Reading and Writing Kanji

Kanji is a language script originally invented by the Chinese, and is important to study for anyone wishing to learn Japanese.  The Japanese people of the 5th century adapted it to fit their own language.  There are many thousands of Kanji characters, over 50,000 in fact.  Don’t sweat it though — “only” 2136 characters have been declared as “kanji for everyday use”.  I hope I can ease the pain one more time by telling you that there are only 103 kanji you should learn at the N5 (Beginner) level of Japanese.  That’s not so bad, right!  

Before studying Kanji in depth, you should have Hiragana and Katakana under your belt.  If you don’t, go study that first.  For the rest of you, let’s continue.  The sounds you learned from Hiragana and Katakana became the phonetic base of your Japanese.  Once we start building full sentences however, it becomes more difficult to read something that is only written with kana.  For example:


Hiragana Kanji + Hiragana
わたしは にほんごを べんきょうします 私は 日本語を 勉強します

watashi wa nihongo wo benkyou shimasu

(I study Japanese)


The most obvious benefit of the Kanji version is that it’s much shorter.  Another benefit is that those Kanji characters are representing full meaning rather than just the sounds that Hiragana provides.  Let’s look at the Kanji “語” for instance. 語 replaces the Hiragana character ご and also means “language”.  We attach Japan (日本) to Language (語) and that gives us Japanese (日本語).  Pretty cool, huh?  語 also gives us a precise context – more so than the English spelling, since the word “Japanese” could describe a Japanese person, culture, etc.  When we use 語, you are referring to the language of Japan and nothing else.  Once you become advanced with Kanji, you can grasp the meaning of a sentence simply by glancing at the characters.  This results in a faster reading speed because Kanji is a very efficient language script.

The first stepping stone to learning Japanese Kanji is to understand that every Kanji will have two distinct readings.  To learn what these readings are, let’s look at one of my Kanji cards:




The word Onyomi literally means “sound reading”, and gives us the original Chinese pronunciation of a Kanji.  In the example above, “sha” is the Chinese sound and represents transport.  The Japanese decided to use borrow the kanji 車 with it’s original Chinese sound to express all the specific methods of moving people around.  In the Kanji card above, 電 (den) means “electricity” and is combined with 車 (sha) to give us densha (or “train”).  The Onyomi is always represented by katakana rather than hiragana because we are using foreign (Chinese) sounds.  I also want to point out that you will usually see the Onyomi as a compound, just as 電車 (densha) from our Kanji card above.



The Kunyomi only represents the pronunciation of native Japanese words.  In the case of Kunyomi, we will not use “sha” at all to describe transportation.  We will still use that useful kanji though!  The Kunyomi version of 車 is pronounced as “kuruma” – a word that is originally Japanese.  Most Kunyomi readings will be of a single kanji (車 = kuruma).

Although you will usually see the Onyomi as a compound and a Kunyomi as a single Kanji, that’s not always the case.  For example, the Onyomi of 本 is ほん (“hon”), shattering our hopes and dreams of figuring out the system.  I’m kidding – it’s really not that bad once you start learning kanji one at a time.  Just practice both readings for each one, listen to my examples and it will only get easier.

I have 25 Kanji cards that I have put together for you to practice.  Not only will these sharpen your Japanese reading and writing skills, but your vocabulary as well.   Keep checking back for more!



Kanji Cards:

hear, ask eat, food car what south foot ten thousand store, shop every white


 old sky, heaven  buy   week  mother fire   flower right  read   friend


 left rest, day off  father  station  rain  drink talk  school road, course electricity


 male language, word many, frequent west previous, ahead fish water tree, wood name sky, empty


female ear write few, little hundred north half, middle relax, cheap river mouth