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The Kanshudo guide to reading Japanese kanji

Kanshudo's guide to reading Japanese kanji

Reading kanji is a challenge! Not just because there are so many kanji, but because each kanji can be read in different ways. Here we give you a practical step-by-step guide to understanding how to read the kanji in any Japanese word. Plus we give you some helpful rules of thumb to help you guess readings for words you have never seen before!
Contents
1. What are kanji 'readings'?
By now you are probably aware that Japanese consists of two 'syllabaries' (hiragana and katakana) which can be used to spell out any word, as well as several thousand kanji, of which 2136 are designated as 'Jōyō' (for daily use)1.
Unfortunately, the picture gets a bit more complicated, because most of those kanji can actually be 'read' in multiple ways. In other words, depending on the context, the pronunciation of the kanji, i.e. the way you would say it out loud, and the kana you would use to spell it, can be different. In fact, of the 2136 Jōyō kanji, only 8932 are typically only read in a single way - in other words, 1243 have multiple readings. 138 kanji are commonly read in more than three ways!
人 (person), the most common kanji in Japanese, can be read five different ways in the most common 10,000 words in Japanese.
生 (life), the 13th most common kanji in Japanese, holds the record: it has 13 different readings (including variants) amongst the most common 10,000 words!
In fact we have to go all the way to the 214th most common kanji, 電 (electricity), before we find one with only a single common reading!
While this seems confusing at first glance, a similar situation actually also occurs in English. Words that are pronounced differently but spelt the same way are called 'heteronymns'3. However, there are far fewer heteronymns in English - only about 80 common ones, in fact4.
Ironically, one of the most obvious heteronymns in English is 'read': think of the difference in pronunciation between 'she read in bed' and 'she likes to read'.
As you learn kanji, you will learn to internalize the correct way to read a kanji based on its context in just the same way.
2. 'On' and 'kun' readings
'On' readings
Since almost all kanji used in Japanese came from China5, they all came with associated sounds (i.e., the way the kanji were read out loud in Chinese). Most of these readings have survived, modified to fit within the sounds of the Japanese language, as 'on' readings of kanji. It is customary to write on readings in katakana. 'On' comes from
おん
, which means 'sound'.
年 (year) is one of the most common Japanese kanji. One of its common uses is as a 'counter' for years - whenever you see a year followed by 年, you use the on reading, ねん.
'Kun' readings
Before kanji were imported, the Japanese language already existed completely independently, so every word that could be written with kanji already had a Japanese equivalent. These Japanese words were assigned to kanji with similar meanings, and became known as the 'kun' readings such that the kanji could be 'read' with either the original Chinese pronunciation, or the original Japanese word. It is customary to write kun readings in hiragana, and 'kun' comes from
くん
which means 'teaching'.
年 can also be used simply to mean 'year' - whenever you see 年 on its own, you use the kun reading, とし.
We'll give you step by step rules for determining which reading to use for any kanji in section 4.
Since Chinese kanji were imported to represent concepts, they came without grammar, and for the most part they became nouns modified with Japanese grammar. This is why so many する verbs exist - as a way to turn a noun into a verb. Since Japanese verbs and adjectives need to be inflected, the inflections need to be represented with additional characters, and it is customary to write inflections using hiragana known as okurigana.
How do I know which readings are 'on' and which are 'kun'?
Let's take an example: 大, which means 'big'. This is one of the most common kanji in Japanese. Here's how it's presented in Kanshudo in search results:
ダイ   タイ   おおきい big   おおいに very much   おお-    
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1
The three Jōyō readings are included in the short form presentation: ダイ, タイ, and おお. The Jōyō readings are the 'official' readings of a kanji, set out in the government's guide to the Jōyō kanji - see section 5.
Two of the readings are written in katakana: ダイ and タイ. These are the 'on' readings. The sound of these readings bears a strong resemblance to the sound of 大 in Mandarin even today6.
