Japanese Kanji (漢字)

An introduction to Japanese kanji

Japanese kanji are characters that represent words or parts of words and that were borrowed from Chinese, starting in the 5th century AD. At that time, there was no written form of Japanese, and at first people wrote in Chinese. Ways to write Japanese with the Chinese characters were later developed. Some characters were used to represent Japanese words, or words borrowed from Chinese, while others were used to represent Japanse sounds. The ones used to represent sounds were gradually simplified and became the modern hiragana and katakana syllabaries, while the kanji for words remained in use.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 kanji are used in written Japanese, however the comprehensive 大漢和辞典 (dai kanwa jiten - Great Chinese–Japanese Dictionary) compiled by Tetsuji Morohashi (諸橋轍次) contains about 50,000 of them.

In 1981 in an effort to make it easier to read and write Japanese, the Japanese government introduced the 常用漢字表 (jōyō kanji hyō) or the "List of Kanji for General Use", which includes 1,945 regular characters, plus additional characters used for people's names (人名用漢字 - jinmeiyō-kanji). This is based on the list of 1,850 regular use kanji (当用漢字 tōyō kanji) published in 1946. In 2010 an additional 196 commonly-used kanji were added to the jōyō kanji taking the total to 2,136.

Newpapers and other media and publications use mainly jōyō kanji and provide furigana (reading in kana) for non-jōyō kanji. Japanese children are expected to know all of the jōyō kanji by the end of high school but to read specialist publications and ordinary literature, they need to know another two or three thousand kanji.

The word 漢字 (kanji) means “Han characters”, and its pronunciation is a version of the Middle Chinese word for such characters [hɑn˥˩ d͡zɨ˥˩/xɑn˥˩ d͡zɨ˥˩], filtered through Japanese phonology. Han refers to the Han Dynasty (206BC - 220AD) and in Mandarin Chinese characters are known as 汉字 [漢字] (hànzì).

Today about half the vocabulary of Japanese comes from Chinese and Japanese kanji are use to represent both Sino-Japanese words and native Japanese words with the same meaning.

For example, the native Japanese word for water is mizu, while the Sino-Japanese word is sui - it's shuǐ in Mandarin. Both are written with the same character (水). The former is known as the kun yomi (Japanese reading) of the character while the latter is known as the on yomi (Chinese reading) of the character.

The character for water (水) appears in words such as:

Another example: the native Japanese word for mountain is yama, and the Sino-Japanese word is san, both are written with the kanji 山 - it's shān in Mandarin

The character for mountain (山) appears in words such as:

The general rule is that when a kanji appears on its own, it is given the kun yomi, but when two or more kanji appear together, they are given the on yomi. There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule, as you can see above.

Many kanji have several on yomi and/or several kun yomi, and many have multiple meanings. For example: the on yomi for 日 are nichi, jitsu and ka, while the kun yomi are hi and bi. Two different readings may appear in one word, e.g. 日曜日 (nichiyōbi - Sunday). In Japanese names this character can be pronounced a, aki, iru, ku, kusa, , su, tachi, ni, nitsu or he.

Here’s another example is 行:

Multiple on yomi are a result of borrowing words over a period of many centuries, during which Chinese pronunciation changed.


Types of Kanji

Kanji are traditionally classified into six different types.

Pictographs (象形文字 - shōkei moji)

The kanji 山 (yama - mountain) and 水 (mizu - water) are examples of pictographic characters (象形文字 - shōkei moji). They were originally pictures of the things, and over time they become more abstract and simplified. Few are recognisable as what they represent any longer. Other examples include 木 (ki - tree), 魚 (sakana - fish), 人 (nin - person), 火 (hi - fire), and 亀 (kame - turtle).

Ideographs (指事文字 - shiji moji)

Ideographs represent abstract concepts in a graphical form. Examples include: 上 (ue - above, over, up), 下 (shita - down, below, under), 中 (naka - inside, among, middle, centre), 凸 (totsu - convex), and 凹 (ō - concave).

Compound indicatives (会意文字 - kaii moji)

These kanji are combinations of ideographs and/or pictographs that represent semantic meaning. For example, if we put 上 (ue - up), 下 (shita - down) and 山 (yama - mountain) together, we get the kanji 峠 (tōge - mountain pass). Putting 人 (nin - person) and 中 (naka - middle) together we get 仲 (naka - relation, relationship, go-between) - 人 becomes 亻in this case. Another example is the word 焚く (taku), which means to burn, light (a fire), heat, etc, and is a combination of two trees (木) and fire (火). Incidentaly, forest is 森 (mori) or 森林 (senrin).

Semantic-phonetic compounds (形声文字 - keisei moji)

These kanji combine one element that suggests their meaning, and another that hints at their pronunciation. These are the most common type of kanji, and make about 90% of standard kanji lists. Examples include:

The two other types of characters are 転注文字 (tenchū moji), or derivative characters and 仮借文字 (kasha moji), or phonetic loans. The former are vaguely defined, while the latter refers to characters that are used to represent a word with a similar sound but a different meaning. For example in ancient Chinese, the kanji 麦 (mugi - wheat, barely, oats), originally meant to come, while the kanji 来 (rai - next, coming; kiru - to come) originally meant wheat. Their meanings got swopped at some point.


Simplification of Kanji

Since the 1950s, some kanji have been simplified, although not always in the same way as characters have been simplified in China. The simplified characters used in Japan are known as 新字体 (shinjitai - “new character form”). Many are based on comonly-used handwritten versions of the kanji.

Chinese (traditional) Chinese (simplified) Japanese Meaning
圓 (yuán) 圆 (yuán) 円 (en) round, circle, yen (jp)
齒 (chǐ) 齿 (chǐ) 歯 (ha) tooth, teeth
龍 (lóng) 龙 (lóng) 竜 (ryū) dragon
賣 (maì) 卖 (maì) 売る (uru) to sell
絲 (sī) 丝 (sī) 糸 (ito) silk, thread
縣 (xiàn) 县 (xiàn) 県 (ito) county, prefecture
藝 (yì) 艺 (yì) 芸 (gei) skill, art


Made in Japan Kanji (和製漢字)

There are also a number of characters which were invented in Japan. They are known as 和製漢字 (wasei kanji) or 国字 (kokuji - national characters). The former refers to kanji created in Japan, while the latter refers to any characters created outside China. These characters usually only have kun yomi. Here are some examples. The kanji at the top of the list are commonly-used, while the rest are rarely, if ever, used.


Kanji-related links


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Japonic / Japanese-Ryukyuan languages

Amami, Japanese, Kikai, Miyakoan, Okinawan, Okinoerabu, Tarama, Tokunoshima, Yaeyama, Yonaguni

Semanto-phonetic writing systems

Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sawndip (Old Zhuang), Sui, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)

Other writing systems

Page last modified: 16.03.24


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