How To Guess A Kanji’s Reading That You Don’t Know

If you study kanji for long enough you’ll begin to see patterns emerge. At first, they won’t make too much sense and you’ll think it’s pure luck. You’ll make a couple of connections and say “Hey! Nice! This made it easier to remember this kanji. Lucky me.” Then, you’ll go about your life as if everything was as it seems. What if I told you that you could have learned the readings of these kanji more quickly had you realized from teh start that these readings weren’t just a coincidence? Did you know that there are actually radicals that are designed to show you the reading of a particular kanji?

Not all kanji has this reading compound, however. Apparently 67% of the joyo kanji have this phonetic compound radical inside of them, though that doesn’t mean they’re always helpful to you, it just means one of these radicals exists there. Let’s first take a closer look at how you can find these “phonetic compounds.”

The Anatomy Of A Kanji

anatomyillust

A standard kanji is made of a couple of parts (and sometimes some garbage). The left side / top is usually the “classifier radical.” This is the radical that you can use to look up the kanji in a kanji dictionary. Sometimes it may even give a hint to the meaning of a kanji, though this is pretty hit or miss (mostly miss). The right side is usually what’s known as the “phonetic compound.” This portion has a specific reading attached to it. If you see this phonetic compound, you can sometimes guess the reading of the kanji. Sometimes by learning one phonetic compound’s reading you can know how to read six or seven other kanji that contain it.

Now there are exceptions… tons of them, unfortunately.

First of all, sometimes the phonetic compound is on the left side, and not the right. This happens when the classifier radical is one of those classifier radicals that normally gets put on the right side. Anyways, you’ll have to watch out for these.

Secondly, not all kanji have a phonetic compound inside of them. Like I mentioned earlier, only 67% of them have it, and they’re not particularly useful. Of the ones that do have a phonetic compound, around 25% have readings that aren’t consistent and are irregular. Even the ones that are fairly consistent with their readings have exceptions. Basically, this technique is at best a way to guess the reading of a kanji and nothing more. Still, something is better than nothing. Just imagine if you’re taking the JLPT and you’re on the kanji section. This sort of thing will help you get a few extra answers correct.

Phonetic Compounds And Their Kanji

To find the phonetic compounds, I sat down with a kanji dictionary going through all the possible readings in the back index. After spending about a half hour going through these one by one, I realized that someone else has probably done all the work for me. Thank goodness, someone had. Luckily for me, a Hiroko Townsend of San Diego State University put in a lot of work into her thesis, listing these out for everyone to enjoy. Thanks Hiroko! You’re a boss.

Here are the radicals that contain fairly consistent phonetic compounds. There are some exceptions (not listed below), but in general they’re pretty straightforward. If you learn the phonetic radical / kanji in the left side column then you know the readings for all the kanji to its right. For some kanji that’s only slightly useful. For others, you learn the readings of a lot of kanji.

