The Types Of Kanji In Japanese: On’Yomi vs. Kun’Yomi

So you’re chillin’ like Bob Dylan, studying some kanji. At first it’s nice and easy. Hey, this totally looks like a tree! 木. Cha-ching! Then, you have to start learning the pronunciation of kanji, and everything gets complicated (don’t worry, I’m here to make it simple). You realize that there are multiple ways to pronounce almost every kanji out there. Sometimes there are 5, 6, 7+ different pronunciations. How can this be? It’s not like each English word has 5, 6, 7+ different ways to pronounce it (I’m looking at you, Canada. Aboot?). Sometimes you have to add hiragana to the end of a kanji, since the kanji isn’t big enough to hold the pronunciation. It becomes totally overwhelming. Don’t worry! Part of your problem is the way you’re learning kanji (we’ll talk about that a little later this week). The other part, though, is just your lack of knowledge on how kanji works (that’s what this article covers. In the last Kanji Week article, we went over the history of kanji. We’ll pretty much just pick up where that one left off.

When Kanji Came Over To Japan…

As you know from the last article, Japan didn’t have a written language at the time kanji meandered its way over from China. They did, however, have a spoken language (duh) that didn’t sound anything like Chinese. That right there is the (simple) reason on why kanji is read so many different ways in Japanese. There were word adoptions, trades, and more, which just ended up making things really complicated. This broke kanji up into two big categories, on’yomi and kun’yomi.

音読み (On’Yomi) – Chinese Reading

On’Yomi translates directly to mean “Sound reading.” This refers to the Chinese reading of the kanji, i.e. the original sounds that they make in the Chinese language. Of course, the Japanese and Chinese languages are very different, which means the sounds that Japan gave to these kanji are really just close approximations of the original Chinese pronunciation. So, even if you learn Japanese, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to translate this over to learning Chinese (at least with 100% accuracy). If only it worked that way.

Now, that’s nice and all, but kanji didn’t make it’s way over to Japan in one fell swoop, nicely bound and ready to go. There are often multiple On’Yomi readings for each and every kanji because they were introduced to Japan multiple times over the course of a few hundred years, and for some reason Japan decided it would be cool to keep all of them. Pile ‘em up, Japan said. More is better. These different readings came from different provinces, dynasties, and what have you, and apparently all of them had slightly different ways to pronounce things. That’s why you’ll often see multiple on’yomi options with an individual kanji.

But when do you use it? In general, you’ll use on’yomi when a kanji is sitting there all on its own (i.e. when there is no hiragana attached to it), or when a word is made up of a multi-kanji compound (this is called jukugo). Usually when you see a multi-kanji compound word, it has originally come from China. Sometimes these words filled a gap when no such word existed, though often times it just ends up being a synonym for another word. In general, people who use a lot of jukugo are big smarty pants, like people who use big words in English all the time.

To Remember About On’Yomi:

  • Chinese reading of a kanji
  • Used when there is no hiragana attached to the kanji
  • Often consist of multi-kanji compound words, like 空港 (see, no hiragana attached! This is kuukou)
  • Can sound erudite wordy and snobby if you use these words too much.

訓読み (Kun’Yomi) – Japanese Reading

Kun’yomi, on the other hand, is the Japanese reading of kanji. This, as you can imagine, is Japan’s (pretty successful) attempt at making their language work with kanji, that way they wouldn’t have to learn Chinese to read everything. A Chinese kanji’s meaning (not to be confused with pronunciation) would be taken, and a close Japanese equivalent word to that meaning would get associated with it. Because the longer Japanese words didn’t always fit with a single kanji (Chinese usually associated one-ish syllable to each kanji), notations were created (which later turned into hiragana) to be added to the kanji and finish out the word (as well as dictate the tense and context behind a word).

Here’s a great example of this from Wikipedia:

…the kanji for east, 東, has the on[yomi] reading tō. However, Japanese already had two words for “east”: higashi and azuma. Thus the kanji 東 had the latter readings added as kun’yomi. In contrast, the kanji 寸, denoting a Chinese unit of measurement (about 30 mm or 1.2 inch), has no native Japanese equivalent; it only has an on’yomi, sun, with no native kun reading. Most kokuji, Japanese-created Chinese characters [however], only have kun readings.

So, how do you know when to use the kun reading? In general, you’ll use kun readings when a kanji has hiragana attached to it (though this isn’t always the case), or when a kanji’s sitting out there on its own. Really though, prior knowledge of the kanji and how it is used is necessary, which unfortunately means you actually have to practice since there are no really solid rules you can use to shortcut your way out of figuring out how to use what pronunciation and where.

To Remember About Kun’Yomi…

  • It’s the Japanese reading (i.e. the pronunciations come from the Japanese language).
  • Often has hiragana (also known as okurigana) attached to the end. Words like 食べます, 赤, and 怖 are examples (okurigana in red).
  • You won’t find kun’yomi readings when it comes to multi-kanji words as often (though people’s names can be an exception… not to mention all the other exceptions as well).
  • Yeah, you gotta study if you want to know how to read kanji, especially since each kanji can be used in so many different ways.

