Did You Know These 5 Things About Kanji Symbols?

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.

Click here to learn an easy way to remember the Kanji that you are studying.

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.

Click Here to Learn How to Write Kana and Kanji Correctly in Japanese

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.untitled-design

  1. Write the top part before the bottom part
  2. Write the left part before the right part
  3. Horizontal strokes before vertical ones
  4. Middle part first when similar strokes are to the left and right
  5. Outside part before the inside part that it encompass
  6. Strokes that bend to the left before ones that bend to the right
  7. A stroke that pierces from top to bottom after rules 1-6
  8. 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:

  1. The original Chinese reading (on’yumi)
  2. 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 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!

16 thoughts on “Did You Know These 5 Things About Kanji Symbols?”

  1. Hi – this is an interesting page. I have some kanji that I am trying to break down into their roots. Seeking advice on how best to do this, seeing the alternate interpretations possible.

    The kanji are grouped as a string of four, but I know they are joined like you describe above. any tips for 方針管理 ?

    Thanking you in advance for any tips or insights you might have to offer.

    • Hey Mike,

      If you’re looking for the origin of certain kanji you can try entering them on Wikipedia (方 for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_70).

      If you want a more in depth explanation, there is a book called The World of Kanji that does a good job of explanation the entomology. However, it is geared towards teaching people to learn and understand kanji, so it might be a bit overkill for what you are looking for.


  2. Kanji aren’t idiographic. Some kanji are, but most are not. 木 represents a tree. What does 手 represent? How about 刀? You can probably come up with some convoluted imagery to associate with it, but then what happens when the word 切手 comes up?

    Something like 15% of kanji are idiographic. The majority impart only reading.

    • Hey Curtis, I appreciate the comment.

      In their book “Let’s Learn Kanji” written by Joyce Yumi Mitamura and Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura they explicitly state in the introduction that “Kanji is ideographic, not phonetic, which means that each character represents a concept or an idea rather than a sound.”

      You asked what 手 and 刀 represent and I assume you did so because they don’t really look like any physical item the way that 木 still looks like a tree.

      However, when 手 (hand) and 刀 (sword) were originally created in China, they still looked like the things they represent. You can check out the Bronze inscriptions of these two kanji by entering them into the search bar at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki to see how different they look now from what they did originally.

      Another great resource for understanding how kanji were created and why they look different today from their original forms is the book “Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji” written by Len Walsh.

      I hope that helps, thanks!

  3. My friend went to Japan and brought me back two Mangas in Japanese because I love anime. She assumes I’ll be able to read it XD and now I feel the need to at least learn how to read it :$. What do you recommend I use to help me learn to read it?

  4. When I first starting learning kanji it was with a book called “Let’s Learn Kanji.” It was one of those books that show you the meaning and how to write it, and then you just write and write and write and hope that you remember it. It’s a pretty tough way to learn, at least I think so.

    But when the kanji look like the thing they represent, it’s a lot easier to remember it. At least the meaning anyway. That part I always thought was pretty cool.


    • Yeah learning by just “writing it down” is hard when it comes to kanji. It works pretty well for hiragana and katakana because there’s not too many of them and each one only represents sound – not meaning.

      But kanji is a lot harder: multiple meanings, pronunciations, and over 2,000 that you HAVE to learn! I find that “word associations” is one of the best ways to learn kanji.

  5. Japanese is a very refined language and while I enjoy the speaking part, I really hate the writing. It’s not that I didn’t try – I studied very hard for my Level 3 but the learning curve, especially memorizing the kanji to master Level 2 is simply impossible for me.

    The strokes are just too difficult and it takes me too long to complete a decent sentence in Japanese. What kind of tips do you have to help people remember kanji better?

    • Hey Cathy, learning Kanji is definitely one of the harder aspects to learning Japanese. Here are a few tips to help remember Kanji better:

      1) Use Kanji within a sentence, rather than alone.
      2) Use mnemonics to help learn new Kanji
      3) Install supportive beliefs

      Let me just go into a little detail on #3. You said that “level 2 is simply impossible” and also that “The strokes are just too difficult”.

      If you are open to a little tough love advice, then I would like to tell you that those beliefs are a major part of what’s holding you back.

      There’s not enough time to go into it all in a comment, but this quote from Henry Ford sums it up:

      “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — YOU’RE RIGHT.”

  6. Really interesting article Nick and particularly interesting to me as I have lived in Japan for the last 12 years. Whilst I am pretty much fluent in conversational and every day Japanese, my kanji is absolutely horrible. For all intents and purposes I just gave up coz it was too much time for me. From the links you have posted here I might revisit my kanji!

  7. I’ve always liked to read Japanese manga and amine- so you could call me a bit of an otaku (not that I mind).

    But one thing that irked me is that many of the manga or anime that I heard of that sounded SO interesting were only available in the original language!

    So, began my quest to learn kanji, and Japanese in general. Thanks for sharing- the material was in-depth and a great help to my quest.

    • I know what you mean. And you have to wait for months for someone else to translate them! That’s pretty much how my journey started too.

  8. Hey there,

    I love how you describe the kanji symbols. When I was learning in class, my teacher just told me to memorise everything and I was barely able to visualise what the symbols stand for.

    It looks really complicated nonetheless, I guess the only way around it is to just get used to a couple of words each day until you can read most of the basic stuffs!

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Hey Anh, you’re totally right! You just have to take it a few Kanji each day and let them add up over time. Being able to attach meaning to the different parts of the complex Kanji help out a lot too.


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