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Kanji (漢字, literally "characters from Han China"; see also Han Chinese) are Chinese characters used in Japanese. Kanji are one of the five character sets used in the modern Japanese writing system, the other four being hiragana, katakana, the Roman alphabet (rōmaji), and Arabic numerals.

This article focuses on the Japanese use of these characters; see Chinese character for a general discussion of Chinese characters, which are also used in several other languages.



There is some disagreement about how the use of Chinese characters began in Japan, but it is generally accepted that Buddhist monks brought Chinese texts back to Japan in about the 5th century. These texts were in the Chinese language and would have been read as such at first. Over time, however, a system known as kanbun (漢文) emerged; it essentially used Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to read it in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar.

The Japanese language itself had no written form at the time. Eventually a writing system called man'yōgana (used in the ancient poetry anthology Man'yōshū) evolved that used a limited set of Chinese characters for their phonetic value alone, not for their semantic value, which was necessary for writing Japanese poetry. Manyogana written in curvilinear style became hiragana, a writing system that was accessible to women (who were denied higher education). Major works of Heian-era literature by women were written in hiragana. Katakana emerged via a parallel path: monastery students simplified manyogana to a single constituent element. Hiragana and katakana are referred to collectively as kana.

As the Japanese system of writing matured and expanded, kanji began to be used to write certain parts of speech, such as nouns, adjectives and verbs, while hiragana was used to write verb endings (okurigana), uniquely Japanese words, and words where the kanji is too difficult to read or remember. Hiragana is also used in books for young children and to impart a softer tone to words and requests. Words or parts of words like kudasai (ください please) and kodomo (子ども children) are usually written in hiragana.

Conversely, because of its angularity, katakana came to be used for representing onomatopoeia, harsh and sudden sounds, animal noises, and foreign words. Note, however, that the usage of katakana to write loan words developed much later. Originally they were written using kanji, chosen either for their meaning (煙草 tabako) or to spell the word phonetically (tempura 天婦羅 or 天麩羅). Today, the reverse is occurring. Loan words, especially from English, are rapidly displacing common words for which there are suitable Japanese equivalents instead of being used to fill lexical gap . One linguistics professor estimates that as much as one-third of spoken Japanese today consists of loan words or wasei-eigo, Japanese-invented English words and portmanteaux like パーソコン pāsokon (personal computer).

Types of kanji: categorized by history


While some kanji and Chinese hanzi are mutually readable, many more are not. In addition to characters that have different meanings in Japanese, and characters that have identical meanings but are written differently, there are also characters peculiar to Japanese known as kokuji (国字; literally "national characters"). Kokuji are also known as wasei kanji (和製漢字; lit. "Chinese characters made in Japan"). There are hundreds of kokuji (see the sci.lang.japan AFAQ list), and although some are rarely used, many others have become important additions to the written Japanese language. These include:

  • tōge (mountain pass)
  • sakaki (sakaki tree, genus Camellia)
  • hatake (field of crops)
  • tsuji (crossroads, street)
  • , hatara(ku) (work)


In addition to kokuji, there are kanji that have been given meanings in Japanese different from their original Chinese meanings. These kanji are not considered kokuji but are instead called kokkun (国訓) and include characters such as:

  • oki (offing, offshore; Ch. chōng rinse)
  • mori (forest; Ch. sēn gloomy, majestic, luxuriant growth)
  • 椿 tsubaki (Camellia japonicus; Ch. chūn Ailantus)

Old characters and new characters

The same kanji character can sometimes be written in two different ways, 旧字体 (kyū-jitai ; lit. "old character") and 新字体 (shin-jitai ; "new character"). The following are some examples of kyū-jitai followed by the corresponding shin-jitai:

  • 國 国 kuni (country)
  • 號 号 (number)
  • 變 変 hen, ka(waru) (change)

Kyū-jitai were used before the end of World War II, but after the war the government introduced the simplified shin-jitai. Some of the new characters are similar to simplified characters used in the People's Republic of China, but the two are essentially different things.

There are also Chinese characters that are only used phonetically in Japanese (当て字 ateji), and many Chinese characters that are not used in Japanese at all. Theoretically, however, any Chinese character can also be a Japanese character—the Morohashi Daikanwa Jiten, the largest dictionary of kanji ever compiled, has close to 50,000 entries, even though some of those entries have never been used in Japanese.


