Friday, December 22, 2017

Kanji Read Different Ways

In Japanese, the kanji 漢字 have multiple readings, which means a single kanji may be read in different ways depending on the word. For example, youna 様な and samazama 様様, This can be a bit confusing for beginners since it works in a way totally alien for us mere Latin alphabet users.

How to read the kanji 日 in the words hi 日, nichijou 日常, senjitsu 先日, nikki日記, tanjoubi 誕生日, seinengappi 生年月日, futsuka 二日  and kyou 今日

How to Tell The Right Reading

There's really only one way to tell the right reading of a kanji in Japanese: the furigana ふりがな

It's a absolute and undeniable. If the furigana a word is read one way, you read it that way. It doesn't matter if you think it's wrong, it doesn't matter if the dictionary says it's wrong, the reading aid known as furigana is how you should read. Period. There's no questioning it. That's its purpose.

Most manga for children and teenagers (shounen, shoujo 少年少女) have furigana, which's why you should start with those first, to build immunity against kanji to get a hang of how the words work.

When there's no furigana, it's a matter of guessing which WORD is written.

You don't READ kanji, and kanji don't have readings. It's words and stuff that are WRITTEN with kanji, and the process of reading involves trying to figure out which one of these "words and stuff" that kanji represents. It's that "words and stuff" that's the source of the reading.

Below I'll show some cases a kanji's reading changes, and explain where that reading of the kanji comes from.


Let's start with the easiest case: different words made out of exactly the same kanji but with different readings. That is, homographs.

For example:

  • kane
  • kin

Exactly the same kanji is written in both cases above, so why in the world is it read differently? The answer is simple: they are different words written with the same kanji.

When you start learning about kanji, you might assume that one kanji represents one word and one word is written with one kanji, and the world is perfect. But none of that is true.

It's not that the kanji is read multiple, different ways. It's that multiple, different words are written with the same kanji.

That means, for example, that kanenever means "gold." Likewise, you never read this kanji: 金, as kin, if you know it means "money." You don't see a phrase like—

  • 金はどこだ?!

—and read it as—

  • kin wa doko da?!
    Where is the gold?!

—because you just know it means—

  • kane wa doko da?!
    Where is the money?!

—unless, of course, you're reading a story where someone just lost an actual lump of gold. Then you'd read it as kin, because you'd know it means "gold."

So it's not really a matter of "how do I read this kanji?" It's a matter of: "which word does this kanji represents?" If it's one word, it's read one way, if it's the other word, it's read the other way.


Morphemes are a little more complicated than words. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of a language. In practice, this means that one single word may be composed a single morpheme, or of multiple morphemes. This is seen in Japanese when you have on word composed of multiple kanji.

For example:

  • otokonoko
    Boy. (three morphemes)
  • danshi
    Boy. (two morphemes)

Above, we have two words written with the same kanji, meaning the same thing (almost, there are nuances), but, ohmykami! They are read totally differently!!! How?! What's this witchcraft?!

Words vs. Morphemes

To understand this, let's go step by step.

First off, the reason both words mean the same thing is because of the meanings of the kanji themselves. 男 means "man" and 子 means "child." It doesn't matter how these kanji are read, they usually mean those things, so it's only logical that two words containing these same kanji would mean similar things.

Then, we have the words otoko 男 and ko 子, meaning "man" and "child" respectively, as reflected in their kanji. These words are, well, actual words. This means you can use otoko 男 alone to mean "man" in a phrase, without needing ko 子 or anything else.

On the other hand, dan 男 and shi 子 are not words. I repeat: they are not words. They are just morphemes. This means you can't just say dan 男 alone to mean "man," because it's not a word. It's a morpheme. It has a meaning, and it can be part of another word, but it can't used alone.

Reading Kanji Morphemes

Understanding this is important because the reading of a kanji isn't necessarily a whole word. It can be, and often is, just a morpheme.