几 (き) → 机, 肌, 飢
亡 (ぼう) → 忙, 忘, 盲, 荒, 望, 妄
干 (かん) → 汗, 肝, 奸, 刊, 岸
己 (き) → 起, 記, 紀, 忌
工 (こう) → 紅, 空, 虹, 江, 攻, 功, 肛,
及 (きゅう) → 吸, 級, 扱
士 (し) → 仕, 志, 誌
方 (ほう, ぼう) → 肪, 坊, 紡, 防, 妨, 房, 謗, 傍, 芳, 訪, 放
中 (ちゅう) → 忠, 沖, 仲, 虫, 狆
化 (か) → 花, 貸, 靴
反 (はん) → 版, 板, 坂, 飯, 販, 叛
分 (ふん) → 粉, 紛, 雰
半 (はん) → 伴, 絆, 拌, 判
白 (はく) → 伯, 拍, 泊, 迫, 舶, 狛, 柏, 箔, 珀
皮 (ひ) → 彼, 被, 疲, 被, 披
付 (ふ) → 府, 符, 附, 俯
包 (ほう) → 抱, 泡, 胞, 砲, 飽, 咆
可 (か) → 河, 何, 荷, 苛, 呵, 歌
古 (こ) → 居, 固, 故, 枯, 個, 湖, 箇, 沽, 姑, 苦
生 (せい) → 姓, 性, 星, 牲, 惺
正 (せい) → 征, 政, 症, 整, 性, 牲
司 (し) → 伺, 詞, 嗣, 飼
且 (そ) → 粗, 祖, 狙, 阻, 組
旦 (たん) → 但, 胆, 疸, 担
令 (れい) → 冷, 鈴, 零, 領, 齢, 鈴
立 (りゅう) → 竜, 滝, 粒, 笠, 龍
申 (しん) → 神, 伸, 呻, 押, 紳
召 (しょう) → 招, 沼, 昭, 紹, 詔, 照
安 (あん) → 案, 按, 鞍, 鮟
同 (どう) → 洞, 胴, 桐, 恫, 銅, 洞, 筒
寺 (じ) → 侍, 持, 時, 塒, 峙
旬 (じゅん) → 洵, 殉, 恂
各 (かく) → 格, 喀, 閣, 額
圭 (けい) → 掛, 桂, 畦, 珪, 罫, 鮭, 硅
糸 (けい) → 系, 係, 繋
結 (けつ) → 潔
光 (こう) → 恍
交 (こう) → 校, 絞, 狡, 較, 郊, 効, 咬
共 (きょう, こう) → 供, 恭, 洪, 哄
次 (し)  → 姿, 諮, 資
成 (せい) → 盛, 誠, 筬, 城
朱 (しゅ) → 株, 珠, 殊, 蛛
我 (が) → 峨, 蛾, 餓, 俄, 鵞
甫 (ほ) → 浦, 捕, 哺, 匍, 補, 蒲, 輔, 舗
見 (けん) → 硯, 蜆, 現
辰 (しん) → 唇, 振, 賑, 震, 娠
肖 (しょう) → 宵, 消, 硝
弟 (てい) → 第, 剃. 涕
廷 (てい) → 庭, 挺, 艇
良 (りょう) → 郎, 浪, 朗, 狼, 廊
直 (ちょく, しょく) → 植, 埴, 殖, 稙
長 (ちょう) → 張, 帳, 脹
非 (ひ) → 悲, 緋, 誹, 鯡, 琲, 扉
朋 (ほう) → 崩, 棚, 硼
果 (か) → 課, 菓, 踝, 顆
官 (かん) → 棺, 管, 館
奇 (き) → 崎, 埼, 椅
其 (き) → 期, 欺, 棋, 基, 旗
金 (きん) → 欽, 錦, 銀
采 (さい) → 彩, 菜, 採
青 (せい) → 清, 靖, 精, 晴, 請, 情, 鯖, 静
昔 (しゃく) → 借, 惜, 錯
尚 (しょう) → 常, 裳, 掌
昌 (しょう) → 娼, 唱, 菖, 晶
禺 (ぐう) → 遇, 寓, 隅, 偶
扁 (へん) → 編, 偏, 篇, 蝙
則 (そく) → 側, 測, 惻
相 (そう) → 想, 箱, 霜
湘 (しょう) → 廂
莫 (ばく) → 摸, 膜, 漠, 博, 縛, 幕
高 (こう) → 縞, 稿, 藁,
曹 (そう) → 遭, 槽, 糟
曽 (そう) → 贈, 僧, 憎, 増
童 (どう) → 撞, 憧, 瞳
義 (ぎ) → 儀, 議, 犠, 蟻, 艤

Uses a radical from obsolete Japanese
孝* (こう) → 孝,  老, 考
径** (けい) → 径,  経, 軽, 怪, 茎
乍 (さく) → 作, 昨, 窄, 酢, 搾
低** (てい) → 低,  底, 抵, 邸, 抵
券* (けん) → 券,  巻, 圏, 拳
根**  (こん) → 根,  痕, 恨, 懇, 墾
退 (たい) → 腿
峡** (きょう) → 峡,  狭, 挟
浅** (せん) → 浅,  銭, 践
珍** (しん) → 診,  疹, 参
峰** (ほう) → 峰,  逢, 縫, 蜂, 蓬,
俊** (しゅん) → 俊, 峻, 悛, 逡, 竣, 浚
通** (つう) → 通, 桶, 痛
険** (けん) → 険, 験, 検
過 (か) → 渦,  堝, 鍋, 蝸, 窩, 禍
福** (ふく) → 福,  副, 複, 幅, 富, 蝠
滴** (てき) → 滴, 適,  敵
壁* (へき) → 壁, 癖
燥* (そう) → 燥,  操, 藻
* remove the bottom radical component
** remove the left side radical component