A kanji character may have several (in rare cases ten or more) possible pronunciations, depending on its context, intended meaning, use in compounds, and location in the sentence. These pronunciations, or readings, are typically categorized as either on'yomi or kun'yomi (often abbreviated on and kun).

On'yomi (Chinese reading)

The on'yomi (音読み) of a kanji (also called its on reading or Chinese reading) is based on the Japanese approximation of the original Chinese pronunciation of the character at the time it was introduced. Some kanji were reintroduced from different parts of China at different times, and so have multiple on'yomi (and often multiple meanings as well). Contrariwise, wasei kanji typically have no on'yomi at all.

For example, the kanji for light or next (明) may be pronounced myō, from an early (c. 5th6th century) borrowing from southern China, or mei, from a later (c. 7th9th century) borrowing from northern China. However, the kanji 込 is Japanese, not Chinese, in origin, and thus lacks any on'yomi.

Due to trade/navigation patterns, a great volume of Chinese vocabulary was introduced to Japan by natives of southern Chinese, thus many common pronunciations more closely mirror those of Southern Chinese languages ("dialects") rather than Northern pronunciations--of course it must be noted that Chinese languages have changed over time and pronunciations used at the time of introduction of vocabulary from China to Japan may no longer be used in a recognizable form by contemporary Chinese.

On'yomi are phonologically characterized by their tendency toward single-syllable readings, since each character expressed a single Chinese syllable. However, tonality aside, most Chinese syllables (especially in Middle Chinese, in which final stop consonants were more prevalent than in most modern dialects) did not fit the largely-CV (consonant-vowel) phonotactics of classical Japanese. Thus most on'yomi are composed of two moras (syllables or beats), the second of which is either a lengthening of the vowel in the first mora (this being i in the case of e and u in the case of o, due to linguistic drift in the centuries since), or one of the syllables ku, ki, tsu, chi, or syllabic n, chosen for their approximation to the final consonants of Middle Chinese. (In fact, palatalized consonants before vowels other than i (written as y in consonant clusters and the consonants ch, sh and j in these environments), as well as syllabic n, were likely added to the Japanese phonotactic system to better simulate Chinese; none of these features occur in words of native Japanese origin.)

On'yomi primarily occur in multi-kanji compound words (熟語 jukugo), many of which are the result of the adoption (along with the kanji themselves) of Chinese words for concepts that either didn't exist in Japanese or could not be articulated as elegantly using native words. This borrowing process is often compared to the English borrowings from Latin and Norman French, since Chinese-borrowed terms are often more specialized, or considered to sound more erudite, than their native counterparts.

Kun'yomi (Japanese reading)

The kun'yomi (訓読み) of a kanji (also called its kun reading, Japanese reading, or somewhat misleadingly its native reading) is a reading based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word, or yamatokotoba, that closely approximated the meaning of the Chinese character when it was introduced. Again, there can be multiple kun readings for the same kanji, and some kanji have no kun'yomi at all.

For instance, the kanji for east, 東, has the on reading . However, Japanese already had a word for east, pronounced higashi (or sometimes azuma). Thus, the kanji character 東 had the latter pronunciations grafted onto it as kun'yomi. However, the kanji 寸, denoting a Chinese unit of measurement (slightly over an inch), had no native Japanese equivalent; thus it has only its on'yomi, sun.

Kun'yomi are characterized by the strict (C)V syllable structure common to yamatokotoba, passingly similar to that of the nearby Polynesian languages. Most noun or adjective kun'yomi are two to three syllables long, while verb kun'yomi are more often one or two syllables in length (not counting trailing hiragana called okurigana, although those are usually considered part of the reading).

In a number of cases, multiple kanji were assigned to cover a single word. Typically when this occurs, the different kanji have slightly different meanings. For instance, the word なおる naoru, when written 治る, means to heal an illness or sickness. When written 直る, it means to fix something (e.g. a bicycle or TV). Sometimes the differences are very clear, other times they are quite subtle. Sometimes you will get differences of opinion depending on which reference work you look at -- one dictionary may say the kanji are equivalent, while another dictionary may draw distinctions of use between them. Because of this confusion, even Japanese people have trouble knowing which kanji to use in some cases. One workaround is simply to write the word in hiragana, a method frequently employed with more complex cases such as もと moto (which has at least 4 different kanji, 3 of which have only very subtle differences).