Of course, the big question that should be asked here is “how the cuss do I learn all these different readings??” That question will be answered in time (i.e. soon!). Make sure you subscribe to our RSS feed, or just watch the Kanji Week tag, and you will get your answer (or perhaps it will just raise more questions?).

P.S. The Tofugu Newsletter only has one way to pronounce it.

P.P.S. The Tofugu Twitter account has 5, 6, 7+ pronunciations, if you like it better that way.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyMassacre Johnny Massacre

    You say to use On’Yomi when “a kanji is sitting there all on its own (i.e. when there is no hiragana attached to it)”.

    Then you go on to say that you use Kun’Yomi when “a kanji’s sitting out there on its own”.

    So, basically, you just confused the fuck out of me.

  • Daniel

    Exactly, that doesnt make sense at all. I wish the author would reply.

  • Lilly

    I am Chinese and I used to find learning Japanese difficult.

    Now I realize that it isn’t so bad! They’ve got their origins in our language :D People, you should try to learn Chinese if you hate complex grammar. Japanese’ grammar is insane, on the other hand, Chinese has very loose grammar, and NO conjugation required at all! The trade off is… You’re better off learning chinese if you have a good memory, because you are have to going to memorize a LOT of characters, and remember their pronunciation.

    But with Japanese, the grammar can drive you nuts!

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duiT3ZBtGvI Jacob B. Good

    It should be the opposite… shouldn’t it? A Chinese reading with Japanese letters doesn’t make sense.

  • Joe Kern

    You should point out that 訓
    (kun) means instruction and 音 (on) means sound. This will be really helpful
    because most people will learn 音 pretty early on, as I did. But for years I
    could never remember which was which between 訓読み and 音読み. In fact, I got them reversed because こう
    and かん and the like are such common Chinese readings, so くん
    sounded Chinese too, while おん with its initial vowel just sounds more like
    a Japanese reading.

    But
    then, when I learned that 訓 means instruction, my mind was blown.

    You
    figure, way back in the day when kanji were first introduced, they came here
    with the sound they had in China
    attached to them. The two were inseparable. Thus, the Chinese reading was the
    sound reading, 音読み. But then one day someone wrote one down and was like, I want this one to
    stand for a meaning and not a sound. It was like adding a step to the process:
    follow the instruction of the kanji, rather than just reading it. That kanji
    then became an instruction to think of the word that corresponds to the
    meaning.

    Consider
    that you don’t think of words in your native language as representations, but
    as meanings in themselves. When someone asks you what does 水
    mean, you answer “water”, as though the real meaning were contained
    in that word, while foreign words are just representations. Etc. etc. So when a
    Japanese person was following the instructions of the kanji, they didn’t think
    of it as attributing a new sound to the kanji, they thought of it as
    attributing a meaning to it. We do the same thing when we say, for example, “I ♥ you”. It is very common to just read that as “I
    love you”.

  • Nick

    Idk what your saying about Canada. We, like the US, say “about”. We don’t have our own accent really like England. :/

  • Englishman

    “It’s not like each English word has 5, 6, 7+ different ways to pronounce it”

    No, but kanji aren’t words, and English does frequently have letters or groups of letters whose pronunciation is a complete mystery unless you happen to know the word it’s in. How do you pronounce “g” in English? Or “c”? Or “ough”?

  • thechevron

    your English is good enough for me :D

  • http://www.jlist.com Peter Payne

    Very good article!

  • Andrew:)

    I know this is a little late (6 months :P) but I actually thought it was your first language until I read the last bit…

  • DJ

    Best piece of informative writing ever. “Pile ‘em up Japan said!”
    Loved it. Thank you!

  • Rae

    I’m thoroughly offended T-T
    I live in Louisiana and I’m not toothless or illiterate. You’re just getting that from tv shows… =_= pretty much like everyone else that doesn’t live here…

  • Colton Kelsey

    Callin’ me illiterate? *in a Texas accent* LOL. What am I talking about I live in TX and can’t speak in a TX accent.

  • yuki

    ok i have a questing
    does the meaning of the kanji always comes in kun yomi?
    i mean the kanji of ichi (one ) ichi is in the on yomi !

  • Krzysztof Grzegorz Studnicki

    Nicely written. I like it ^^

  • Shaun

    I’m learning kanji and I keep getting the same explaination, Japan uses China’s symbols, but if I’m in Japan, I should read in Japanese right? Why the reck with my mind? I just want to read, I’m not Indiana Jones damn it.

  • MidnightEkaki

    i still do not understand… im just more confused. So onyomi is an alternate reading to kanji? But you can still have more than one kunyomi reading? Why would people look like smarty pants for writing the language correctly?

  • Carlos

    you’re great. that explanation just filled the spot :)

  • Lyn

    lol ikr? I find it funny when people assume that all Texans have a Texan accent and they all live on farms and ride horses to school or something. xD

  • Colton Kelsey

    People in chinaown in san diego thought that

  • Lucy

    I’m Chinese natively, but I’m not 100% fluent in it, but I still know characters from it and speak it to my family + friends. I’m learning French at school, but I’m 101% fluent in English….
    However since I’m learning Japanese right now I’m being cursed with putting Japanese grammar and vocabulary into Chinese and French, and even English! *Sigh
    It’s suuuper fun to learn Japanese though ^~^