That right there is approximately 100 kanji/radicals that, if you learn the reading of them, you can guess the reading of around 500 total kanji. That’s around 1/4 of the joyo kanji list. Not a bad shortcut! I think one issue is that a lot of people don’t know that this little trick exists. Just by knowing that you can do this, you’ll begin to notice these patterns showing up in your own kanji learning. This will help to accelerate your kanji learning by a considerable amount in the long run.

So, if you’re studying kanji, go through this list and start making the connections. What phonetic compounds do you already know? Now, see what other kanji there are to the right that you know. See how it all sort of makes sense? Kanji isn’t as insane as people tend to think, though it’s still super complicated no matter how you look at it. You’ll spend a lot of time learning the kanji (even if you’re using, say, WaniKani), but things like this will win you some extra time.

Good luck studying that kanji thing!

Sources:
Phonetic Components In Japanese Characters
Decoding Kanji

  • Dattebaru Baru

    Idk why , but I think that I owe you money … I leaned so much from you:D

  • Name

    Best Kanji-related Tofugu article ever published since the first turtle was burned by the bald Buddhist monk!

  • http://www.facebook.com/oliver.smith.3152 Oliver Smith

    Very useful tip! Maybe I’ll try and learn all of them before I go to Japan in September!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    “The left side / top is usually the “classifier radical.””

    You mean right, right?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    nu, I mean the left, though there’s plenty of times where it’s on the right, too.

  • ruz

    I think I spotted a mistake:

    寺 (じ) → 侍, 持, 時, 塒, 峙, 待

    待 is never じ. because I remember 期待 quite well from my Wanikani frustrations (used to only accept the verb-like form) and because it’s funny that it sounds like 来たい.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    mm you’re right, I think I accidentally got some ‘exceptional reading’ kanji in there.

  • MisterM2402

    Is being able to guess the reading of a kanji really that beneficial? If you see a word using that kanji and don’t know what the word means, *possibly* knowing the reading doesn’t help, does it?

  • ruz

    I’ll add a few more:

    苦 is not こ but く, 岸 is がん not かん (although you can say it’s just rendaku’d here..), and lastly from me, can 盲 and 荒 really be ぼう?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Maybe you’ve heard the word somewhere else before? Or it could be easier to look up, I guess.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    You might know the meaning of the word from listening / speaking, but not know what the kanji looks like / be able to read it for the word. So, when you’re able to guess the reading, you know what it sounds like and thus are able to figure out the meaning via context.

    Also, you’ll become baller on the JLPT, if that’s your thing.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    yeah, there’s some old style readings in there :s

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    i agree with you :D

  • http://twitter.com/Ernovace Ernovace

    Pretty good article

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000122672417 グエン ミカ

    Hm? Since when do you read “空” as “こう”?

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    Thank’s for the article Koichi, it’s just like i found a pure water hmmm… not that pure but it’s still a water to refresh my mind from my self studies to learn the kanji. :)

    http://okonomikatsu.blogspot.com/2013/04/sejarah-panjang-dibalik-kesuksesan-pocky.html

  • MisterM2402

    Yeah, I guess that makes sense :) I don’t really learn kanji readings on their own, but I can see how it might be useful for someone who does.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    yeah, there are some pretty archaic readings going on here, I’ll be trimming them out…

  • http://introkultura.pl/ Patryk Grabowski

    Thanks, I’m definitely going to make use of this!

  • MrsSpooky

    So massively useful, thanks! Kanji’s complicated, but since I’ve been learning Japanese, I’ve taken a closer look at how we do things in English. We play loosey goosey with pronunciation and spelling, so it’s a miracle (to me at least) that anyone is able to learn this language. It’s almost as if we spell words, pronounce them wrong then laugh at outsiders who try to learn to communicate with us. It’s insane. I’ll take Japanese and kanji any day. xD

  • http://www.facebook.com/Lawnmower16 Daniel Fawson

    Thank you! I’ve tried to explain this so many times to my Japanese-learning friends, but I just couldn’t put it into words, and they didn’t get it. Now I can just link this article. Maybe they still won’t get it, but at least now I know that I’m not crazy.

