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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Hiroko here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher where I’ll answer some of *your* most common Japanese questions.
The question for this lesson is…
Should I use the ON or KUN reading?
Learners of kanji are often confused about the usage of on-reading and kun-reading.
Which should you use, and when?
First of all, let’s take a look at what the ON and KUN readings actually are.
Do you know this kanji? (山) It means “mountain”, and it’s read as やま and サン. Japanese people had been calling mountains ‘やま’ long before this kanji was introduced from China. After the kanji arrived in Japan, it was given the reading of やま. That’s its KUN-reading -- which is its Japanese reading. But what about the Chinese reading? This kanji in China is read ‘シャン’. This sound was adapted to サン. So that’s its ON-reading -- its Chinese reading.
But how do you know which one to use when you’re reading? There’s a general rule.
When a word is made up of just one kanji, the kun-reading is used. For example,
花 meaning “flower” is read はな.
雨 meaning “rain” is read あめ.
When a single word is made up of one kanji with hiragana like as in verbs or i-adjectives, the kun-reading is also used. For example,
聞く(Ki-ku) is a verb that means ‘listen’:
新しい (atarashii) is an i-adjective that means “new”
On the other hand, when you have compounds of more than one kanji, the on-reading should be used. For example, 新聞 (シンブン) which means ‘newspaper.’ シン and ブン are the on-readings of each kanji, 新 (シン) and 聞 (ブン).
But, as I explained before, 新(シン) also has a kun-reading, as in 新しい (あたら-しい). And 聞(ブン) has a kun-reading, as in 聞く(き-く) .
As you continue to study, you'll find some exceptions to this rule, but stick to the general rule as you begin to study kanji.
Here’s one more example:
Try to read this word. (食事) It’s a kanji compound, isn’t it? Therefore, you should use the on-readings: ショク and ジ. So it’s read しょくじ which means ‘meal.’
On the other hand, what if this kanji (食) is used in a verb meaning “to eat”? (食べる) You should notice that it’s comprised of kanji and kana, so you should use the kun-reading and read it as たべる.
I hope this makes sense to you.
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!