The kun reading is おお, written in hiragana. You'll see that the on reading おお is presented as part of a word - おおきい. The last part, きい, is in a lighter color to indicate that it is 'okurigana' - the kana used to form the word ending. The actual kun reading is おお, the part that is used to replace the kanji, as used in おおきい, おおいに and some other common words.
3. How to learn kanji readings
Here's the golden rule for learning kanji readings:
Learning rule: don't learn 'readings' - learn 'words'
When you encounter a kanji, rather than trying to memorize a dry list of different ways it can be read out of context, instead focus on identifying the most useful words that use each reading. Kanshudo makes this very easy for you - whenever you see a kanji in its blue box, click the box to see an expanded list of information. There you'll find a summary of each reading used in one or more of the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese. For even more depth, you can click through to the kanji's details page, where you'll find an analysis of all readings used in *all* words in Japanese!
Worked example: 見
Let's take another example - 見, another of the most common kanji in Japanese:
ケン   み to see   みえる to be seen; to appear   みせる to show   
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1
To learn the readings, click the kanji's blue box to get the 'quick view'. In the quick view, you'll see a summary of each of the readings for the kanji used in the most common 10,000 words in Japanese, along with the most useful word that uses each reading.
As you'll see, みる appears as the most common word using the kun reading み - this is one of the most useful verbs in Japanese, and worth learning right away!
The most useful word using the on reading ケン is
いけん
- a common word meaning 'opinion'. So instead of trying to learn 'けん', learn the word いけん. A good way to do this is to think of 見 as 'the み of みる (see), and the けん of いけん (opinion)'. In fact, this is exactly how a Japanese person would typically describe a kanji to someone: 「見」は「みろ」の「み」.
When you are learning your first few kanji, you will probably not know the other kanji in the words you learn. For example, you'll probably learn 意 (the い of いけん) some time after learning 見. Don't worry about that - just focus on learning the word itself, as you would in English: いけん means 'opinion'. As time goes by you'll fit the new kanji you learn into the right blanks.
One reading at a time!
Going back to the 大 example above, notice that there are two on readings - ダイ and タイ. ダイ is very common - it's used in the very common words
だいがく
and
だいぶ
, for example, which are two of the first words you'll learn in Japanese. However, the most useful word using the reading タイ is
たいかい
, meaning 'convention' or 'tournament'. While this is a common word in daily (adult) Japanese, it is not as useful for a beginner learner as say 大学. So it is generally a good strategy to leave this word, and the reading タイ, until you encounter it.
4. Determining which reading to use
When you are first learning Japanese words, it can help you a lot to be able to guess how a word is read. It will be quicker to look the word up, and it lets you ask someone the meaning without having to show them the word!
However, there is a more significant reason: your 'guess' is the reading you will find easiest to remember. So if you can develop your 'intuition' for how words should be read, you will find your ability to assimilate new vocabulary will also increase.
For example, the kanji 不 is very commonly used as a prefix meaning 'not'. It has two Jōyo readings: フ and ブ. In fact, in the 54 common words that use 不, only *one* uses the ブ reading7! Knowing this will make it much easier for you to guess the correct pronunciation of words as you encounter them.
The following guidelines will help you make an educated guess how to read any word you encounter for the first time.
1. Kanji with okurigana
When a word contains one or more kanji with additional kana, use the kun readings for the kanji.
Amongst the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese, there's about a 90% chance that if the word includes kana, the kanji will be read with a kun reading8.
Example:
る (see) - here the okurigana る indicates that we are looking for a word ending in る, so we use the kun reading み to make the verb みる.
2. Multiple kanji and no kana
When a word contains multiple kanji and no kana, use the on readings.
Amongst the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese, there's about a 90% chance that any word with multiple kanji will be read using on readings9.
Example:
だいがく
(university) - we use 'on' readings for our two kanji, だい and がく.
3. Single kanji and no kana
When a word is just a single kanji, with no kana that would put it into case (1), try the kun reading first, then the on reading.
Amongst the 10,000 most useful words, there's about a 60% chance a single kanji will be read with a kun reading, and a 40% chance it will use an on reading10.
