Introduction to Kanji
Jim Breen's WWWJDIC Japanese-English Dictionary Server
Kanji DB

We learned two types of Japanese writing systems --- ひらがな and かたかな so far. Both hiragana and katakana comprise the phonetic writing system called かな. Japanese has a third, non-phonetic writing system called kanji. Kanji characters originally came from China around the 4th century. Both ひらがな and かたかな are derivatives of kanji.

Kanji (read as "ka") (read as "na") original character from China
カタカナ parts taken from kanji
ひらがな simplified from kanji

In normal writing, all three writing systems are used together. Kanji characters are primarily used to write content words such as nouns (本 {ほん}), 車 {くるま}, verbs 来{き}ます and adjectives 白{しろ}い). ひらがな are used to write grammatical markers such as particles (は, が, を), and the conjugational endings of verbs and adjectives. かたかな is used to write words of foreign origin, and onomatopoeic words such as barking of dogs (ワンワン) or the honking of a horn (プップー). In addition to ひらがな, かたかな, and kanji, written Japanese also includes Roman letters and Arabic numerals, so that even in one short headline or small newspaper ad, one can find a mixture of these five different types of characters.

sample photos showing a Japanese magazine and a book

Although some tens of thousands of kanji exist, only some 3,000 are in actual use. Of these, about 1,950 have been selected by the Japanese Ministry of Education as 常用漢字 {じょうようかんじ}, or "Characters for General Use," and of these, some 1,000 have been designated as 教育漢字 {きょういくかんじ} or "Characters for Educational Use." Japanese students, by the end of the 9th grade, must learn to read and write all of the educational-use kanji and to read all of the general-use kanji. Japanese publications such as books, journals, and newspapers generally limit themselves to the use of general-use kanji, which are most essential for everyday communication. Kanji characters beyond the general-use kanji, if used, are often attached with the reading help appearing above or on the right side of kanji (called よみがな or "ruby" text like this):

kanji with ruby

While each ひらがな or かたかな character represents a sound, kanji characters represent meanings. For example, "H2O" or "water" is represented by the kanji character 水 (pronounced as みず) and 水 means water. Because of this, kanji is often referred to as ideographic or logographic. In contrast to the English alphabet which represents pronunciation which in turn evokes awareness of meaning, kanji is used to represent meanings which in turn evoke awareness of pronunciation.

Kanji characters have two kinds of pronunciations or readings: くんよみ (くん readings), which are of native Japanese origin, and オンよみ (オン readings), which are Japanese approximations of Chinese pronunciations. Most kanji characters in use in Japan have at least one オン reading and one くん reading (although many characters have more than one くん and/or オン reading). Some kanji characters only have オン readings. Therefore, the same kanji can be pronounced differently depending on the context. For example, the kanji 本 in 日本 ("Japan") is pronounced as ほん while 本 in 山本 ("Yamamoto," family name) is pronounced as もと.

kanji with ruby

It is also possible for different, unrelated kanji to have the same pronunciation as shown below. These kanji characters with the same pronunciation are not interchangeable. Be sure to learn the right kanji for the word.

Diff Kanji Same Pro

In a typical kanji dictionary, くん readings are typically written in ひらがな and オン readings are in かたかな as shown below.

sample page from a kanji dictionary

In this textbook, we will follow this distinction of writing オン readings in katakana and くん readings in hiragana when we introduce individual kanji characters for the first time. Once kanji characters are newly introduced, only hiragana characters will be used to write the readings of those kanji characters.

Kanji characters can be categorized into one of the following four groups.

    1. pictographs, or simplified pictures of physical objects

      kanji derivation for the character 'mountain' = mountain,

      kanji derivation for character 'eye' = eye

    2. symbol characters, which represent abstract ideas

      kanji derivation for character 'up' = above

      kanji derivation for character 'down' = below

    3. ideographs, or meaningful combinations of two or more pictographs or symbols

      kanji character 'tree' = tree,

      kanji character 'woods' = woods/grove,

      kanji character 'forest' = forest

    4. phonetic-ideographic characters, or those made up of a semantic (meaning) element and phonetic (sounding) element

      kanji character 'ask' モン, to ask

      kanji character 'mouth' mouth +

      kanji character 'gate' モン, gate

      kanji character 'flower' カ, flower

      kanji radical for 'plant' grass +

      kanji character 'transform' カ, transform

Stroke Order and Direction

Stroke order and direction are very important in writing kanji. Note the following rules of writing kanji.

  • A horizontal stroke goes from left to right, top to bottom.

    kanji character 'three' with stroke order

  • A vertical stroke goes from top to bottom, left to right.

    kanji character 'river' with stroke order

  • A box is completed in the following order. You close the box last.

    kanji stroke order for 'mouth' kanji stroke order for 'rice field'

There are three distinct stroke endings.

kanji character 'six' with stops

kanji character 'tree' with releases

kanji character 'water' with a hook