Other readings

Some kanji also have lesser-known readings called nanori, which are mostly used for people's names, and are generally closely related to the kun'yomi. Place names sometimes also use nanori (or, occasionally, unique readings not found elsewhere).

Gikun (義訓) are readings of kanji combinations that have no direct correspondence to the characters' individual on'yomi or kun'yomi, but are instead connected by the meaning of the written and spoken phrases. For example, the compound 一寸 might naïvely be read issun, meaning "one sun", but it is more often used to write the indivisible word chotto, "a little". Gikun also feature in some Japanese family names.

Many ateji (kanji used only for their phonetic value) have meanings derived from their usage: for example, the now-archaic 亜細亜 ajia was formerly used to write "Asia" in kanji; the character 亜 now means Asia in such compounds as 東亜 tōa, "East Asia". From the written 亜米利加 amerika, the second character was taken, resulting in the semi-formal coinage 米国 beikoku, lit. "rice country" but meaning "United States of America".

When to use which reading

The division between on'yomi and kun'yomi can seem arbitrary and unnecessarily difficult to the learner of Japanese. Words for similar concepts, such as "east" (東), "north" (北) and "northeast" (東北), can have completely different pronunciations: the kun readings higashi and kita are used for the first two, while the on reading tōhoku is used for the third. However, the situation is actually no less coherent than the similar mixture of pronunciations in English which resulted from similar borrowings from other languages.

To complicate the matter, there are two basic guidelines for determining the pronunciation of a particular kanji in a given context. First, and most simply, kanji occurring in compounds are almost always read using on'yomi. These sorts of words are sometimes called jukugo (熟語). For example, 情報 jōhō "information", 半月 hangetsu "half-moon", and 革命家 kakumeika "[a] revolutionary" all follow this pattern.

Secondly, kanji occurring in isolation -- that is, written adjacent only to kana, not to other kanji -- are typically read using their kun'yomi. Together with their okurigana, if any, they generally function either as a noun or as an inflected adjective or verb: e.g. 月 tsuki "moon", 情け nasake "sympathy", 赤い akai "red", 建てる tateru "to build". The rare kanji compounds that also have okurigana, such as 空揚げ karaage "fried" and 名無し nanashi "nameless", also fall into this category.

There are numerous exceptions to both rules. 赤金 akagane "copper", 日傘 higasa "parasol", and the famous 神風 kamikaze "divine wind" all use kun'yomi despite being simple kanji compounds. Fortunately, most exceptions to the second rule are simple nouns: 愛 ai "love", 禅 Zen, 点 ten "mark, dot" -- in addition, the vast majority of these cases involve kanji that have no kun'yomi, so there can be no confusion.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that many kanji have more than one on'yomi: witness 説明 setsumei "explanation" versus 灯明 tōmyō "light offered to a god".

There are even kanji compounds that use a mixture of on'yomi and kun'yomi, known as jūbako (重箱) or yutō (湯桶) words. The words jūbako and yutō themselves are examples: the first character of jūbako is read using on'yomi, the second kun'yomi, while it is the other way around with yutō. Other examples include 金色 kin'iro "golden" (on-kun) and 影法師 kagebōshi "silhouette" (kun-on-on).

Finally, there are some words that can be read multiple ways -- in some cases the words have different meanings depending on how it is read. One example is 上手, which can be read in three different ways -- jōzu (skilled), uwate (upper part), or kamite (upper part). In addition, 上手い has the reading umai (skilled).

Some famous place names, including those of Tokyo (東京 Tōkyō) and Japan itself (日本 Nihon or sometimes Nippon) are read with on'yomi; however, by far the vast majority of Japanese place names are read with kun'yomi (e.g. 大阪 Ōsaka, 青森 Aomori, 箱根 Hakone). Family names are also usually read with kun'yomi (e.g., 山田 Yamada, 田中 Tanaka, 鈴木 Suzuki). Personal names, although they are not typically considered jūbako/yutō, often contain mixtures of kun'yomi, on'yomi, and nanori, and are generally only readable with some experience (e.g., 大助 Daisuke [on-kun], 夏美 Natsumi [kun-on]).

Pronunciation assistance

Because of the ambiguities involved, kanji will often have their pronunciation for the given context spelled out in ruby characters known as furigana (small kana written above or to the right of the character) or kumimoji (small kana written in-line after the character). This is especially true in texts for children or foreign learners and manga (comics). It is also used in newspapers for rare or unusual readings and for characters not included in the officially recognized set of essential kanji (see below).

