a compound word with multiple kanji. Let’s use the kanji for “moon” as an example.

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On its own, the kanji 月 is read as “tsuki” (the kun’yomi) and simply means “moon.” However, if we were to combine it with the kanji for “one” (一), we get 一月. This is read “ichigatsu” (the on’yomi) and means “January,” the first moon, or rather, month!

Radical!

The kanji we have discussed so far look fairly simple and easy to digest: 木 and 月. Now, what if you were to be faced with a kanji like this: 雪. That’s a little more complex! The trick to learning the majority of kanji is by identifying their “radicals.” 

Every kanji is comprised of small pieces called “radicals” (or are otherwise radicals in of themselves). By identifying each of these pieces, even kanji that appear overwhelming at first can be easily tackled. Let’s look at the kanji above: 雪

This kanji is composed of two radicals: 雨 and ヨ. The first radical, as you will find out as you study kanji, is actually a kanji of its own, meaning “rain.” The second radical look like a katakana ヨ. The two separate pieces are easier to parse on their own. Once you have those two radicals identified, you can put the two together to get the new kanji 雪, which means “snow”! 

Radicals can even give you an aid in learning the meaning of new words. Let’s take 木, 林, and 森 as examples. You can see that all three are made of the same radical, 木 (“tree”), repeated two or three times. The first kanji, 木, means “tree.” The second, 林, means a “grove” or “forest.” The last, 森, means “forest” or “woods.” By adding more trees (in this case, tree radicals), you’ve created a bigger and bigger grouping of them, ranging from a single tree to an entire forest! 

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Studying kanji and using kanji dictionaries

For beginning and intermediate learners, kanji dictionaries are often organized by level of difficulty and frequency of the kanji. Within the jōyō kanji, there are six levels. The first is comprised of the 250 most elementary kanji, while the sixth is for specialized kanji that are useful, but uncommon.

Dictionaries such as the Kanji In Context reference book not only organize their entries by level, but also provide the readings and useful vocabulary using the kanji in question. Dictionaries that organize their entries by level are most suited for beginners.

When it comes to looking up specific kanji in these dictionaries, things get a little more complex. If every kanji has multiple pronunciations, how are you supposed to look up kanji in a dictionary? The answer is that kanji dictionaries include an index that show all the readings of the kanji included in the dictionary and show you what kanji have that reading, regardless of whether they are on’yomi or kun’yomi

Here is an excerpt from The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary:

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The spelling in romaji is one reading of the kanji next to or below it. From there, you can look up the number (specific to this dictionary) and find its entry in the dictionary. Different dictionaries will have different numbering systems, but they will all be fairly intuitive and straight-forward.

Now, what if you don’t know what the kanji sounds like at all? This is where radicals come in handy once again. Some kanji dictionaries also provide an index that group the kanji by their radicals, while other dictionaries are ordered by their radicals to begin with. The New Nelson dictionary is one such example.

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Every radical and kanji has a set number of lines, or “strokes,” that are used to write them. For example, the kanji for “one” is comprised of one stroke: 一. The kanji for “seven” is comprised of two strokes: 七.

When looking up a kanji in a kanji dictionary that organizes its entries by radicals, the first step is to count the number of strokes in its identifying radical, then find that radical in the dictionary, and then find the category that includes the remaining number of strokes in the entire kanji.

Let’s look up the kanji for “body”: 体. The radical on the left is where we start, and it has two strokes. Here it is!

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This is radical “9,” so we’ll look up that up next.

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The radical we’re looking at is an abbreviated version, found in the caption of this radical entry. Now, we count the number of strokes in the 体 kanji and find that it has seven strokes. Subtracting the two strokes from the radical, we have five strokes left.

We flip through the pages until we reach the section for “five” strokes within the 人 radical entry:

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A few pages later, we have finally found the kanji we’re looking for!

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Ultimately, kanji dictionaries are incredibly useful and can be excellent study aids, but they are best to use once you have the basics down—otherwise, they can be overwhelming at first.

Useful kanji for beginners

When you’re just beginning to learn kanji, the first level is the best place to start. The kanji required for the most basic level (N5) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test is also a good choice. The kanji in both lists include numbers, days of the week, family memebers, body parts, and so on. In essence, these are the most important kanji to start with.

A handy book to get you started is Basic Japanese Kanji: High-Frequency Kanji at Your Command!, as it includes most of the first level kanji, complete with cute mnemonic pictures to help you study.

Here is the entry for the kanji for “down,” as an example:

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Time to learn kanji

Just as there are thousands of kanji to learn, there are dozens of questions you may have when approaching them. Flashcards and self-study are a great way to drill the kanji into your head and learn to recognize them, but Japanese tutoring will be the best way to get all your questions answered.

Whether you want to learn more about the readings, radicals, or how to apply the kanji you have learned, a Japanese tutor can get you started on the right track.

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