Writing system: Kanji

Chinese characters used for writing most words (primarily content words) in Japanese.

Most learners wonder why the Japanese writing system is so difficult to learn: not only does it use 2 alphabets but also several thousand kanji characters which need to be memorized to read most Japanese sentences.
I won't pretend there's a shortcut that skips the process, but learning kanji every day, step by step, is a good method to advance. There are also some rules we'll look at that will make it easier after getting familiar with the basics.

Why not use only hiragana and katakana?

Knowing just hiragana and katakana will allow you to read just the most basic sentences as pretty much all sentences contain at least some kanji, but why?

There's 2 main reasons for that:

  1. using kanji makes many words significantly shorter
  2. reading becomes easier
  3. many words have different meanings, but the same hiragana/katakana writing

Compare だいじょう to the hiragana equivalent だいじょうぶ. We managed to write 3 characters instead of 6, that's a 50% reduction! When writing longer texts, the difference will become very apparent.

When reading longer texts, kanji significantly reduce strain compared with hiragana due to the brain being able to quickly recognize patterns of kanji and map them to their meaning. This won't make sense until you memorize some words and let your brain form the links.

The biggest issue with not using kanji would probably be the word ambiguity: words can have different meanings but the same hiragana writing!
Consider the words and : the meaning is completely different, but the hiragana writing for both words is ひ.

Kanji might seem unnecessary at first, but there is also another important benefit: each kanji carries a meaning (or multiple). This makes it sometimes possible to understand the meaning of a word simply by looking at the individual kanji and connecting the meaning (sometimes the connection is very loose though).

Reading kanji

In order to read words that contain kanji, we need to be able to infer the hiragana writing, sadly a single kanji can have multiple ways of reading it.

Every kanji has (usually several) kun-yomi and on-yomi readings.
So which reading one is correct?

  • there is no rule that applies to all words, each word needs to be memorized to be sure
  • when the word consists of only 1 kanji, it's sometimes one of the kun-yomi readings
  • when the word contains multiple kanji, it's sometimes one of the on-yomi readings
  • some words use the on-yomi reading for some kanji and kun-yomi for others
  • in compounds, the reading of kanji after the first one sometimes change (they get a dakuten), see the third example below
  • sometimes the reading is irregular, meaning it's a completely different reading specific to the word

It might seem completely random (and it often is), but let's look at some examples:

  • in さき the kanji uses the kun-yomi reading, but in せんせい, it uses the on-yomi reading since it's a compound
  • in ほんとう, the ほん is kun-yomi while the トウ is on-yomi
  • in the coumpount word はな, the reading of 火 is even though the kun-yomi reading is (dakuten was added)
  • in きょ the reading of both kanji is irregular (neither kun-yomi or on-yomi), the only way is to memorize it

You can check the readings easily by clicking on an underlined word, then selecting a kanji from the popup to navigate to the dictionary page, try it out by clicking on a word from the above examples.

Dictionaries generally use hiragana for kun-yomi and katakana for on-yomi readings, but it doesn't really matter in the end.

Composition and radicals

Kanji are often used in other kanji, forming more complex structures, however the stroke order of the individual parts does not change, which means that learning how to write a kanji helps with writing more complicated kanji in which it is contained.

Let's look at an example:

The kanji (in front) might seem complicated at first, but once we know how to write it's parts ( and ), it's pretty easy, we just need to write the two parts in a specific order.

Notice how the stroke order of didn't change? We can use this knowledge to make remembering kanji a lot easier and think of kanji as a collection of smaller parts rather than random standalone characters.

Kanji are often built from smaller parts, but not all parts are always kanji themselves. Many parts often appear in kanji, so we treat them as building blocks, however they are not kanji themselves (they don't appear in any words), so we call them radicals.

Remember from the previous kanji? It appears in many other kanji, but is not a kanji itself, but rather a radical. We should remember radicals the same way we remember kanji even though they are not used by themselves.
Finding out if a character is a kanji or radical is easy on fujiPod - by simply clicking on a kanji we can check if it has the radical tag or not.

The 々 character

There are some words that contain the character which is not the katakana マ (it looks similar though) nor is it a kanji. It's called the repetition character and appears in words after another kanji and causes the kanji before it to be repeated, let's look at some examples:

  • いろいろ is usually written as いろいろ
  • われわれ is usually written as われわれ
  • ときどき is usually written as ときどき

Notice that the reading sometimes changes (it gets a dakuten), the only way to be certain of the reading is to memorize each word.
In the last example, the reading of the first kanji is とき but the second one becomes どき.

Learning your first kanji

So after discussing what kanji are and how they are used, the obvious question is, where to start learning them.

There are many ways to remember kanji, we recommend reading the Memorizing kanji lesson in order to find out what works for you.

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