Example:
くに
(country) - appearing on its own, 国 is read くに, the kun reading.
Example:
ほん
(book) - 本 on its own is read ほん, the on reading.
Some kanji appearing on their own use on and kun readings to distinguish meaning.
Example: the very common kanji
かね
can be used on its own, either to mean 'money' (in which case it is read using the kun reading かね), or as 'gold' (in which case it is read using the on reading きん).
4. Multiple kanji with kun readings or mixed on / kun readings
Amongst the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese, about 650 use multiple kun readings or a mix of on and kun readings.
Words that include okurigana fall into case (1), and generally can be read with kun readings. However, some kanji are commonly used as prefixes or suffixes, and are read using their on readings, even when combined with a word that is read with its kun reading.
Example:
だいす
き (love) - 大 is a very common prefix meaning 'big', and here it is combined with the common word 好き, which uses the kun reading す.
Example:
きも
ち (feeling) - the very common kanji 気 occurs in many common words11, and is almost always read as き (an on reading), whereas the kanji that follow it are often read with their kun readings.
Words that contain multiple kanji and no okurigana typically fall into case (2). However, some very common kanji tend to be read with their kun readings even when combined with other kanji. The best bet is to learn to spot these kanji.
Example:
なまえ
(name) - the very common word 名前 uses the kun readings of both
(name) and
まえ
(before).
Example:
こども
uses kun readings for
(child) and
ども
(companion).
Example:
かみぶくろ
(paper bag) uses kun readings for
かみ
(paper) and
ふくろ
(sack).
5. Voicings, contractions, and incorporations
Once you have the readings of each kanji in your word, they may be modified in three key ways, especially in words with two or more kanji. These modifications tend to follow quite standard patterns, so you will soon learn to expect them.
  • Voicings: when a reading that begins with a kana that can be modified with a dakuten12 ( ゛) or a handakuten ( ゜) is combined with another reading, the voiced alternative is often used.
    For example: 中 (middle) has 'ちゅう' for its on reading. However, it is very commonly read as じゅう, as for example in
    ねんじゅう
    . The ち sound has been 'voiced' to the harder sound 'じ'.
    Often, voiced alternatives of a reading indicate consistent 'categories of meaning'.
    For example, 中 is often read ちゅう when it carries the meaning 'middle', but じゅう when it carries the meaning 'throughout' or 'during'.
  • Contractions: readings that end with certain kana are often contracted when followed by another reading.
    For example, 石 (stone) is a very common kanji. It is used in the common word せっけん (soap), and the standard on reading せき is contracted to せっ.
    The official reading of 日本, にっぽん, is an example of both a contraction (the on reading にち of 日 becomes にっ) and a voicing (the on reading ほん of 本 becomes ぽん). However, the more common modern reading is にほん, which doesn't have either a contraction or a voicing.
  • Incorporations: sometimes the sounds that would typically be represented by okurigana are incorporated into the reading of a kanji.
    A common example of this is
    ふみきり
    (railway crossing). Ordinarily
    み, the stem form of
    む, would include the okurigana み. However, it is 'incorporated' into the reading of 踏切 so no okurigana are used (although a form that uses okurigana is quite often seen as well).
6. Non-standard readings
Some words have readings which do not map directly to any standard readings of the kanji they use. Luckily, there are only 70 of these words amongst the most useful 10,000 words in Japanese - however, that 70 includes some of the words you will encounter very early on, as they are very common!
Some common words that have non-standard readings include for example:
きょう
,
あした
and
きのう
.
Technically, these non-standard readings fall into several categories - ateji, jukujikun, and gikun. For more on this see our grammar point13.
5. Jōyō readings
The Japanese government produces a guide14 (entirely in Japanese) to the Jōyō kanji and their 'standard readings'. In Kanshudo, the readings we display in the short form view are generally the approved Jōyō readings.
In practice, many standard Jōyō readings are actually not commonly used. They may be included by the government because they are used in words required for official situations, or words every Japanese person would know but that don't come up on a daily basis.
