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What is Kanji? A Beginner’s Guide to the Most Complex of Japanese Characters


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So, you’ve started learning Japanese. All is going pretty well. You’ve learned how to read and write the Japanese alphabet, called kana. And then you run into… Kanji. And suddenly, Japanese got a whole lot harder. “What is kanji? Why is kanji??”

If you’ve stumbled upon kanji, you may have a million questions, such as…

  • “Are kanji Chinese or Japanese? I thought they were Chinese?”
  • “Why are kanji so complex? Why do I have to learn stroke order?”
  • “Why do the Japanese use so many writing systems? Why do they even need kanji??”
  • “How do I pronounce kanji? How will I ever read this?”

…Phew! Breathe. It’s okay. You can and will survive kanji. I’ve got all this and more covered below. And by the time we’re done, you’re going to be on your way to reading and writing in Japanese like a pro.

A note before we begin: If you haven’t learned the kana yet, click here and read this article first. You need to know kana before learning kanji.

What is Kanji?

Kanji are Japanese characters, and one of three writing systems in Japanese. The other two are hiragana and katakana, collectively called kana.

Kana are basically the print and cursive alphabet of Japanese, a phonetic syllabary system.

Kanji are Japanese symbols that represent whole words.

Kanji symbols can stand alone, or combine with other kanji or kana to create more words, ideas, or turn a kanji into a verb. Their pronunciation and readings vary based on what other kanji or kana they’re connected with — that’s the difficult part. The easy part is that they make reading easier.

Even if you don’t know how to pronounce the kanji, if you recognize it’s word meaning, you can get the idea of the sentence.

For example, the kanji 水. This kanji’s English meaning is “water.” Its Japanese pronunciation is most often みず (mizu) orすい (sui). When 水 combines with 着 (the kanji for “to wear” or “clothing”), it becomes 水着 (mizugi) which means “swimsuit.” Basically, “water clothes.” But in the word 水曜日 (which means “Wednesday”), we use its other reading, sui and it becomes suiyoubi.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain that more later. For now, just know kanji can combine with other kanji to create new meanings, and sometimes they change sounds.

Now, what is kanji in Japanese? What does kanji — written 漢字 — even mean? It literally means “Chinese characters,” which should clue you in on this next part…

About Japanese Kanji — Where Did They Come From?

Kanji originate from China but were imported into Japanese sometime around the 5th century.

According to Japanese history, Wani, a scholar from Korea, introduced Japan to both Confucianism and kanji. Before that, Japan had no writing system of their own. So they adopted kanji.

However, kanji didn’t match up with the already established Japanese grammar. A new system of writing was developed to adapt kanji to the Japanese language, and this eventually turned into hiragana.

Interestingly, even though women were traditionally not educated, much of the Japanese writing system is due to women. Murasaki Shikibu, a Heian-era poet who wrote “The Tale of Genji”, helped to develop the system into what it is today.

Are Kanji Pictographs?

It’s often a misconception that kanji are pictographs, meaning they look like the word they represent. While that’s true of some kanji, it’s not true for the writing system as a whole.

Why Do We Need Kanji, Anyway?

It may seem strange and overly complex to have three systems of writing. Someday the Japanese might simplify their language and drop kanji like Koreans and other Asian languages have. But for now, that’s not the case, and Japanese needs them.

Kanji help break up a sentence. Without them, it’s near impossible to understand the meaning of a sentence. There are no spaces in Japanese to separate where a word begins and ends. This means kana get jumbled together in one long string of symbols. Unless you’re very familiar with Japanese or reading a Japanese kids’ book, it’s difficult.

Take a look at this example:

来週の土曜日には友達に会うつもりです。
らいしゅうのどようびにはともだちにあうつもりです。

Both of those sentences mean exactly the same thing and are pronounced exactly the same way. But one has kanji and one is only written in kana. They both say “I will meet my friend next Saturday.” But it’s a lot easier to read when you know this:

来週 (next week) の 土曜日 (Saturday) には 友達 (friend) に 会う (meet) つもりです。

The kana are extra pieces of information, part of basic grammar. But without the kanji, it would be a jumble and hard to tell what it meant. If you only knew the English word meaning of those kanji, you could still read and understand that sentence.