Most kun'yomi readings of kanji are complete words. For example: chikara 力, "power," ame 雨, "rain," soto 外, "outside," hito 人, "person," inochi 命, "life." This is because these readings come from actual Japanese words before the kanji were imported into Japan from China.

On the other hand, on'yomi, the native Chinese reading, is frequently found as non-word morphemes. For example: jitsuryoku 実力, "real power," uten 雨天, "rainy weather," gaijin 外人, "foreigner," jinmei 人命, "human life."

Knowing this you can make use of the reverse idea: if the word looks like it's just one single kanji, its reading is probably a kun'yomi, because kun'yomi comes from full words. But if the word has multiple kanji, its reading is probably on'yomi, because on'yomi is normally just a morpheme, not a whole word, so it can't be alone, it needs another morpheme, another kanji, in order for it to work.

There are of course exceptions. For example, jitsu 実, "reality," is a single-morpheme word, but is read with the kanji's on'yomi.

Morphemes Are Not Kanji

Note that, above, I sort of conflated the idea of kanji with the idea of morpheme, because I just wanted to explain how understanding morphemes helps you understand how the readings of a kanji work. However, I don't want you thinking morphemes are kanji, because they are not, it's just that one morpheme is often written as one kanji, but there are exceptions.

Homographic Morphemes

Exactly as it happens to complete words, sometimes different morphemes are written with the same kanji. Equally, the same thing happens.

For example:

  • chokusetsu
  • shoujiki

Above we have a single kanji with two different on'yomi readings. Are choku and jiki different morphemes written with the same kanji? Are they synonymous? Is there a difference? Honestly, I have no idea.

I mean, it could be that choku and jiki are the same thing, it's just that in some words it was pronounced slightly different and after centuries of that it officially stuck. It could be they're actually different. It doesn't matter.

What matters is: the words are chokusetsu and shoujiki. The morpheme doesn't matter. The way the words are read matter.

That's to say, just because chokusetsu 直接 and shoujiki 正直 are written with the same kanji, and maybe even the same morpheme, that doesn't mean you can replace one reading by the other. You can't say jikisetsu 直接, you can't say shouchoku 正直. Because the words are chokusetsu and shoujiki.

The other readings a kanji may have are irrelevant when reading a word. When you have two kanji like this, they represent a word together, and that word is pronounced in just one way. So the other readings of its components may have do not matter.


When a kanji in a word has okurigana 送り仮名, it normally has a kun'yomi reading. And the okurigana are usually suffixes and inflections, which'd be considered to be morphemes.

For example, in a word with multiple kanji, such as dokusha 読者, "reader," has the kanji for "reading" is read as doku 読, its on'yomi. But in a word with okurigana, such as yomu 読む, the kanji's reading becomes yo, its kun'yomi.

Other examples:

  • sensou
  • tatakau
    To fight.
  • anzen
  • yasui
  • kousoku
  • takakute hayai
    Expensive [thus] fast.

Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part okurigana means a kanji is read in its kun'yomi.

Multiple Okurigana

Sometimes a kanji has multiple kun'yomi and multiple okurigana to match. That is, when multiple words are written with a same kanji, and they're all kun'yomi readings, there'll be multiple, different okurigana, and each okurigana will be associated with a different reading and word.

For example, the words hosoi, "thin," and komakai, "detailed" are written with the same kanji. But hosoi is associated with the okurigana i い: hosoi 細い. While komakai is associated with the okurigana kai かい: komakai 細かい.

This means komakai 細かい never means "thin," because the word komakai means "detailed," or "fine," or "small," "minute [details]," etc. It just happens that komakai 細かい and hosoi 細い are written with the same kanji. So the kanji gets two readings, two okurigana, and each is associated just one word. They aren't interchangeable, they aren't the same thing. You can't mix them up.

Changes in Pronunciation

In Japanese, sometimes putting two morphemes into a single word changes how one of them is pronounced, mostly because it's too hard to pronounce them together in the original way.

