Tag Archives: Japanese

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

Japan is better than your country*

Japan’s got a lot going for it. If you’ve ever been there, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, this page should serve as motivation for you to drop what you’re doing and book a trip.


McDonalds Japan
Source: http://blogs.c.yimg.jp/res/blog-61-87/yamazy3000/folder/1161195/90/30495990/img_0

Japanese customer service is legendary. The waitstaff act more as if they are butlers, ready to go to any length to please the customer. If the customer so much as implies he/she would like something, you can bet that it will be headed to him/her in no time flat. This is even true in McDonalds there, where everyone is greeted with smiles and the politest interlocution.

Somehow, this client-first utopia manages to exist without any form of tipping. That means there is no motivation to maintain this standard, except for an intrinsic desire to excel.

There’s a saying in Japanese: the customer is God (お客様は神様), which is a more extreme version of our ‘the customer is always right.’

Attention to detail

Beautiful sushi arrangement
Source: http://tabakoya.sakura.ne.jp/sblo_files/nureennikki/image/PC170308.JPG

One important Japanese concept is kodawari (こだわり), which is difficult to translate. It’s somewhere between ‘utmost care,’ ‘persistence,’ and ‘obsessiveness.’ Every Japanese art embodies this precision, from origami to sushi, from ninjutsu to tea ceremonies. There is an unparalleled amount of effort that the Japanese put into nearly everything they do, and it’s marvelous.

It’s no coincidence that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world – more than #2 and #3 combined. Oh, and #2 and #3 are Osaka and Kyoto.


Tokyo Metro map
Source: http://jasf.org/rosenzu/line.png

Japan’s highways are smooth and its buses timely, but the real gem is trains. Japanese trains are clean, safe, and efficient like nobody’s business. High population density means there’s always a station nearby, and trains run frequently. Digital signs on platforms give you an exact reading of when the next one’s coming, and entire subway lines have cell service enabled. They’ve integrated most cities’ fare cards so that they are inter-operable, and the cards can also be used with a variety of vendors as well. And even though some stations are gargantuan (think: 5 railway companies, 36 platforms, 200+ exits, and 10 attached malls/department stores), they’re somehow not too confusing to get around.

Shinkansen (bullet train) passing by Mount Fuji
Source: http://blogs.c.yimg.jp/res/blog-7b-fc/rocket_bus_company/folder/1024042/90/64935290/img_1?1311293901

Shinkansen, or bullet trains, are a separate class of marvel. The ride is smooth like butter. The conductor bows whenever entering or exiting a train car. The seats all turn around automatically at the end of the line. And they go really, really, really fast.


Stock photo of a clock or pocket watch
Source: http://kwn-tm.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/00006pw63-300-1.jpg

Everything in Japan happens on time. There’s no concept of ‘fashionably late’… you just need to get there exactly when the invitation says to. Since the ubiquitous trains run like clockwork, there’s no element of guessing how long it’ll take you to get there. An illustrative point: airlines outside Japan generally begin boarding domestic flights 30-45 minutes before departure, but in Japan only 15 minutes are needed. And their on-time departure records put foreign airlines to shame.

Life is a heck of a lot easier without unnecessary fuzziness of buffer times and the waiting game.

Zany side

Very scary Japanese man. ©2014 Gordon Schoenfeld
Trump Room, Shibuya, Tokyo.

Beneath all the politeness and order is a rabbit hole of pure, unadulterated crazy. Gwen Stefani barely scraped the surface when she exposed the outside world to Harajuku fashion. But it goes oh so much further than that. Between maid cafés and cat cafés, strange fetishes and just plain bizarreness, Japan really is a world leader in this category.

Vending machines

Japanese vending machines row
Source: http://livedoor.blogimg.jp/zzcj/imgs/2/1/21c2e414.jpg

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, and all the legends about the myriad of things you can buy from them are true. You can pay on many by touching your subway card, or add the cost to your phone bill by tapping your IC-enabled smartphone to the machine.


Collage of Japanese traditions
Source: http://lesson-japan.com/img/mainindex2.jpg

The land of the rising sun is steeped in tradition. Stemming from a storied past of geisha, ninja, and samurai, Japanese society is as complex as any. Sure, Japan shares some generalities with its neighbors. The people bow as a form of greeting, eat rice with chopsticks, and write in kanji. But Japan has so many traditions that are uniquely, well, Japanese. And what stands out to me the most is their ability to espouse change while embracing tradition.

Unlike other countries (cf. Exhibit A), Japan has made great strides to preserve its historical identity. On the streets of today’s Tokyo, you hear the bings and booms of arcades mixed with the clacks of geta. You can experience the world’s most advanced seismic warning systems and see evacuation routes marked with the catfish deity associated with quakes. You hear foreign words like happī basudei used interchangeably with otanjōbi omedetō (happy birthday).