For example, the official Jōyō readings of are セイ, ショウ, and まつりごと. However, while セイ is used in several common words, the most common word that uses the reading ショウ is
せっしょう
(regent), which is not common at all!
The kanji (fragrant) is listed in the Jōyō guide with five readings - コオ, キョウ, か, かおり and かおる. The word listed using the reading キョウ is
きょうしゃ
, a word only used in the context of the game Shōgi. (Interestingly, the actual reading of the kanji for each of か, かおり and かおる is the same in each case - か. So really these are not separate 'readings'.)
封 is the common kanji in
ふうとう
(envelope). Its official Jōyō readings are フウ and ホウ, and the most common word that uses ホウ is the decidedly uncommon
ほうけん
(feudal).
In addition, many common words use readings that are not listed in the Jōyō guide. The guide does not list voicings, contractions, and incorporations of existing readings as separate readings, but illustrates them as examples of the base form.
For example, in
せいねんがっぴ
, 日 is read as ぴ. However, this is simply a voiced variant of ひ, and not considered a separate reading in the guide.
6. Identifying uses of a reading
How can you identify words that use a specific reading of a kanji? With Kanshudo, the answer is simple! Kanshudo provides a special search syntax to let you specify the reading you want to search for. Enter a kanji, followed by a colon (:), followed by the reading - i.e., kanji:reading.
For example, to search for all words which use 本 with the reading ほん, just search for 本:ほん.
Kanshudo's search function lets you search for voicings and contractions separately, so you can pinpoint the precise reading you are looking for.
7. Further reading and references
For your interest below we've included some links for additional information. The kanji reading statistics are based on Kanshudo research.
  1. If this is news to you, start with our guides to hiragana , katakana, and our guide to mastering Japanese kanji for the necessary background.
  2. We define the number of 'common' readings of a kanji as the number of ways the kanji is read in the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese, based on Kanshudo analysis. For more information on our methodology for determining how useful a Japanese word is, see our guide Prioritizing Japanese Vocabulary.
  3. For some examples of heteronymns (words that are spelt the same way but pronounced differently) in English, see for example https://jakubmarian.com/english-words-spelled-the-same-but-pronounced-differently.
  4. This list identifies 80 common heteronymns, for example: http://www.english-for-students.com/Heteronyms.html.
  5. A very small number of kanji were created by the Japanese by combining existing kanji components in new ways. These are known as 'kokuji' (literally, 'country characters'). Of the 13,700 kanji in Kanshudo, we have only identified 123 such characters, however, and only 5 (, , , , ) are classified as Jōyō.
  6. See for example https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/大.
  7. To see usage of a kanji in common words, run a quick search (for example: ), and click on the kanji's blue box.
  8. Based on Kanshudo analysis, out of the 10,000 most useful words in Japanese, the most common form of about 6600 contain multiple kanji. Out of these 6600 or so that do use kanji, about 6000 (90%) are read using only on readings for the kanji.
  9. Out of the 6600 most useful words that use multiple kanji, about 600 (10%) use multiple kun readings or a mix of on/kun readings.
  10. Of the 800 most useful single kanji words, about 330 (40%) are typically read with their on readings.
  11. See Kanshudo's grammar point: 当て字・熟字訓・義訓 - ateji, jukujikun and gikun.
  12. Dakuten and handakuten are symbols used to indicate a slight change in the sound of certain kana. They are explained in detail in our guide to hiragana.
  13. See Kanshudo grammar point: the many uses of 気(き).
  14. The Japanese guide to the Jōyō kanji,
    じょうようかんじひょう
    can be downloaded from http://www.bunka.go.jp/kokugo_nihongo/sisaku/joho/joho/kijun/naikaku/pdf/joyokanjihyo_20101130.pdf.
8. Words used in this guide
For ease of study, we've compiled a list of the words used in this guide. Quickly tag any word as a favorite and then create free flashcards. Click a word's green box for more information and example sentences.
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