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Kanji ON YOMI and KUN YOMI: The Mystery Solved

If you've finished learning the hiragana and katakana you are probably about ready to move onto Kanji. You must be really excited? One Kanji has one meaning right?火 means fire doesn't it? Well yes, you are correct. However, unfortunately there are different readings for each Kanji. This is where the Kun Yomi and On Yomi readings come into play.

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Kanji ON’YOMI and KUN’YOMI: The Mystery Solved

In today’s lesson we are going to look at the differences of the Kun and On Yomi, learn their importance and also look at their history. So, if you have struggled in the past with these different readings then carry on reading friend, we are about to unravel the mystery!

A letter Kanji history

The Japanese language is made up of 3 different writing systems, hiragana, katakana and Kanji. Kanji are sequences of lines that are used to represent sounds. Kanji allow for the separation and distinction of sounds that may contain various meanings giving further clarity to written language.

Kanji are Chinese characters that were introduced to Japan in the 5th century. It's very important to remember that as it will help to distinguish the Yomi readings later in the article.

In Japan there are 2,136 Jōyō kanji, otherwise known as common Kanji, that are taught throughout the educational system.

The first step to learning Kanji is understanding the difference between the Kun Yomi and the On Yomi. We are now going to be looking at the Kun Yomi to understand a bit more about what it is.

Kun Yomi

Kanji has two different readings, On-Yomi (音 読 み) and Kun-Yomi (訓 読 み). The difference in sound depends on the meaning of the kanji.

First you should know that there are 2 ways to ready a Kanji in most cases the On Yomi and the Kun Yomi. The first reading we are going to look at is the Kun Yomi, the Japanese reading. This is a reading that is based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word.

The Kun Yomi is usually used with a standalone Kanji without any others Kanji connected to it.

Here as some examples of Kun Yomi readings.

KanjiReadingMeaning
sardineい わ し 
咲 くTo bloomさ く 
Frameわ く
Mountain passと う げ 
匂 いFragrantに お い 
Princessひ め 
Fieldは た け 

On Yomi

On-Yomi is from the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji, while Kun-Yomi is from the native Japanese language.

The On Yomi is the Chinese reading or the sounds reading. The On Yomi reading are usually for words with 2 Kanji. Lets take a look at some of these below.

KanjiReadingMeaning
地下 鉄ち か て つSubway
最高さ い こ うBest
元 気げ ん きEnergy
先生せ ん せ いTeacher
東京と う き ょ うTokyo

As you can see here the On Yomi is used because there are more than 2 Kanji, this is a good rule to follow when deciding which reading to use for any Kanji you are trying to decipher. If it’s stands alone, its more likely to be the Kun Yomi, the Japanese reading.

Kun Yomi and On Yomi comparisons

Here is a chart with some basic Kanji so we can look at the On Yomi and Kun Yomi readings of each.

KanjiMeaningKun YomiOn Yomi
Countryく にこ く
Womanお ん なじ ょ
Manお と こだ ん
Insideう ちな い
Fire
Dogい ぬけ ん
Treeも く
Mountainや まさ ん
Waterみ ずす い
Eyeも く

So, there we have it! Now you have a more thorough understanding of the Kun and On Yomi, you can start to decipher which readings to use at any given time.

Unfortunately, a Kanji can have multiple On Yomi readings so please take that into account when you are studying your Kanji.

A really good way to study and separate the Yomi’s is to make a list of a few Kanji per day and separate them into columns like in the tables above.           

Create a story around the Kanji shapes that is easy to remember and try and think of interesting ways to incorporate both the On Yomi and the Kun Yomi into the story.

This way the stories will stick more effectively. Lastly you should think about writing out 2 sentences with the same Kanji. One with the On Yomi and one with the Kun Yomi so you can separate the differences in your mind, this is really effective.

Learn Japanese Kanji - Basic Kanji You must know first for absolute beginners

So remember that the Kun Yomi is the Japanese reading and is usually used for standalone Kanji.

The On Yomi is the Chinese reading and is used when two or more Kanji’s are combined together to make a word.

There can be multiple Onyomi’s for the same Kanji.

Are you trying to master the Kanji? Here’s what you need to know.

We are going to be looking at the definitive guide to Kanji mastery. The origins, different readings, how to use kanji and most importantly, the most effective techniques on how to learn and retain the Kanji.

What are Kanji?

Kanji are Chinese characters that were introduced into the Japanese writing system in the 5thth century. They are symbols that are made up of smaller individual symbols to represent a meaning.

Kanji are used as a way to speed up the reading and comprehension process of text and separate sounds that have multiple meanings.

Kanji are studied from an early age in Japan and throughout the school years. Although there are countless numbers of Kanji, the educational system in Japan focuses its attention on the jōyō kanji list which is comprised of 2,136 Kanji. These are the kanji that are deemed to be the most common and useful.

For Japanese who are introduced to kanji at a young age, this isn’t such a daunting task. However, for someone learning the language like yourself, it's going to seem really daunting and strange at first.

Before we get into actually looking at learning the kanji, we first need to look at the different readings.

Kum Yomi and On Yomi

Kanji are made up of 2 readings, On Yomi and Kun Yomi. The reason for this is that each Kanji can have different readings depending on the context and the other Kanji’s that it may be next to.

The Kun Yomi is the Japanese reading is usually used with Kanji that are standalone

On Yomi is the sound reading (or Chinese reading) and is used when more than one kanji is used.

Here is a quick example.

KanjiMeaningOn YomiKun Yomi
Dogけ んい ぬ

い ぬ Inu is the Kun Yomi and on it's own 犬 means dog.

け ん is the On Yomi and when coupled with another kanji: 老 犬 becomes け ん - ろ う け ん = Old dog

So now we have a basic understanding about the readings and why Kanji are important. Let's not look at how to actually master them and start using them in your day to day study and application.

How to remember the Kanji

If you are brand new to Kanji then this will really help you. The key is finding a strategy that works for you and being really consistent with what you do.

Having a goal in mind is really effective and lets you know the amount of work you should be putting into your Kanji studies. For example, if you are wanting to learn all of the Kanji for the N5 exam then you should be looking at around 3 per night for the next 50 - 70 days. A goal like that is really important when it comes to deciding on your pace.

You will first need to understand the importance of radicals in Kanji before you come to take on your studies. Radicals are small symbols that make up all of the Kanji. There are 214 radicals all in all and knowing identifying all of them is going to be useful.

The radicals include things such as leaf, fins, legs, etc, you use these images to help make stories around the Kanji to help you remember them.

One of the best ways to remember the Kanji, without a photographic memory, is to use stories with the radicals to ensure help retain the meaning of the kanji easily.

Here is a quick example.

For example: the Kanji 町 machi, meaning town, uses the radicals field and nail. You could imagine a sign nailed up in a field indicating a nearby town. This is a super effective method for remembering and not forgetting the Kanji.

Making sure you have the right plan in place on a daily basis is essential. Try learning and making stories for your new Kanji in the morning and then revising them before you go to bed at night. Do for 5 - 6 days and then review them all at the rest of the week. If you are not able to remember them, you are probably doing too much at one time. If that's the case, consider reducing the amount. Quality not quantity.

Summary

Kanji is incredibly hard. Even native Japanese cannot read or write some kanji correctly. With the decline of handwritten language, reliance on spell checkers and suggestive Kanji use is commonplace, much like with spelling in English, this skill is unfortunately on the decline. Mastering the Kanji It takes practice, dedication and discipline to master.

If you put your mind to it using the techniques we have learned in today’s lesson you will do well.

Remember to always stay persistent and stick with your plan. No days off, no shortcuts and you will do just fine!

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