An introduction to Japanese kanji

This guide provides background information on the nature and origin of kanji.
If you are getting started studying Japanese, use the following 'how to' guides:
Additionally we have a number of general interest articles on learning Japanese with many helpful tips for studying effectively.
What are kanji? A short overview and history
The kanji, or
, are a set of thousands of distinct characters imported from China to Japan as a writing system starting around the first century AD. Since spoken Japanese has both different grammar and vocabulary to Chinese, several adaptations were made over the next few hundred years.
At first, the kanji were used exactly as in China, and Chinese texts were imported wholesale, annotated with additional markings known as kanbun (
) to make them intelligible to Japanese.
Later, subsets of the kanji were simplified to enable simple transliteration of the sounds of Japanese - these simplifications became the modern syllabaries we know as hiragana and katakana.
More recently still, the kanji have diverged, with the Japanese making simplifications that were not adopted by the Chinese, and vice versa.
Kanji frequency
In general it makes sense to learn the kanji that you will encounter most frequently first. As a result of your personal situation you may encounter some kanji more frequently than others do, but generally speaking frequency of occurrence in newspapers, Wikipedia, and/or novels are common ways to measure frequency.
The kanji frequency data used in Kanshudo are taken from the 漢字出現頻度表 順位対照表(Ver.1.2)(kanji frequency chart) prepared by the
, the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs). The data was compiled in 2010 from a number of frequency rankings, and used to create an aggregated frequency ranking which is the ranking applied in Kanshudo. The report provides data on about 3500 kanji, of which about 100 or so are variants of each other (and grouped together in Kanshudo), so the Kanshudo system contains frequency rankings for a total of 3409 kanji. A frequency of 1 means 'most frequent' and hence most common.
Shinjitai vs simplified vs traditional vs kyujitai
Over centuries, many kanji have evolved and (unfortunately!) their forms have diverged in different countries, especially China and Japan. Consider for example the kanji . This form is the 'shinjitai' character used in modern Japan. Originally, in both China and Japan, the character looked like this: (the 'traditional' form, known as the 'kyujitai' form in Japan). The traditional forms of kanji are still used in Taiwan. In modern Chinese, however, the character is written (the 'simplified' form).
Often, the simplification the Japanese made to a kanji resulted in a new component that is distinct but clearly related to the original component (such as from ). Chinese simplifications often involved substituting existing simpler characters for more complex components (e.g. , which bears no relation to ).
Most kanji are made up of components, which themselves generally have independent meanings. Kanji components are the basis for the Kanshudo system for learning kanji.
Jōyō (常用) kanji / Jinmeiyō (人名用) kanji / Hyōgaiji (表外字)
Japanese kanji are commonly thought of in three groups:
  • The Jōyō, meaning 'daily use', kanji are a list of 2136 characters deemed most commonly used by the Japanese government. Kanji on this list are taught in Japanese schools, and the list is divided into sections corresponding to school years. You can see all kanji in the Jōyō, as well as the sets taught in elementary school (Kyōiku kanji) and secondary school in our kanji collections.
  • The Jinmeiyō, meaning 'used in names', is a set of 843 kanji commonly used in Japanese names. This list is not taught in schools, but the kanji are commonly encountered in newspapers and media. You can see all the Jinmeiyō in our Jinmeiyō collections, prioritized by actual usage in Japanese names (a feature unique to Kanshudo).
  • The Hyōgaiji is 'everything else' - all kanji that are no longer in use, or replaced by alternative versions. Most Hyōgaiji will still be visible on most computers that can display Japanese, and you will encounter many of them as you read more widely.
Beyond these three groups, there are still many more kanji - including Chinese variants, kanji in Chinese but not Japanese, as well as characters that are not technically kanji, but which represent kanji elements These are called 'graphemes' in the computer world; some but not all are 'radicals'. Kanshudo refers to all kanji parts as 'components'.
Here are some of the key words used to describe kanji in their Japanese (kanji!) forms. Click any word's green box for more information and example usage. Click the star to the right of each word to add it to your favorites for study.
Chinese characters; kanji
(click the word for examples and links)
1. Chinese classical literature
2. literature written entirely in kanji
(click the word for examples and links)
new form of a character
(click the word for examples and links)
3 0
old character form
(click the word to view an additional 1 form, examples and links)
kanji for common use; jōyō kanji; list of 2,136 kanji established in 2010, formerly a list of 1,945 established in 1981  (see also: 当用漢字)
(click the word for examples and links)
kanji officially for use in names
(click the word for examples and links)
non-jōyō kanji; kanji outside the common-use kanji list  (see also: 常用漢字)
(click the word for examples and links)
More information
For more information on kanji specifically, Wikipedia's entry on kanji ⇗ is a great overview.
Kanshudo is your AI Japanese tutor, and your constant companion on the road to mastery of the Japanese language. To get started learning Japanese, just follow the study recommendations on your Dashboard. You can use Quick search (accessible using the icon at the top of every page) to look up any Japanese word, kanji or grammar point, as well as to find anything on Kanshudo quickly. For an overview, take the tour.
Search results include information from a variety of sources, including Kanshudo (kanji mnemonics, kanji readings, kanji components, vocab and name frequency data, grammar points, examples), JMdict (vocabulary), Tatoeba (examples), Enamdict (names), KanjiVG (kanji animations and stroke order), and Joy o' Kanji (kanji and radical synopses). Translations provided by Google's Neural Machine Translation engine. For more information see credits.