One of the hardest parts of learning Japanese is all those Kanji Symbols. By far the most common problem I hear from students is trouble learning and remembering them. And yet they are an indispensable part of the language. It is vital to learn them to truly understand the Japanese language.
If you want to know an easy way to remember new Kanji, check out the lick below.
And now, here are 5 things you may not have known about Kanji:
#1 – The History/Origin of Kanji
Did you know that the Japanese did not have a written system for their language until the sometime between the 4th and 5th century AD?
The Chinese system of writing was brought to Japan through Korean missionaries. Originally only the lords and monks were taught how to read and write.
But of course, the Japanese language already existed so they couldn’t just use the Chinese writing system exactly the same way that the Chinese did. That’s why the Japanese created Hiragana and Katakana.
The Kanji (Chinese characters) also had to have their pronunciations adapted into the Japanese language. This was due to the limited number of different sounds in Japanese. But the original meanings ware usually kept the same.
#2 – Different Types of Kanji
Kanji are idiographic, meaning they represent a concept or idea, but not a sound. By contrast, both Hiragana and Katakana represent sounds, but not meaning. Each letter in the English alphabet also represents a sound and not a meaning.
There are over 50,000 known Kanji in existence! Luckily only about 2,000 are considered the “daily use” Kanji. Also, there are several different types of Kanji based on how they were created and what they mean. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Pictorial Kanji are a written representation of the physical object they represent. For example, the Kanji for tree looks like a tree. Here are some of them:
Indicative Kanji represent abstract concepts that don’t have a definite particular shape. For examples, numbers are one such concept. You need actual objects, like an apple, to be able to say “three apples”. Here are some examples of these types of Kanji:
Compound Idiographic Kanji are created by taking stand alone Kanji and then combining them together to create a new one. So using the previous two types of Kanji we’ve seen, we can put them together and create a new idea. Here’s what I mean:
#3 How to Write Kanji (Basic Overview)
I wrote a more in depth post on how to write Kanji a while ago. If you’re interested, check it out through the link below.
What I failed to do in that earlier post was to explain why it is important to know the correct stroke order.
The first reason is so that you can write in a smooth and efficient manner, much like cursive writing in English.
The other reason is so that when you encounter a new Kanji, you can deconstruct it in your mind using the proper stroke order and figure out how many strokes the Kanji is composed of. This is important because most Kanji dictionaries are organized by stroke count.
So, here are the basic principles to remember when writing Kanij. This will work for all but the few irregulars.
- Write the top part before the bottom part
- Write the left part before the right part
- Horizontal strokes before vertical ones
- Middle part first when similar strokes are to the left and right
- Outside part before the inside part that it encompass
- Strokes that bend to the left before ones that bend to the right
- A stroke that pierces from top to bottom after rules 1-6
- A stroke that pierces the middle from left to right after rules 1-7
Check out the earlier post for some Kanji examples of each rule.
#4 How to Read Kanji (Basic Overview)
Most Kanji have mutiple ways to pronounce them depending on the context they’re used in. There are two different type of readings. They are:
- The original Chinese reading (on’yumi)
- The Japanese reading (kun’yumi)
Usually when a Kanji is following immediately by another Kanji they will both use the Chinese reading (on’yumi). And when the Kanji is by itself (or with kana) then it uses the Japanese reading (kun’yumi). Think of these as guidelines and not absolute rules. Here are some examples
Both of these words start with the same Kanji, but the Kanji is pronounced differently each time. It is interesting to see that the meaning of both words are similar, but the nuance associated with each is different.
And to make it even more complicated, sometimes there are multiple was to pronounce a Kanji within the same reading (Japanese or Chinese). So above you learned the Japanese reading of 出 as DE. But there is another Japanese reading of it as DA for the word “to take out”.
出す DASU – To take out.
The saying “Context is King” applies to the Japanese language very much. You will know how to pronounce each Kanji based on how it is used and its surrounding Kanji and Hiragana. As an example, you already know four different ways to pronounce the number 2 in English:
2 – Two
12 – Twelve
20 – Twenty
2nd – Second
#5 How to Guess When You Don’t Know
The meanings of the Kanji we’ve looked at in #2 can be derived fairly easily from how they look. But these examples only go up to 8-strokes at the most. More complicated Kanji can get up to as many as 17 strokes!
And obviously not every Kanji can look like the thing it represents (like the Kanji for departure). But there are hints that help you guess the meaning and the pronunciation.
First you will have to understand some basic Kanji. Then you will need to know that when multiple Kanji are put together to form a new one, sometimes the basic Kanji change form a little. Here is an example:
Just like how English words are made up of individual letters, Kanji are made up of individual radicals. The radicals on the left hand side of Kanji usually indicate the meaning. These next three Kanji all have the radical for water on the left side, so you can guess that they all have something to do with water. See examples to the right.
The radicals on the right side of the Kanji represent the on’yomi (Chinese Reading) pronunciation. Therefore you can have different words that have identical pronunciation, but different meanings. Granted that these will usually be a part of a larger word, so there’s not as much confusion as you might initially think. See examples below.
You Can Never Know Less
Now you probably know more about Kanji than most people do! And once you learn something new, you can never know less. Although you might have a little trouble remembering sometimes. Don’t worry, I can help you with that.
I hope you found this article interesting and helpful. I tried to give a little information about each different aspect of Kanji, but of course there is a lot more to them that you can learn.
Alright, now I want to hear from you! What did you think? What do you find most interesting about Kanji? Comment below and let everyone know!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: