Kanji – Learn The Japanese Version of Chinese Characters

One of Japan’s three writing systems is Kanji. These are Chinese characters brought to Japan in the fifth century. Previously, there was no written form of the Japanese language. Some might find the sound of the Japanese language is easy on your ears.

Japanese Kanji written on sticky notes

However, the Japanese writing and reading system could get a little perplexing. Well, the reason is pretty simple. There are just too many Kanji in Japanese. Just like the old quote by Sun Tzu; Know your enemy and know yourself. Need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Let’s take a close look!

What is Kanji?

Over time, alphabets from China traveled far from home and developed in a certain way in surrounding countries, including Japan. The Japanese word Kanji (漢字 | かんじ)refers to the Chinese characters.

While it’s pronounced Hanji in Mandarin Chinese and Hanja in Korean using the same characters. The Kanji pronunciation, variation, and meaning of Kanji vary between countries.

Kanji List

Below is a Kanji character list that you can start with to make your language learning easier. We’ve included the onyomi and kunyomi pronunciation that are written in both romaji and hiragana.

Kanjiおにょみ (onyomi)くにょみ (kunyomi)English
いち (ichi)ひと (hito)
ひとつ (hitotsu)
one
に (ni)ふた (futa)
ふたつ (futatsu)
two
さん (san)み (mi)
みつ (mitsu)
three
し (shi)よん (yon)
よ (yo)
よつ(yotsu)
four
ご (go)いつ (itsu)
いつつ itsutsu)
five
ろく (roku)む (mu)
むつ (mutsu)
six
しち (shichi)なな (nana)
ななつ (nanatsu)
seven
はち (hachi)や (ya)
やつ (yatsu)
eight
きゅう (kyuu)ここの (kokono)
ここのつ (kokonotsu)
nine
じゅう (juu)と (to)
とう (tou)
ten
じん (jin)
にん (nin)
ひと (hito)person
こん (kon)
きん (kin)
いま (ima)now
にち (nichi)
じつ (jitsu)
ひ (hi)
か (ka)
day, sun
しゅう (shuu)-week
げつ (getsu)
がつ (gatsu)
つき (tsuki)month, moon
ねん (nen)とし (toshi)year
ちゅう (chuu)なか (naka)middle, center, inner, between
さん (san)やま (yama)mountain
せん (sen)かわ (kawa)river
さ (sa)ひだり (hidari)left
ゆう (yuu)みぎ (migi)right

Is there a Native Japanese Word in Modern Japanese?

The imported Chinese alphabets were helpful yet not sufficient to express everything in Japan. Therefore, some native Japanese words were born. It’s commonly seen among the name of plants and Japanese customs.

  • 樫: (かし | kashi | ring-cupped oak, Japanese blue oak)
  • 凪ぐ: (なぐ | nagu | for sea and wind to become calm)
  • 糀: (こうじ | kouji | a type of mold used for Sake brewing or Miso making)

How Many Letters are in the Japanese Language?

The Japanese language consists of 46 characters of Hiragana (平仮名 | ひらがな), 46 Katakana  (片仮名 | かたかな | カタカナ), and over 3,000 Kanji.

Even though learning Hiragana and Katakana won’t be a big issue, you might find it quite challenging to memorize Kanji. But don’t worry, we will introduce you to some tips today.

Why do the Japanese use Kanji?

Together with Hiragana and Katakana, the knowledge of Kanji had become essential in the Japanese writing system and reading. There are reasons why the Japanese language has three types of characters.

  • Hiragana and Katakana represent sounds, while Kanji shows a sense of the concept.
  • Readers can pick up the given information quickly and precisely.
  • The Japanese writing systems don’t have spaces between words and capitalized words. The combination of the three types of characters makes more sense.

One example:

Without the appropriate character use, it becomes hard to get the full context. We need to think about where a word starts and ends. Let’s look at the three different ways of writing the same sentence.

  • ふらんすのしゅとはぱりです。ぱりではえっふぇるとうがゆうめいです。
  • フランスノシュトハパリデス。パリデハエッフェルトウガユウメイデス。
  • フランスの首都はパリです。パリではエッフェル塔が有名です。

*The capital of France is Paris. The Eiffel Tower is famous in Paris.

When is the Best Moment to Start Learning Kanji?

If you’ve already mastered Hiragana and Katakana, it’s about time to concentrate on Kanji. You might feel that it’s a long way to go at first, but once you get the ideas of Kanji radicals, strokes, and pronunciations, you’ll be able to step up to the next stage. Many Japanese learners start by drilling Kanji using books and other media.

How to Learn Kanji?

Learning Kanji can be challenging, but we’ve listed down 5 helpful tips on how to make it easier. Check them out below!

