Japanese calligraphy / kanji

How kanji work

Japanese has 3 different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana each have a manageable 46 letters. And how many kanji (characters) are there in all? Thousands upon thousands. But don’t worry: you only need to know 2,136 of them to read a newspaper.

2,136?! How can somebody possibly learn that many symbols?! It’s difficult, but not as bad as it sounds. Let me break it down by explaining where they came from and how they work.

What are kanji?

Kanji are a set of ideographs (characters representing ideas as opposed to sounds), originally from China. In China, they are called hànzì. The best explanation of ideographs I can give is the one I gave in my article about Japanese writing:

A familiar analogy is Arabic numerals in English: the character “1” has a particular meaning associated with it, rather than a pronunciation. Derivatives of it, like “1st” and “13” sound nothing like “one”, but all share a meaning related to one-ness. Because there are a huge number of ideas out there – many more than there are sounds in a language – there are countless characters.

So there is one kanji for “person” and another for “hand” and another for “moon” (which also means “month”), and so forth.

Yeah but, how did they come up with each one?

Ok, let’s talk composition. Kanji started off as drawings of objects, sort of like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Here are some of the more straightforward examples and how they evolved.

Kanji origins chart
Meanings (top to bottom): mountain, fire, tree, gold, ground, gate.
Source: http://www.japantoday.com/images/size/x/2012/04/learnkanji.jpg

These basic pictures serve as the building blocks, or “radicals” as we say, of modern kanji. Kanji can be decomposed into combinations of radicals just as all English words can be decomposed into their letters.

Let’s examine a few, using 木 tree as our starting point, to see how this works.

  • Put two 木 trees together to get 林 woods.
  • Put three 木 trees together to get 森 forest.
  • To represent root or base, we add a line near the bottom of 木 tree: 本.
  • Imagine the sun (日) rising behind a tree (木). The result is 東, which means east.
  • Take 人 person, and smush it a little (for graphical reasons), then put it next to 木 tree. This makes 休, the kanji that means to rest.
  • If we put 田 field and 木 tree together, we get the kanji 果 fruit. Think: orchard.

However, only a small number of kanji are simple pictures or a logical combination of them (like the bullet points above). A few are basic abstractions, such 上 up and 下 down.

The vast majority of kanji have multiple parts, where the first piece gives the category of the meaning and the rest indicates the pronunciation. An example is 時 time ‘shi’. It is composed of 日 sun/day + 寺 temple ‘ji’. 時 takes its meaning category from the first (since day is related to time) and its sound from the second (since ‘ji’ sounds like ‘shi’).

Putting kanji together

Is every concept captured by a single character? No. The written language would literally be impossible to use if “Orion” had its own character, and so did “schizophrenia,” and so did “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

In reality, most words in Japanese are a formed by a combination of multiple kanji. 休 rest + 日 day/sun = 休日 holiday. 日 day/sun + 本 root/base = 日本 Land of the Rising Sun (that is: Japan). 先 previous + 生 born = 先生 elder (‘sensei’). 自 self + 動 moving + 車 vehicle = 自動車 automobile. These examples go on and on, and as a matter of fact build the vocabulary for an entire language.

New concepts usually have their terms adopted from elsewhere and spelled out phonetically in the katakana syllabary (e.g. インターネット internet (‘intānetto’)) in lieu of kanji. But in some instances – especially a few centuries ago – existing kanji were combined to form a new word (e.g. 共 mutual + 産 output + 主 main + 義 ideal = 共産主義 communism). In other cases, kanji were invented outright; this was done for many types of fish native to Japan.

Japanese-specific considerations

Pretty much everything above, excepting the previous paragraph, holds true for Chinese as well, who continue using essentially the same character system. It is also true for Korean in the past, who are weaning off of kanji (or ‘hanja’ as they are called there). Vietnam has fully phased out their use of Chinese characters.

But Japanese – one of only two languages still actively using these characters – has quite a few parculiarities stemming from how it assimilated kanji into its own vocabulary. To review:

Here’s an example. The native Japanese word for water is mizu while in Chinese it is shuǐ. The Chinese write water as 水 and read it shuǐ. So what the Japanese began to do is write 水 to mean water, while pronouncing it as the word they’d always used for water: mizu. …The Japanese also decided to go ahead and start adopting Chinese pronunciations of certain words and roots into their own language… what they began to do is give [水] a second, Chinese-derived pronunciation: sui.

So nearly all kanji have both a Chinese-derived pronunciation and a Japanese native pronunciation. We call these the Chinese-derived reading 音読み ‘on-yomi’ and the Japanese native readings 訓読み ‘kun-yomi.’ It can sometimes be difficult remembering both sets, and knowing when to use which, but most individual words generally are entirely ‘on-yomi’ or entirely ‘kun-yomi.’


WARNING: Do not this section if you’re a learner of Japanese and are easily demotivated.

I mentioned above that most characters have multiple readings. A strong majority have about two (one ‘on-yomi’ and one ‘kun-yomi’), but that number can spiral upwards in the cases of very basic concepts.

A crazy example of high numbers of readings are 生’s 13 readings (sei, shō, i-, u-, uma-, umare, o-, ha-, ki-, nama, na-, mu-, -u). And that number doesn’t even include all the readings that it can take in proper names.

Kanji can also be very complex visually. There are some characters which are composed of one kanji multiple times (e.g. 3 鹿 deer together make 麤 coarse [obscure])… but in my mind it’s kind of cheating. There are some legitimate good ones to be found in the animal kingdom: 麒麟 giraffe, 鷹 eagle, 龜 turtle [old-fashioned version], 龍 dragon [old-fashioned version], and 鳳凰 phoenix. Other fan favorites include 薔薇 rose, 鬱 depression, and 躊躇 hesitation.

Seems too hard. What’s the point?

Yeah, kanji are difficult to learn and to write. Japanese already has two other fully-accepted writing systems. So why keep kanji at all? Japan could emulate Korea and mostly eliminate them, or copy the Vietnamese and abandon them entirely. What’s holding the Japanese back from abolishing kanji?

The justifications probably won’t satisfy you unless you’re already a kanji guru, but apparently they’re good enough for Japan.

The first is clarity. The Japanese language has a relatively poor sound inventory, so there are tons of homophones. Distinctions made in speech (through intonation or supplemental explanation) would be lost in writing. But kanji make it crystal clear which definition you intend. Additionally, since they each carry specific meanings, everyday people can look at difficult jargon and make some sense of it.

Kanji are also significantly more compact than the alternatives. 東京 Tokyo is two characters, but it would take five hiragana letters to spell out the same word: とうきょう. And compare the 11-kanji 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to its 22-hiragana counterpart: ちょうせんみんしゅしゅぎじんみんきょうわこく. And just to compare this with the lack of compactness that our 26-letter alphabet offers, take a look at these comparisons:

市制 municipal organization
正直 straightforwardness
冷蔵庫 refrigerator
麻酔医 anesthesiologist
国際化 internationalization

Lastly, kanji have a certain beauty that would be lost if they were to disappear. The logic and order to them expands the mind, the rote memorization required to learn them commands discipline, and their visual forms are art.

Image source: http://vv.81study.com/images/b/730e0cf3d7ca7bcbab6352adbf096b63f624a81c.jpg