Besides that, many words are pronounced the same but have different kanji. The word “kanji” itself could mean “Chinese characters” or “feeling/emotion.” It all depends on which Japanese characters you use: 漢字 or 感じ.

How Many Japanese Kanji are There?

There are tens of thousands of kanji because kanji has morphed so much over the past couple millennia.

There are 2,136 kanji that the Japanese Ministry of Education says are “essential.” These kanji are called jouyou kanji.

While there are more in regular use, especially in scholarly or news articles, this is the baseline for education and literacy in Japan. Don’t let that freak you out though! There are ways to get by, and it’s easier than you think.

Kanji Translation: How to Translate and Read Kanji

So we talked about how these Japanese symbols and meanings have different readings. And how combining kanji with kana or other kanji to create new words. But how do we know how to translate kanji, or read kanji, or pronounce kanji?

That’s where a kanji dictionary comes in! The best Japanese dictionary is Jisho.org. Anytime you need help with kanji, Jisho (which means “dictionary,” by the way) has got you covered. You can search by English word, input the kanji to learn its reading, look up words based on grade or JLPT level, and more. They also have a kanji chart where you can search by Japanese radical.

But what are radicals? I’m glad you asked.

What are Kanji Radicals?

If you’re looking for a “kanji alphabet,” kanji radicals are the closest thing you’re going to get.

Radicals are basic kanji symbols. They help to form larger, more complex kanji. They’re helpful in learning how to break down kanji for writing, as well as memorizing how to pronounce kanji and figure out their meaning. Many kanji with the same radicals have the same or similar pronunciation.

Japanese characters and meanings depend on these radicals.

For instance, some of the most common Japanese kanji are also radicals in larger kanji. Take the kanji 土 (tsuchi or do). Its English translation is “soil” or “earth.” So, any time we see this as part of another kanji, we know the meaning probably has something to do with dirt, land, or nature. In the word 地域 (chiiki), it appears in both kanji, and means “area” or “territory.” Another (unfortunately) common one is 地震 (jishin) or “earthquake.”

How to Best Learn Kanji

A good practice for learning kanji is to start by looking at a Japanese kanji list of the most important kanji and radicals.

An easy place to start is with the 100 most common kanji, which are also on the JLPT N5 exam. These are the best Japanese kanji to begin with. Many are pictographs, and they’re so commonly used you’ll learn them fast.

The only downside to learning the most common kanji characters is that they often have the most readings.

When starting with kanji, first focus on the kanji meaning rather than the reading. So, memorize that 水 means “water” rather than “water, mizu, sui.” If you try to remember the English meaning and all the various readings, you’ll confuse yourself and get overwhelmed.

You want to learn the English meaning with the kanji first because you can learn the most common readings quickly once you start learning vocab. You’ll see the kanji with words you’re already learning, in context. So it’s faster to memorize the kanji reading with a vocab word together. Knowing what the kanji means will help you remember the whole word.

Anki is a great place to start with memorizing kanji. You can download a jouyou kanji deck, and practice daily. You can come up with mnemonics for your kanji, and input them as notes or hints on your Anki deck.

I would suggest getting in practice on paper as well to solidify your skills. You’ll want to learn proper stroke order. That means you learn the correct direction and order of the strokes that make up the kanji. Japanese is written top to bottom, left to right. Some kanji are almost identical except for their stroke order, so it does make a difference how you write them.

With consistent effort, you could memorize the jouyou kanji in a few months to a year. Japanese isn’t as hard as you think once you get going!

Don’t Cringe at Kanji Anymore!

Now you know the answer to the question “what is kanji?”, and how to get started learning it. So you can really start reading and writing in Japanese!

If you’re ready for your next Japanese mission, try your hand at the 101 core Japanese words. You can also get started with basic Japanese grammar.

But most of all… 頑張ってね! Give it your best!

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Caitlin Sacasas

Content Writer, Fluent in 3 Months

Caitlin is a content creator, fitness trainer, zero waster, language lover, and Star Wars nerd. She blogs about fitness and sustainability at Rebel Heart Beauty.

Speaks: English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish

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