Types of Kanji: by prevalence (Orthographic reform and kanji lists)

In 1946, following World War II, the Japanese government instituted a series of orthographic reforms. Some characters were given simplified glyphs, called 新字体 (shinjitai ). The number of characters in circulation was reduced, and formal lists of characters to be learned during each grade of school were established. Many variant forms of characters and obscure alternatives for common characters were officially discouraged. This was done with the goal of facilitating learning for children and simplifying kanji use in literature and periodicals. These are simply guidelines, so many characters outside these standards are still widely known and commonly used.

Kanji lists include:

Education kanji (kyōiku kanji 教育漢字): 1,006 characters

Characters that Japanese children are required to learn in elementary school (881 prior to 1981). The specific grade-level breakdown of the Education kanji is known as the Gakunen-betsu kanji haitōhyō 学年別漢字配当表), or the "Gakushű Kanji".

Daily-use kanji (jōyō kanji 常用漢字): 1,945 characters

These consist of all the kyōiku kanji, plus an additional 939 more difficult kanji taught in secondary school. These are taught during primary and secondary school in Japan. In publishing for the general public, characters outside this category are often given ruby. The jōyō kanji were introduced in 1981, and they replaced an older list of 1850 characters known as the General-use kanji (tōyō kanji 当用漢字). The tōyō kanji list was introduced in 1946.

Name kanji (jinmeiyō kanji 人名用漢字): 2,232 characters

These consist of the Daily-use kanji, plus an additional 287 kanji that are no longer used for words, but are still found in people's names. Over the years, the Minister of Justice has on several occasions added to this list, based upon requests from parents. Sometimes the phrase jinmeiyo kanji refers to all 2232, and sometimes it only refers to the 287 that are only used for names.

JIS Kanji: 6,355 characters

These define what characters should be available for use on computers. The JIS standard has been through numerous revisions; JIS X 0208:1997 is the most recent version.

Gaiji: Up to 80,000 characters

Gaiji (外字), also known as "external characters", are rare kanji that are not represented in existing Japanese encoding systems. These include variant forms of common kanji that need to be represented alongside the more conventional glyph in reference works, and can include non-kanji symbols as well.

Gaiji can be either user-defined characters or system-specific characters. Both are a problem for information interchange, as the code-point used to represent an external character will not be consistent from one computer to another (in the former case) or from one operating system to another (in the latter).

Gaiji were nominally prohibited in JIS X 0208-1997, while JIS X 0213-2000 actually used the range of code-points previously allocated to gaiji, making them completely unusable. Nevertheless, they persist today with NTT DoCoMo's "iMode" service, where they are used for pictorial characters

Unicode allows for optional encoding of gaiji in private use areas.

(The upper limit of possible characters is disputed. The highest estimates have been 80,000 by 19th century European scholars, but the consensus has been closer to 40,000. Because of standards that have been enforced since World War II, the issue of Gaiji are mostly associated with older texts.)


The ideographic iteration mark (々) is used to indicate that the preceding kanji is to be repeated, functioning similarly to a ditto mark in English. It is pronounced as though the kanji were written twice in a row, for example 色々 (iroiro "various") and 時々 (tokidoki "sometimes"). This mark also appears in personal and place names, as in the surname Sasaki (佐々木). Another frequently used symbol is ヶ (a small katakana "ke"), pronounced "ka" when used to indicate quantity (such as 六ヶ月, rokkagetsu "six months") or "ga" in place names like Kasumigaseki (霞ヶ関).

The Japanese government provides the Kanji kentei (日本漢字能力検定試験 Nihon kanji nōryoku kentei shiken; "Test of Japanese Kanji Aptitude") which tests the ability to read and write kanji. The highest level of the Kanji kentei tests about 6000 kanji.

Related topics


  • DeFrancis, John (1990). The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686.
  • Hannas, William. C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover).
  • Kaiser, Stephen (1991). Introduction to the Japanese Writing System. In Kodansha's Compact Kanji Guide. Tokyo: Kondansha International. ISBN 4-7700-1553-4.
  • Mitamura, Joyce Yumi and Mitamura, Yasuko Kosaka (1997). Let's Learn Kanji. Tokyo: Kondansha International. ISBN 4-7700-2068-6.
  • Unger, J. Marshall (1996). Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines. ISBN 0195101669

External links

Kanji dictionary

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