One of the hardest parts of Japanese is learning all of the different possible readings for the literally thousands of characters that you have to learn in order to be literate. That’s why today I am going to share some tools for looking up kanji readings that will help you figure them out.
Each one is a little different, so be sure to check them all out in order to find which one you like best. You can also use them in combination for those times when you encounter an especially difficult reading.
The first place to look up a kanji’s reading is in an electronic dictionary. Personally, I have always like jisho.org but there are many online dictionaries that you can use.
All you have to do is enter the kanji whose reading you want to know and press enter. It will then provide a definition of the word along with its correct reading shown in furigana above the kanji character.
Something else that I really like about using Jisho is that it also provides alternative spellings for the word that you looked up.
This is nice since there will be times when you see different kanji used for the same word, which can be confusing at first until you get used to seeing them.
However, there is something else that is also really cool in that section: alternative readings!
Many times there will only be a slight difference, such as the び (bi) to み (mi) change in 寂しい shown above.
On the other hand, there are certain kanji that have very different reading possibilities and being able to see them all collected in one place like this is really nice.
By the way, when I say kanji in this article I am referring to both single kanji words like the above, and also multiple kanji words such as 二泊 which means “two nights” stay at a hotel or inn.
Now here’s something that I want to highlight: Jisho is great for most words, but they struggle with counters.
If you enter 二泊 into Jisho, it won’t know what to do with it and will just provide you with each individual word’s meaning. This can help understand it, but it doesn’t tell you what the correct reading is.
Fortunately, I found a different website that can help.
A Special Website
One day when I was looking around the internet to find the correct reading of a kanji, I ran into a website that I had never heard of before.
It was called yomikatawa.com and had 「読み方は？」 printed right at the top which means “what is the reading?”
How great is this!
A Japanese site that is dedicated to helping people find the readings to more obscure kanji or the unlimited number of counters that you run into.
At any rate, all you have to do is paste in the kanji whose reading you’re trying to figure out and then press enter. If we try this with 二泊 we can see the correct way to say it.
As you can see, this gives us the correct reading in both hiragana as にはく as well as romaji as nihaku.
This is pretty cool since it makes it accessible to both beginners and intermediate users alike.
Normally what I do is to use Jisho as my first resource since it also provides a lot of additional information like the kanji’s meaning and possible alternative readings.
But when I can’t find the correct reading on there, I then hop on over to Yomikatawa and try them out.
If for whatever reason I still can’t find the kanji’s reading, I then use my third option which actually has to do with sound instead of sight.
Hearing The Correct Reading
One of the best ways to learn and remember new words is to read and listen to them. This is great for situations where you have access to both materials, such as a novel and its audio book version.
But what if you just want to look up a single word?
In that case you can head on over to forvo.com and use their services. Their slogan is: “All the words in the world. Pronounced.”
This is perfect for language learners who want to hear natives say individual words. It is also helpful when you want to know what a kanji’s reading is since all you need to do is type in the kanji, press enter, and then listen to the available recordings.
Sometimes there will be a lot of options to choose from, sometimes there will only be one, and other times there won’t be any.
That being said, I have rarely been disappointed with this site and it is a great way to “hear” a kanji’s reading which you can then mimic yourself.
Similar Kanji You Know
The last strategy is one that comes through a lot of reading and really only applied to the On-yomi, or Chinese readings of kanji.
As I’m sure you know, when a kanji is by itself it nearly always takes its Kun-yomi, or Japanese reading which doesn’t really have a discernible pattern from one to the next.
An example would be 健やか which has a reading of すこ for the 健 kanji.
On the other hand, when kanji are combined together to form new words they (usually) both take the On-yomi, or Chinese readings which do have a consistent pattern to them between multiple words.
The Chinese reading for the kanji 健 is けん which can be seen in words such as:
What this means is that once you’ve learned enough On-yomi you can actually start to guess what a new kanij’s correct reading is with a high degree of accuracy.
Obviously getting to this point is a much longer process than just looking the reading up with one of the earlier mentioned methods, but the advantage is that this is a skill that, once developed, will eventually remove the need for you to do lookup’s.
There are really two ways that you can improve this ability. One is through a lot of extensive reading where you just get so used to seeing their On-yomi that you remember them.
The other way, and something that would probably be helpful to do when you’re starting out, is to do some intensive study on common kanji that share these readings. This will allow you to jump start the ones you know which will help you get to the point where you can correctly guess a kanji’s Chinese reading.
There are only a few books that help you do this and the one that I’ve used is called “The Kanji Code” which is a book that helps with what I’ve been talking about in this section, but it also shows you the patterns between different kanji.
Something that can really help is when you know that different kanji share the same reading. For example, the kanji 有, 友, and 雄 all share the same On-yomi of ゆう and there is a connection between these three kanji that the book helps you to see and remember.
What Tools Do You Use?
Those are the things that I have used to help find and then remember the readings of kanji.
I’m interested to hear what tools and tricks you use. Let me know what you do that’s different, or even the same, as what I’ve been talking about.
Thanks for reading!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: