We have previously learnt about hiragana and katakana (collectively known as kana) but now we have the much more complex Kanji – the one Japanese alphabet that is scary – and I try to introduce just what it is and how to read it (thereby exposing the depths of my ignorance). That said, despite my fearful words and negativity, Kanji was what I did well at during my last exam so if a dunce like me can learn it you can to!

Brace up for what might become boredom or enlightenment (depending upon how literate I feel).

So What is Kanji?

Quick history lesson. The origins of Kanji go back to the Chinese scribes of the Yin Dynasty, which lasted from 1700 to 1050 BC. 

It is believed to have entered Japan around the 5/6th Century thanks to Chinese and Korean scribes. Before that, there was no recorded alphabet. Kanji may have been imported from China but it has evolved differently in Japan in order to better fit in with Japanese culture. Furthermore, kana have their basis in kanji.


Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic alphabets. The characters represent sounds, pronunciations. They only attain meaning when combined together to form words. Well Kanji is ideographic – kanji characters represent concepts and ideas as opposed to sounds. Here are some examples:
田 = Field     山 = Mountain   日 = Sun

Just by looking at the symbols you get an idea of what they represent. Some kanji are more abstract than others because they represent abstract ideas and to modern eyes some bear no relation to what they represent. It gets a lot more complicated with modifiers but we will leave that for later when I’m feeling braver because that is WAY out of my comfort zone.

Anyway, let’s get some recognition and guessing going with this simple exercise.

What on Earth are These?

I’ll give you a clue (which will confuse you even more)… The first one is connected to Prometheus, the middle ones are connected to the human body whilst the last is produces oxygen and maintains soil integrity.


What are Kanji Used For?

Nouns, adjectives and the roots of verbs (hiragana characters modify the end). As mentioned in previous lessons, hiragana acts as a sort of connection or as Tim Takamatsu puts it, the cement between the kanji.

How do I read them?

On-yomi (Chinese) Reading
Kun-yomi (Japanese) Reading

Remember that kanji represent ideas and concepts, well there are two readings associated with every kanji:

When there are two or more kanji together they make a compound thus you use the on-yomi reading. When a kanji is by itself, use the kun-yomi reading.
In my experience on-yomi is represented with katakana whilst kun-yomi is represented with hiragana which is the system I’ll use here.
The character that represents mountain is: 山
There are multiple readings for this character:
Kun-yomi               On-yomi
や ま                         サン
Ya ma                            San

How would I use it in a sentence?


On-yomi: Blue

あの  は 富士山  です。

Ano yama wa fu ji san desu.

That mountain is Mount Fuji.

If you look at the example above, the first kanji character for mountain is by itself so I used the kun-yomi reading while the second time I used it was in conjunction with a set of other characters making a compound noun.

I’ll go into more detail next lesson because it’s my birthday and I’m going to the cinema.

Next lesson I’ll demonstrate a little more just how kanji works by writing a lot more examples thereby exposing even more of my ignorance.

2 thoughts on “Kanji

  1. Pingback: Japanese Word Characters and Images

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