  • keiko

    ^3^ thanks this is very useful article for me.. since is just started to learn kanji…..(its very hard but fun^U^)

  • http://twitter.com/mngalaxy MAI☆彡

    Super useful for a Japanese learner like me. Thanks a lot Koichi

  • http://twitter.com/emination Emin Köklü

    Thanks for the article. Is this or will this be a part of TextFugu?

  • Guest

    腹腔内(ふっこうない)- Abdominal cavity

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Yeah, I’ve also never learned kanji readings independently from vocabulary. It makes more sense to me just to learn words in kanji, along with meanings and pronunciations. Sometimes the kanji in a word will share a sound with a similar-looking kanji. But sometimes it won’t.

    This is interesting information, but I wonder how practically useful it is.

  • Ploy

    This is great man thanks a lot

  • JoyoKanjiKai

    Really nice article! Good stuff!

  • Koichifan

    Koichi, this article made me fall in love with you! Dokushin desuka, KEKKON SHIMASHOU!

  • besterthenyou

    Is there an Anki deck for this?

  • http://twitter.com/dawn_nguyen Autumn Dawn

    thanks. I have been learning Japanese for nearly 5 months and it’s painful to write Kanji characters over and over again, but the next time I see them, they are totally new to me.

  • Jo Somebody

    Make one! It’ll stick better.

  • Jo Somebody

    So… this is fantastic!

  • http://twitter.com/0rphelia Orphee

    I think I noticed it once when studying through Wanikani but did not think it was a recurring fact. Thanks for the trick!

  • besterthenyou

    Nope, I just get super frustrated.

  • Skyeaten

    best things in life are freeeeee :3

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.jasionowski Richard Jasionowski

    I just came across a few more. All Kanji featuring 亢 or 侯, except 俟,have the on-yomi こう.

    亢:坑、抗、航、etc.
    侯: 候、喉、etc.

  • Jessica May

    Actually, I started reading (or at least trying to) in Japanese recently and knowing the readings of kanjis (or being able to guess these) saves you A LOT of time when you need to look up words you don’t know. If you don’t know any of the kanjis, you need to search each of them in a kanji dictionnary, then look for the word meaning in another dictionnary… If you already know the readings, you can try to figure out the pronunciation of the word and either you already know it, or you can head straightaway to a vocabulary dictionnary. Now, I mostly read from paper books so I’m not sure how much it applies to people reading on their computer (since they can just copy-paste the word anyway).

    Anyways, great article! I’d already started to make some of the connections, and I’m glad to see I wasn’t quite wrong in my guess^^

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rodrigo-Gonçalves/100000113486566 Rodrigo Gonçalves

    Excellent article! Will help a lot learning to read those Kanji…

  • yx_wh

    unfortunately some correspondence is
    not true. For example, 虫(ちゅう)is
    not derived from中(ちゅう),
    because 虫
    is a 会意文字(かいいもじ),
    not a 形声文字(けいせいもじ),
    so it cannot be derived from 中.
    And their pronunciations in Middle Chinese are different (虫
    pronounced “driung”
    and 中
    pronounced
    “triung” in Middle Chinese, they are also pronounced differently
    in modern Mandarin Chinese)

    if you want to know more, you should
    look at the “六書(りくしょ)”
    and Middle Chinese(ちゅうこおん).
    Some kanji had different pronunciations in Middle Chinese but lost
    their differences in Japanese.

  • yx_wh

    すみません。ちょっとした間違い…会意文字であるのは「虫」ではなく、「中」です。
    虫は象形文字です。

  • yx_wh

    待 is never じ.
    yes i searched and it seems to be caused by 古無舌上音 this is about Old Chinese and i don’t know it clearly either

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%8F%A4%E7%84%A1%E8%88%8C%E4%B8%8A%E9%9F%B3

    http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E5%BE%85

  • Paulo

    Thanks for this help… I guess this will help me familiarize more of those kanjis.. I believe kanji what makes the language really difficult.. Isn’t it that kanji is the most difficult part of the language? :/ why oh why!!

  • Navarang

    空港 kuukou Airport