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The Basics

In each Kanji Curiosity blog, you’ll find a main line of inquiry. On the right side of the blog, large red links will take you down separate trails. (Hypertext makes it possible to represent linked thoughts in the most satisfying way! After all, what is the Internet but a giant stream of consciousness?)

Whenever I mention some in-depth kanji terminology, I’ll link you to a glossary on my own website, in case you want to know more about ateji, kun-kun combinations, or whatever the concept might be. But I’ll cover some basics here, also letting you in on why I’ve styled text in certain ways.

A yomi is the way to pronounce a character or word in Japanese. There are two general ways of reading many characters—a “Japanese” way (a kun-yomi) and a “Chinese” way (an on-yomi). Kun-yomi correspond to the language spoken in Japan before kanji arrived from China. And on-yomi loosely correspond to the way Chinese people once pronounced the characters. (In both China and Japan, these sounds have evolved over centuries, so on-yomi give us only a rough sense of ancient Chinese pronunciations.)

Let’s look at one example. Mark Spahn’s dictionary presents (sand) as having four yomi:

SA, SHA, suna, isago

The lowercase italics are my way of telling you that suna and isago are the kun-yomi of and are very likely old Japanese words. By contrast, the italicized capital letters indicate that SA and SHA are on-yomi.

In Kanji Curiosity, I often present just one on-yomi and one kun-yomi for each character. But that doesn’t mean other yomi don’t exist! Some kanji have scads of yomi, often pronounced as differently as the ones above and sometimes having distinct meanings.

When you see a singleton (my coinage for a kanji standing alone, as in , onna: woman), you’ll generally read it by using its kun-yomi. And when two singletons bond to form a compound, you’ll typically read them by using their on-yomi. For instance, take this compound:

金砂kinsha: gold dust)        gold + sand

Here, the on-yomi KIN and SHA have united in the word kinsha. We can write that romanized word with lowercase letters because we’re no longer focused on individual yomi.

By the way, you can also deconstruct singletons. The “sand” character breaks down as follows:

= (stone) + (a little)

That is, a grain of sand is a little bit of stone! But thinking this way about singletons could also get you into trouble, because all the components (the small bits of a character) contribute meaning to the whole kanji only a quarter of the time. In other cases, one part of the kanji (its phonetic) tells you how to pronounce the whole character. Because it’s hard to know which type of kanji one is dealing with, I prefer to play it safe, enjoying the wonderful, alchemical ways in which characters combine in compounds, turning sand into gold dust.


Sources Cited

I often refer to certain authors in shorthand. Here are the full citations:

Jim Breen’s Japanese Page,

A comprehensive online dictionary that supplies information about compounds, characters, and much more.

Jack Halpern, ed., The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary (Kodansha International, 1999)

A portable dictionary that indicates the meaning of each kanji in particular compounds. This is essential information, as the meanings of characters can change from word to word.

Kenneth G. Henshall, A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters (Tuttle, 1998 )

A microscopic look at individual characters, exploring the way the meanings and shapes of kanji and their components have changed over time.

Andrew Nelson, completely revised by John H. Haig, The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary (Tuttle, 1997)

I don’t refer to this work often in my blogs, because I’ve never found it that useful or necessary. But some regarded the Old Nelson as the ultimate kanji dictionary. If my sources disagree about something, I sometimes see where Nelson weighs in on the matter.

Mark Spahn and Wolfgang Hadamitzky, with Kumiko Fujie-Winter, The Kanji Dictionary (Tuttle, 1996)

An encyclopedic tome listing virtually all existing compounds for each character. This is the book that made me fall in love with kanji!

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