Japanese

What Does Kanji Mean in Japanese? It Depends on This…

So you think you know what a word means, and then you hear it used in a way that makes absolutely no sense at all! I’m talking about the Japanese word kanji, but what does kanji mean in Japanese?

Well that’s the thing. It depends…

You see, Japanese has this feature called homophones. Actually, pretty much all languages have them – words that sound the same, but mean different things.

But Japanese has more. I mean, a LOT MORE!

Why is this? Well, it has to do with the fact that Japanese only has a total of 48 sounds in it.

Most languages have 100,000’s of words in them! So when you’ve got tons and tons of words, but very few sounds, some of them are going to get reused (I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is!).

There are a couple ways to get around this confusing situation, like the use of different tones in Japanese, but generally speaking the best way to tell what a word means, is to see how it fits in with the words right before it, and right after it.

It’s called context, and it is King within the realm of Japanese.

So let’s jump right into the Japanese word kanji, its meanings, usages, and learn exactly what it is.

Kanji – The Chinese Characters

Probably the most commonly known meaning for the word kanji (at least to students) is the one that refers to the third Japanese writing system.

Here is this version of the word spelled in (what else?) kanji –> 漢字

This is actually a compound word, which simply means that it has more than one kanji in it. The first kanji in this word is (kan) which means China, and in particular the Han Dynasty.

The second kanji is (ji) which means character, as in “something one inscribes or engraves.”

So you put them together and you get the word 漢字 (kanji) and it translates to Chinese characters.

People who are learning Japanese are always talking about, and studying these kanji. And there are tons of different books our there that teach people how to learn them.

I’ve written about this one and also this other one in the past. Both are really good. It just depends on what you like.

  • この漢字が書けないの?
    kono kanji ga kakenai no?
    Can’t you write this kanji?

Kanji – The Feeling

Kanji Meaning in Japanese

If the last version of the word kanji is the one that students are most familiar with, this next one is the one that I hear used most often in anime, and real life too.

This one is spelled 感じ (kanji) which is a kanji that is assisted with a Hiragana character to complete the word. It can mean emotion; feeling; or sensation when it’s used.

  • 今、足が軽い感じがします。
    ima, ashi ga karui kanji ga shimasu.
    I feel light on my feet now.

I think that a lot of people who are studying Japanese know the first meaning of kanji and then get confused when they watch a show and hear this second meaning of the (same) word pop up often.

So just be aware that in regular conversations, when you hear the word kanji, it is probably in relation to this second meaning, rather than the first.

Your friend could be explaining a situation to you and then finished it off with something like:

  • どんな感じですか?
    donna kanji desu ka?
    How do you feel (about that)?

Now you will know that they’re not asking you “what kind of Chinese character is that?” They’re asking for your opinion. 😉

Kanji – The Person in Charge of Making Arrangements

Even though we’ve come to the third meaning for kanji, there are still plenty more. But these first three are the only ones that are common, so these are the three that you will want to know and understand. The rest can be left until a later time.

OK, so this third one is spelled 幹事 (kanji) and some of the equivalent words that we would use in English are event coordinator; organizer; person in charge of making arrangements; or perhaps even the emcee.

Basically, if you are the 幹事 then it will be your job to make all of the arraignments for whatever is going on. It could be a party at work, or a school reunion, or whatever.

  • 忘年会の幹事になってしまいました。
    bōnenkai no kanji ni natte shimaimashita.
    I (regretfully) became the organizer for the year-end-party.

Look for this particular meaning when the topic of conversation turns to an event that you plan on attending.

Kanji – Other Meanings That are not Commonly Used

Alright, here’s a list of some of the other possible meanings of the word kanji in Japanese. I wouldn’t say that this list is extensive, but if you’re still looking for the meaning of the word after reading those first three, then it should be here.

  • 監事 = Auditor
  • 寛治 = The Kanji era (1087-1094 AD)
  • 冠辞 = Stereotyped epithet
  • 官寺 = A state-sponsored temple
  • 官事 = Government business
  • 莞爾 = Smiling

But other than that, you’re going to have to look somewhere else if you still haven’t found the meaning you’re looking for.

Either way…

Let me know! Did you find what you were looking for? Did you NOT?

Leave a comment below!

2 Comments

  • marquis

    Interesting piece! I’ve had tried many times before to get into learning the Japanese language only to give up because it was so confusing, but this was broken down way simpler for me to digest, still a little confusing for me lol but i get it a lot more now.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it really can be confusing from an English person’s perspective if you don’t have a good system in place for approaching the language and learning it.

      I think the best thing to do if you’re struggling at the beginning, would be #1-to learn the basic sounds of the language so that you are able to correctly recognize words, and then #2-pick up a good phrasebook to get started with basic expressions.

      If you do both of those, and stick with it for a couple of weeks (working at it each day) then you should get over that initial hump, and the language will start becoming easier for you to understand. 

      It’s like that saying, “everything is hard before it is easy.” Good luck!

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