Since how morpheme is pronounced changes, the reading of the kanji that represents the morpheme changes, too.

Below are the two most common types of changes.

See Changes in Pronunciation for more types.


A rendaku 連濁 occurs when a suffixed morpheme gets accented by a diacritic, the dakuten 濁点. For example: shini 死 plus kami かみ) becomes shinigami 死神しに.

Some other examples of rendaku:

  • koibito (not koi-hito)
  • hashigo (not hashi-ko)
  • yuge (not yu-ke)


The sokuonbin 促音便 is a change in the pronunciation of a word by adding a sokuon, a geminate consonant, which's represented by the small tsu in Japanese and by doubled consonants in romaji.

It works exactly like the rendaku, except in different situations with different effect.

Some examples of sokuonbin:

  • ippatsu (not ichi-hatsu)
    One shot.
    (ha は becoming pa ぱ is called handakuonka 半濁音化.)
  • gakkou (not gaku-kou)
  • nikki (not nichi-ki)


A jukujikun 熟字訓 is a kun'yomi reading that's applied to multiple kanji together instead of one single kanji. There are reasons for this, but effectively it means a reading such as this isn't associated with the kanji, but only with the word.

For example, the word kyou 今日, "today," is read like that, but the readings of the kanji ima, kon 今 and hi, nichi, jitsu 日, do not include anything that could make kyou. You'd guess it's read konnichi 今日 instead, for example. But that's a different word written with the same kanji. The word kyou 今日 is kyou.


A gikun 義訓 is a made-up reading of kanji. Basically, you take a word and pretend it's written with a given kanji, and so when you read it you're reading an "artificial reading," a gikun.

Needless to say, the gikun of a kanji won't be in the dictionary entry for that given kanji because someone literally just made it up. So it's not official. Although there are some rather official gikun.

A gikun may be a jukujikun. For example, tabako タバコ is a loan-word, so it's written with katakana. But it can be used as a gikun reading for a certain pair of kanji: tabako 煙草. These kanji are only read that way when together, so a jukujikun, they can't be read as tabako 草 or tabako 草, and they were chosen because of their meanings: "smoke," kemuri 煙, and "grass," kusa 草.

Lastly, the last thing to be aware of is the kanji with most readings ever: the elusive kurikaeshi.

  • hitobito
  • hibi
  • tokidoki
  • bakabakashii

This kanji is, obviously, special. The reason it has so many readings is that it doesn't actually have any reading. It just functions as a mark to conveniently repeat the last kanji written. So its reading changes depending on the kanji that precedes it.


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  1. Btw, just curious where are you from?

    1. Yeah, I was wondering the same thing. He mentioned in the post about 「」『』 that he uses a portuguese keyboard layout, so my bet is Brazil

    2. But that could also mean he's from Portugal & is a native Portuguese.

  2. I have been studying Japanese on and off for years, and I have never had anything that explained everything so fully. Even when you use brevity, you are still explaining it quite well and even have links to the actual full explanations some where else. That is not to say I am still not as confused as I was before on somethings, since it is still Japanese... But for others I feel like a light has been turned on. At the very least I have a much better understanding than I had before and respect for the language.

    The majority of websites, books and apps I see as an explanation, if there is even one at all like- "The kana "no" indicates a possessive and more. Have a nice day!" ^_^ That does not do anything for anyone.

  3. I agree with another commenter, your explanations were very illuminative, thanks to the examples you made and the lack of superflous grammar-obsessed blah blah. I was finally able to get a full-rounded understanding, however brief, of thing I've been studying here and there. In no other site I have encountered such useful explanations. Thank you!

  4. Very nice explaination. I figured out about Kanji's nature about 2 days ago. I was so tired of very simple and not full explainations. Your post was something like a fresh water for thirsty adventurer. Thanks a lot for your job. I anderstanded a lot.