Japan is an incredible land of distinction and contrasts. Don’t take my word for it though: ask anyone you know who’s been.

*There certainly are things that Japan could do better – that’s a separate blog post for another day – but I wanted to share with you some of the beauty and mystique that Japan has to offer.

Want to learn Japanese or get advice on planning a trip to Japan? Try my resources page.

Image source: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/u/TvyamNb-BivtNwcoxtkc5xGBuGkIMh_nj4UJHQKuorpC4EcA1wvNff3sFIM-boC40TykYSAc7zOrLw/

Japanese writing system(s)

I get asked about the Japanese writing system a lot: “How do many symbols are there?” “It’s like Chinese except easier, right?” It’s actually pretty complicated, but here’s the crash course.

There are three systems in simultaneous use today, called hiragana, katakana, and kanji. They are each used for different purposes, and look differently too. Compare the upper-case and lower-case alphabets of English: we use both in nearly every sentence.

History lesson

The best way to explain their purposes and features is through history. Way back when, the Japanese had no way to write their language. One day, a ship came over from the Asian mainland, and it brought (among other things) Buddhist documents written in Chinese.

There are two things you should know at this point. First, Chinese and Japanese are completely unrelated languages. Their grammars have little in common, and there is no overlap (at least at this point in time) in their vocabularies. Second, Chinese writing is only ideographs – where each character represents an idea. 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.

Okay, back to the story. The Japanese learned how to read and write Chinese, and actually spoke Chinese in their courts. Compare this to the Czar’s family, who spoke French with one another. At first, the nobility carried on with this two-language lifestyle, a phenomenon known as diglossia.

Eventually, though, this became too cumbersome. Some of the women in the court came up with shorthand derived from these characters. Some created a code of syllables based off of certain pieces of characters. For example, they created the letter ヤ ya from the Chinese character 也 (which is pronounced ya), and ク ku from 久 ku. This is the origin of the katakana syllabary. And other court ladies did something slightly different: they created a code of syllables from the cursive forms of Chinese characters. Some examples include ほ ho from the character 保 ho, and わwa from the character 和 wa. This is called the hiragana syllabary.

Another transformation that took place is the application of Chinese characters to Japanese native words. So, if you’ll recall, Chinese and Japanese didn’t have related vocabularies. So the Japanese took all the Chinese characters for all the different concepts, and mapped their own words onto the appropriate characters. 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.

Confusing enough? Apparently not. The Japanese also decided to go ahead and start adopting Chinese pronunciations of certain words and roots into their own language. Let’s go back to the example of water to illustrate: up until now, the Japanese were simply pronouncing 水 as mizu. Now what they began to do is give it a second, Chinese-derived pronunciation: sui.

So today, when a Japanese reader sees the character 水, they need to quickly assess whether the word calls for the Chinese-derived pronunciation or the Japanese native one, e.g. 水中 suichū “underwater” vs. 水色 mizuiro “aqua colored”. Another pair of perhaps more familiar examples uses the character 神 “god” (shin from Chinese and kami in native Japanese): 神道 shintō “the way of the gods” vs. 神風 kamikaze “divine wind”.

It is these characters, initially from Chinese, which are called kanji – regardless of which pronunciation scheme is used.

How they’re used today

Now we’re at the present, and you’re probably wondering, “how do these all fit together?” This is also not totally simple.

Katakana is used much in the same way we use italics in English: for foreign words, for species names, and for onomatopoeia.

Most adjectives, verbs, and nouns are written in kanji. Some kanji are obscure or too difficult to write, so they are substituted with hiragana. But because of their compactness and visual clarity of meaning, kanji are generally preferred when usable.

Hiragana is the catch-all system: it’s the default for cases where the other two don’t apply. It’s for grammatical particles and conjugations, and for words with obscure kanji. It’s also used for children and foreigners studying the language.

Sample sentence

Let’s see all 3 systems in action with this example I made up. Blue indicates hiragana, red indicates katakana, and black indicates kanji.


Japanese Information レストラン 友達 べました
Transliteration Information resutoran-de tomodachi-to hiru-go-han-wo tabe-ma-shita
Gloss Information restaurant-at friends-with midday-honorific-
Translation Information I ate lunch with my friends at a restaurant.

Hopefully this was clear and you learned something. Please leave comments below or contact me using the contact buttons! To explore the world of linguistics more, check out my resources page.

Image source: https://www.oia.hokudai.ac.jp/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/nihongo.jpg