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Japanese Kanji
Introduction
Kanji (漢字) are the Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana (平仮名), katakana (片仮名), romaji, and the Arabic numerals. The Japanese term kanji (漢字) literally means "Han characters."

Because of the way they have been adopted into Japanese, a single kanji may be used to write one or more different words, or sounds. From the point of view of the reader, kanji are said to have one or more different "readings." Deciding which reading is used will depend on context, intended meaning, use in compounds, and even location in the sentence. These readings are normally categorized as either onyomi (Chinese reading) or kunyomi (Japanese reading). Some common kanji have combinations of ten or more possible onyomi and kunyomi readings.

The onyomi (音読み), Chinese reading, is a Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of the character at the time it was introduced. Some kanji were introduced from different parts of China at different times, and so have multiple onyomi, and often multiple meanings.

The kunyomi (訓読み), Japanese reading, or native reading, is a reading based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word that closely approximated the meaning of the Chinese character when it was introduced. As with onyomi, there can be multiple kunyomi readings for the same kanji, and some kanji have no kunyomi at all.

When to use which reading:

Although there are general rules for when to use onyomi and kunyomi, the language is littered with exceptions, and it is not always possible for even a native speaker to know how to read a character without prior knowledge.

In general, the following rules apply to most situations.

  • Kanji which are isolated, i.e. a character representing a single word unit, are typically read using kunyomi:
    • 月 tsuki "moon"
    • 情け nasake "sympathy"
    • 赤い akai "red"
    • 新しい atarashii "new "
    • 見る miru "(to) see"
  • Kanji occurring in compounds are generally read using onyomi:
    • 情報 jōhō "information"
    • 学校 gakkō "school"
    • 新幹線 shinkansen "bullet train"

Consider the following:

  • The isolated kanji and compound kanji distinction gives words for similar concepts completely different pronunciations:
    • 東 "east" and 北 "north" use the kunyomi readings higashi and kita, being stand-alone characters
    • while 北東 "northeast", as a compound, uses the onyomi reading hokutō

Additional notes:

  • Meaning can also be an important indicator of reading; 易 is read i when it means "simple", but as eki when it means "divination", both being onyomi for this character.
  • Kunyomi compound words are not as numerous as those with onyomi, but they do occur. Examples include 手紙 tegami "letter", 日傘 higasa "parasol", and the famous 神風 kamikaze "divine wind". Such compounds may also have okurigana, such as 空揚げ (also written 唐揚げ) karaage "fried food" and 折り紙 origami, although many of these can also be written with the okurigana omitted (e.g. 空揚 or 折紙). Note: Okurigana (送り仮名, literally "accompanying letters") are kana suffixes following kanji stems in Japanese written words.
  • Some onyomi characters can also be used as words in isolation: 愛 ai "love", 禅 Zen, 点 ten "mark, dot". Most of these cases involve kanji that have no kunyomi, so there can be no confusion, although exceptions do occur. A lone 金 may be read as kin "gold" or as kane "money, metal"; only context can determine the writer's intended reading and meaning.
  • Multiple readings have given rise to a number of homographs, in some cases having different meanings depending on how they are 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). Note: Furigana is often used to clarify any potential ambiguities. Furigana (振り仮名, Furigana) is a Japanese reading aid, consisting of smaller kana printed next to a kanji or other character to indicate its pronunciation.
  • As stated above, all four combinations of reading are possible: on-on, kun-kun, kun-on and on-kun.
  • Some famous place names, including those of Tokyo (東京 Tōkyō) and Japan itself (日本 Nihon or sometimes Nippon) are read with onyomi; however, the majority of Japanese place names are read with kunyomi: 大阪 Ōsaka, 青森 Aomori, 箱根 Hakone.
  • When characters are used as abbreviations of place names, their reading may not match that in the original. The Osaka (大阪) and Kobe (神戸) baseball team, the Hanshin (阪神) Tigers, take their name from the onyomi of the second kanji of Ōsaka and the first of Kōbe. The name of the Keisei (京成) railway line, linking Tokyo (東京) and Narita (成田) is formed similarly, although the reading of 京 from 東京 is kei, despite kyō already being an onyomi in the word Tōkyō.
  • Family names are also usually read with kunyomi: 山田 Yamada, 田中 Tanaka, 鈴木 Suzuki. Given names often contain mixtures of kunyomi and onyomi: 大助 Daisuke [on-kun], 夏美 Natsumi [kun-on]. Being chosen at the discretion of the parents, the readings of given names do not follow any set rules and it is impossible to know with certainty how to read a person's name without independent verification. Common patterns do exist, however, allowing experienced readers to make
    a good guess for most names.
The kanji introduced on this site follow the same learning order as taught in the Japanese schools. At this time the kyouiku kanji are listed which are the 1006 kanji students in Japan are required to learn through grade 6. An additional 949 kanji will be added to this site sometime during the summer of 2008 which, combined with the kyouiku kanji, make up the 1945 kanji characters known as jouyou kanji students in Japan are required to learn through grade 12.

Each kanji character on this site is shown with the English meaning along with the onyomi and kunyomi readings, and an example of usage.
 
Next Step - Learn Kanji writing or stroke order.
Next step - Learn Kanji Grade 1.
 

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