The third and final script used in Japanese is Kanji. The word Kanji itself means Chinese Characters. Kanji are a system of logograms that were originally borrowed from China and retrofitted to meet the needs of the Japanese language. Logograms are characters that are used to represent words and morphemes directly. For example, the words ひと (person) and みず (water) can be written in kanji as 人 and 水。

At first glance this seems pretty straight forward. However, Japanese is a language that is fundamentally different from all varieties of Chinese, and this has severely complicated the way kanji have been adopted into Japanese.

On-yomi and Kun-yomi

The first complication is the fact that when Japanese adopted Kanji, they did not just adopt the written characters but also the spoken Chinese morphemes that went with them. For example, in standard Chinese, the word for water is shuǐ. This word was borrowed into Japanese as the morpheme すい (sui). However, Japanese already had an existing word for water which was みず(mizu). So what the Japanese decided to do was to use the kanji for water, , to represent the word みず (mizu) as well as the morphemeすい(sui). Another example is the character 車 which means vehicle. The Japanese already had a word for vehicle which was くるま (kuruma)、but they also borrowed the Chinese morpheme for vehicle which was しゃ (sha)。In the end, they made the decision to use 車 to represent both くるま (kuruma) and しゃ (sha).

The original Japanese word is called the kanji’s kun-yomi (meaning-reading) and the borrowed Chinese morpheme is called the on-yomi (sound-reading). Generally speaking, kun-yomi tend to be stand-alone words while on-yomi tend to be bound morphemes that show up in compound words. For example, although みず (mizu) and くるま (kuruma) are words in their own right, すい(sui) and しゃ(sha) usually only show up in compound words, like 水車・すいしゃ・suisha which means water-wheel. There are numerous exceptions to this rule though. For example, the compound word 水着 means swimsuit, and is pronounced みずぎ (mizugi) making use of the kun-yomi.

These two examples only have 1 on-yomi and 1 kun-yomi each, but some kanji can have multiple on-yomi and multiple kun-yomi. The character 人 meaning person has 2 on-yomi, にん (nin) and じん (jin), as well as the kun-yomi ひと (hito). Multiple on-yomi are the result of repeated borrowing from multiple dialects of Chinese over the course of hundreds of years. Multiple kun-yomi are the result of different Japanese people trying to map the same kanji onto multiple native words over the centuries.

This might seem confusing, but fascinatingly, English does the exact same thing. In English, we have the Germanic word water, but also the Greek morpheme hydro and the Latin morpheme aqua. While water is a stand-alone word, the morphemes hydro and aqua are used to create new compound words in English such as aquatic, or hydrophobia. If English were written with kanji, we would probably use the character 水 to represent all three of the morphemes water, aqua and hydro. So, the words waterwheel, aquatic and hydrophobia might look something like 水wheel、水tic、and 水phobia. The reader would just have to know which morpheme is meant to stand in for.


The second complication is that Chinese and Japanese grammar are completely different. Chinese is an analytic and isolating language, meaning that words do not inflect and have only one form. This goes for verbs too. So the verb to see only has one form in Chinese regardless of whether you’re talking about the past or future, negative, etc. There is only see. English is relatively analytic like Chinese, but we still have verb conjugations such as sees, saw, seen, etc.

Japanese on the other hand is an agglutinating language. Verbs are very highly conjugated and can have multiple conjugations at once, with each conjugation “glued on” to the previous conjugation (hence the name agglutinating). For example, the word for to see is みる(miru). To express the potential can see you change it to みられる(mirareru). To express the negative cannot see you change it to みられない(mirarenai). To express the past tense could not see you change it to みられなかった (mirarenakatta). And if you want to go one step further and make it a conditional statement If could not see you can change it to みられなかったら(mirarenakattara).

As you can see, Japanese verbs are quite complex and can have numerous conjugations all strung together. The problem is that kanji are incapable of inflection (How would you change 見 which means to see into the past tense?) This is perfect for Chinese which doesn’t have any inflection but terrible for Japanese. So the Japanese developed a workaround known as okurigana where the kanji is used for the stem and hiragana is used for the ending which gets conjugated.

So the word for to see, which is miru, gets written as 見る, with the kanji 見 representing the stem of the verb mi, and the hiragana る representing the part that gets conjugated. Let’s look at some examples:

見られなかった – Mirarenakatta – Could not see

見たければ - Mitakereba – If (I) wanted to see

見よう – Miyou – Let’s see

As you can see in each of these conjugations, the stem 見 stays the same and only the okurigana changes.

Radical and Phonetic Components

Most kanji are made up of the same recycled component parts. Some of these parts help hint at what the kanji is supposed to mean. These parts are called radicals. For example, the radical氵indicates water and all the kanji that have this part have something to do with water. For example, 泳 (swimming)、流 (to flow)、港  (harbor)、and 海 (ocean) all contain the radical 氵. By learning radicals, you can greatly improve your ability to guess the meaning of kanji.

Many kanji also have phonetic components. These are like radicals, except they give you a hint at pronunciation instead of meaning. Since kanji were designed in China, phonetic components only help when dealing with on-yomi. There’s no systematic way to figure out kun-yomi pronunciations. An example of a phonetic component is 交 which is pronounced こう(kou). Kanji that have this component all have the on-yomi kou. Examples include 交、効、 校、 絞、 較、and 郊. Despite all having the same on-yomi, none of these kanji share a kun-yomi.

In future posts, I will cover radical and phonetic components in much more depth but you should nevertheless keep an eye out for these components yourself. Doing so will make learning kanji much easier.

Stroke Order

Every Kanji has an official stroke order which is the order and direction you are supposed to write all the lines (strokes) that make up a character. Generally, you are supposed to write Kanji from top to bottom and left to write, making sure that every character fits into the same sized square block, regardless of how complicated the character is. So 人 and 鬱 are meant to be the same size and general shape, despite the obvious difference in complexity between them. So having good stroke order helps ensure your kanji are “balanced” correctly.

Stroke order is also very important to know in order to help decipher handwriting and calligraphy. People generally write in a sloppy cursive, and the only thing to keep it from being completely unreadable is the fact that everyone writes kanji in the same order, giving their characters the same “flow” that you can trace in your mind to figure out what it is you are looking at.

Total Number of Kanji

The Japanese government puts out a list called the 常用漢字 (Jouyou Kanji) which is an officially approved list of Kanji that are allowed to be used in newspapers and official documents. The current list contains 2,136 kanji that all Japanese people are expected to learn in school. There is also an extended list of 人名用漢字 (Jinmeiyou Kanji) which are extra Kanji that are allowed to be used in people’s names. There are 843 kanji on this list, bringing the grand total of official kanji up to 2979 kanji. However, plenty of kanji that are on neither of these lists are still used as these lists only restrict the number of kanji allowed in official publications. Novels, manga, video games, etc are free game for any kanji the author wishes to include, official or not. Unfortunately, these are the things you as a learner of Japanese are probably most interested in reading. Nevertheless, the Jouyou Kanji cover the vast majority of kanji you will typically come across and is generally a good resource to keep in mind.

Kyūjitai vs Shinjitai

After WWII, many kanji were simplified. For example, 國 became 国、體 became 体、and 龍 became 竜. The old forms are known as kyūjitai and the new forms are known as shinjitai. 95% of the time you will only have to pay attention to shinjitai characters. But if you decide to read older literature or anything that is “artistic” like the writing at temples or shrines, you will likely come across kyūjitai characters.


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