Beginner Japanese/Kanji

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  Kanji (漢字)  are the logographic characters of the Japanese language. They are based on the Chinese Hanzi and to some degree are mutually readable, but there are some major differences as well. In fact, guessing the meaning of a kanji based on its Chinese meaning can be misleading.

The kanji do not convey the entire meaning of a word, but its base meaning. Its grammatical use is determined by the surrounding particles and the following kana determine its tense. Also, Japanese does not have a Kanji for every word, especially ones borrowed from English or other Western languages. Nevertheless, to understand the Kanji is at the heart of understanding the Japanese language, and if you cannot read the Kanji, at least at a basic level, the large numbers of homonyms in Japanese can cause much confusion.



A single Kanji can be read (pronounced) in many different ways, depending on its context. These readings are categorized into two groups - that of Chinese origin 音読み(おんよみ) , (On-yomi) and Japanese origin 訓読み(くんよみ) , (Kun-yomi).

It is often the case that a Kanji has more than one reading of Chinese origin. This is because the importing of Chinese letters (with their readings) did not occur just at one time from one region. To help figure out how to pronounce a kanji, kana is printed next to a kanji like in this example:

The hiragana over the kanji tell you that this word should be pronounced ふりがな

When kana is printed next to a kanji, like above, it is called furigana.

On yomi


音読み(おんよみ) , (on yomi) is the Chinese reading, which is most commonly used in compound words and for numbers.

It may be useful to note that in some Kanji databases, the on reading is written in Katakana instead of Hiragana.

(いち) , (ichi), () , (ni), (さん) , (san), () , (shi) are the first four numbers and all are 音読み(おんよみ) , (on yomi).

Kun yomi


訓読み(くんよみ) , (kun yomi) is the Japanese reading, which can be read as a separate word or can be used in compounds.

This reading generally will be written in Hiragana in Kanji lists.

(つき) , (tsuki) and () , (hi) are the moon and sun and are in 訓読み(くんよみ)   (kun yomi).



名乗り読み(なのりよみ) (nanori yomi) is the Name reading, which is used for people's names and for places.

The 康 read as やす (yasu; as in 徳川家康) and the 信 read as のぶ (nobu; as in 織田信長) are both written in 名乗り読み (nanori yomi).

Kanji Repetition


The 々, or ノマ (noma) symbol indicates the repetition of a Kanji. An example of a repetition is wareware 我我(われわれ), which indicates "us" or "our group" and is written as 我々 instead of 我我, although they are both the same. The same is true with 人々(ひとびと), "people".

Some useful kanji

Kanji Meaning(s) Examples
one ichi (one), 一つ hitotsu (one piece), 一人 hitori (one person)
two ni (two), 二つ futatsu (two pieces)
three san (three), 三つ mittsu (three pieces)
person hito (person), 日本人 Nihonjin (Japanese person)
mouth kuchi (mouth), 人口 jinkō (population)
eye me (eye), 一つ目 hitotsu-me (the first piece), 目的 mokuteki (purpose)
tree ki (tree), 木曜日 mokuyōbi (Thursday)
forest mori (forest), 森林 shinrin (woods and forests)
mountain yama (mountain), 富士山 Fujisan (Mount Fuji)
river kawa (river)
sun hi (the sun), 日曜日 nichiyōbi (Sunday)
moon tsuki (the moon), 月曜日 getsuyōbi (Monday)
year, age toshi (year, age), 去年 kyonen (last year)
book hon (book), 日本 Nihon/Nippon (Japan)
bright 明るい akarui (bright), 明日 asu (tomorrow)
to go 行く iku (to go), 銀行 ginkō (bank)
to come 来る kuru (to come), 来週 raishū (next week)
I, me, private watashi (I, me), 私立大学 shiritsu daigaku (private university)
male 男の人 otoko no hito (man), 男性 dansei (man)
female 女の人 onna no hito (woman), 彼女 kanojo (she, her, girlfriend)
mother haha (one's own mother), お母さん okāsan (someone else's mother)
father chichi (one's own father), お父さん otōsan (someone else's father)
car kuruma (car), 電車 densha (train)
eat 食べる taberu (to eat), 食事 shokuji (meal)
enter 入る hairu (to enter), 入学 nyūgaku (admission to a school)
come out 出る deru (to come out), 出口 deguchi (exit), 出発 shuppatsu (departure)
learn 学ぶ manabu (to learn), 学生 gakusei (student), 学校 gakkō (school)
ahead, previous 先に saki ni (on ahead), 先生 sensei (teacher), 先月 sengetsu (last month)
live, birth 生きる ikiru (to live), 生まれる umareru (to be born)
gold, money kin (gold), お金 o-kane (money), 金曜日 kinyōbi (Friday)
top, above ue (top, above), 上がる agaru (to go up), 上手 jōzu (skillfull)
bottom, below shita (bottom, below), 下がる sagaru (to go down), 地下 chika (basement)
inside, middle naka (inside, middle), 中国 Chūgoku (China)
water mizu (water), 水曜日 suiyōbi (Wednesday)
soil tsuchi (soil), 土地 tochi (land), 土曜日 doyōbi (Saturday)
fire hi (fire), 火曜日 kayōbi (Tuesday), 火山 kazan (volcano)
big 大きい ōkii (big), 大学 daigaku (university)
small 小さい chīsai (small), 小学生 shōgakusei (elementary school student)
dog inu (dog), 番犬 banken (watchdog)
expensive, tall 高い takai (expensive), 高校 kōkō (high school)
cheap, peaceful 安い yasui (cheap), 安心 anshin (peace of mind)
right migi (right), 右折する usetsu suru (to turn right)
left hidari (left), 左右 sayū (left and right)
circle, yen en (circle, yen), 円周 enshū (circumference)
long, chief 長い nagai (long), 校長 kōchō (principal)
morning asa (morning), 朝食 chōshoku (breakfast)
noon, daytime hiru (noon, daytime), 昼食 chūshoku (lunch)
evening ban (evening), 今晩 konban (tonight)
hour toki (time), 時間 jikan (time)
minute 分かる wakaru (to understand), 5分 go-fun (five minutes)

Further reading


External resources