Kanji reading aid

Knowing Hiragana helps your Kanji readings. Japanese decided to borrow Chinese characters’ sounds, then start developing their own Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

The Japanese reading aid called 振り仮名 (ふりがな | Furi-gana) and suffix called 送り仮名 (おくりがな | Okuri-gana | suffixes for adjectives and verbs) written in Hiragana help you to read and understand Kanji more.

Kanji strokes

Kanji strokes are similar to Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji takes more strokes and has more variations, but the basic ideas are alike. Once you master Hiragana and Katakana, you can recognize some parts of Kanji.

Examples:

  • a: 安→あ、阿→ア
  • i: 以→い、伊→イ
  • u: 宇→う、宇→ウ

Basic Kanji Radicals

Getting to know the basics of radicals will help you learn Kanji.

Kanji is like a word puzzle in one character. Every Kanji contains one or more 部首 (ぶしゅ | bushu | radicals), and each radical provides general meanings and pronunciations.

Knowing the radicals helps you look for new words in the Kanji dictionary. Also, the knowledge of radicals helps your understanding without memorizing thousands of Kanji.

Radical Examples and Common Characters:

Radicals related to 水 (みず | mizu | water); mizu: 水, nisui: 冫, sanzui: 氵, shitamizu: 氺

  • 氷 (こおり| koori | ice)
  • 海 (うみ | umi | sea, ocean)
  • 凍る (こおる | kooru | to freeze)

Radicals related to 人 (ひと| hito | human); ninben:亻, hitoyane: 𠆢, hitoashi: 儿

  • 体 (からだ | karada | body)
  • 会う (あう | au | to meet)
  • 兄 (あに | ani | brother)

Radicals related to 木 (き | ki | tree): kihen: 木

  • 桜 (さくら | sakura | cherry tree)
  • 杏 (あんず | anzu | apricot)
  • 枯れる (かれる | kareru | to wither)

Basic Kanji Strokes Rules

Getting to know the basics of strokes will be useful in learning this writing system. Like Hiragana and Katakana, there are certain rules to writing a Kanji.

In addition to writing Japanese characters readable and beautiful, stroke orders and stroke counts are keys to learning a Kanji. Also, the Kanji list by stroke count is a common feature in the dictionary.

Kanji strokes go from:

  • From top to bottom, and left to right
  • Horizontal first, and vertical second
  • The bottom enclosure comes last

Kanji Pronunciation

Japanese Kanji has two reading methods. This means there are 2 pronunciations used when reading Kanji characters. The two Kanji pronunciations are called おんよみ (onyomi) and くんよみ (kunyomi).

Onyomi Pronunciation

Onyomi is also known as the Chinese reading. This is based on the original Chinese pronunciation of the characters.

If you already know Chinese, On-Yomi becomes a big help.

Here are some examples:

  • 桜 (おう | ou | cherry tree)
  • 犬 (けん | ken | dog)
  • 空 (くう | kuu | sky)

Onyomi pronunciation is commonly used when reading Kanji that are for compound words but not limited to it.

Kunyomi Pronunciation

Kunyomi pronunciation is the Japanese reading of the Kanji characters. This is based on how the Japanese read the characters that they attributed to something similar to the Japanese language.

Kunyomi leads you to understand the meanings of Kanji. Also, the Kanji radical can be a guide to certain sounds and meanings.

Here are some examples:

  • 桜 (さくら | sakura | cherry tree)
  • 犬 (いぬ | inu | dog)
  • 空 (そら| sora | sky)

Kunyomi pronunciation is used when reading singled-charactered Kanji and names of people and places. However, keep in mind that for English names or foreign names, the Katakana writing system is used.

How Many Kanji Characters are Necessary to Get By?

Japanese people regularly use around 2,100 Kanji, and it’s called 常用漢字 (じょうようかんじ | Jouyou-Kanji | regular-use Kanji). For instance, Japanese children learn new Kanji every year in school.

Elementary school students learn about 1,000 Kanji in six years and 1,100 more in the three years of middle school. Memorizing thousands of Kanji isn’t necessary to have conversations. Still, it’s good knowledge for getting around town freely and reading written Japanese.

Kanji doesn’t end here, Kanji is Fun!

Do you remember the time when you set your eyes on a Japanese character? Probably some of you had thought that it looked like a cipher and impossible to read. Learning Kanji by heart takes time and effort, but it certainly brings you to a new world.

Learning individual Kanji is fun, but exploring Kanji symbols and expanding knowledge to over 5,000 compound Kanji words (熟語 | じゅくご | jukugo | Kanji combinations) are also very enjoyable. You will find a beautiful or an interesting Kanji in no time!

がんばってください (Ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

    2 replies to "Kanji – Learn The Japanese Version of Chinese Characters"

    • ANIL TIWARI

      very fruitful information

      • 90 Day Japanese

        Awesome, thanks for your kind words! ^^ To find more great content on learning Japanese, visit the 90 Day Japanese Blog. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel for video lessons. You’ll get updated when our latest videos become available.

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