Kanji 漢字 is the third Japanese writing system you’ll need to study. Kanji became widely used in Japan during the 6th century CE, although it was originally imported from Chinasometime in the 1st century CE. Although most kanji remain virtually identical to their original Chinese counterparts, the Japanese have changed the original pronunciations and sometimes even the original meanings over time.
There are a total of around 6000 kanji in use in Japanese, 2000 of which you need to know to read a typical newspaper. Kanji are pictographs (think Egyptian hieroglyphs) that represent words and frequently have more than one pronunciation. Japanese speakers learn the pronunciations and meanings of words through context and the combination of kanji characters.
Although you can (and Japanese children often do) write Japanese sentences completely in hiragana and katakana that are technically correct, it is considered a sign of being uneducated. Imagine a sentence in English littered with incorrectly spelled words and you get the idea. Now continue with that train of thought and turn in a resume for a job or an application for a scholarship rife with spelling and grammatical errors in English; it shows that you’re sloppy and perhaps not very intelligent. A resume or an application in Japan without frequent use of kanji is regarded in the same sense.
That said, Japanese people are more forgiving of non-native speakers who use kanji less frequently. However, they will be impressed by your level of fluency should you do use kanji. Plus, if you hope to read Japanese texts aimed at young adults or older, you’ll need to learn your kanji!
ON and Kun Readings
As stated above, most kanji have more than one pronunciation. There are two ways to categorize these pronunciations: ON and Kun readings, which are called the onyomi and the kunyomi in Japanese.
The ON reading(s) of a kanji character are based on Cantonese and Song dynasty Chinese pronunciations of the kanji character. However, they are not usually exactly the Chinese pronunciations, as the Chinese language has sounds that do not exist in the Japanese language and the Japanese language follows a different consonant-vowel pattern than the Chinese language. Therefore, they are the Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation.
For example, the kanji for the number one (一) would be pronounced i or yi in Chinese. The ON readings for the same kanji are ICHI and ITSU.
You may have noticed that “ICHI” and “ITSU” were written in all capital letters. To help distinguish the ON reading(s) of a kanji character from the Kun reading(s), the ON readings are often written in all capital letters when written in Roman characters (romaji). They are written in katakana for the native Japanese.
The Kun reading(s) of a kanji character are the native Japanese pronunciations of the word the kanji character represents. Since the Japanese had a spoken language before the Chinese introduced the concept of a written language to them, they already had their own words for most things and concepts the Chinese kanji characters described. So in addition to learning the Chinese pronunciations for kanji characters (which developed into the ON readings), the Japanese imported their own words into the written language.
For example,the kanji for the number one (一) has the Kun reading hito-, as used in the word hitori, “one person.”
The Kun reading(s) of a kanji character are usually written in italicized lower case when in romaji. They are written in hiragana for the native Japanese.
Joyo and JLPT Kanji
You may find the massive number of kanji characters overwhelming, but remember that native Japanese speakers aren’t born knowing how to read kanji, either! They study the most frequently used kanji over a period of years, constantly reviewing what they’ve learned and practicing writing and reading them over and over. You can follow their example by starting at the elementary level of fluency.
The Japanese Ministry of Education has decided that students must learn 1,945 kanji characters by the time they graduate from secondary school. This list of kanji characters—last updated in the 1980s—includes 1,006 kanji taught in elementary school and 939 kanji taught during secondary school. The characters are organized both by level of difficulty and the level of frequency with which the characters appear in daily usage. The very first set of kanji that Japanese first graders study includes the kanji for numbers. (Feel free to emulate their example and head on over to our numbers lesson to get started.)
As you can tell from this system, Japanese students take up to twelve years to learn the almost 2000 kanji characters in daily use in Japan. They move on to the next lesson only when they’ve reviewed and memorized earlier lessons. Follow the Japanese educational example and study kanji at a steady pace complete with frequent sessions of review.
Although following the Joyo system of learning kanji can prove beneficial to you, you probably have a greater learning capacity than an elementary school student and you may wish to learn kanji at a faster pace or with the kanji characters that you’re most likely to encounter as a non-native speaker of Japanese. Studying the kanji featured on the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) may help you achieve these goals.
The JLPT, given annually or biannually depending on the country you’re in, is an official certification for your level of proficiency in Japanese as a non-native speaker. The JLPT certification is essential to those who wish to pursue careers as Japanese translators, interpreters, or teachers. Kanji is a large component of the four levels of the exam. The Beginner Exam consists of around 100 kanji, the Basic Exam tests speakers on around 300 kanji, the Intermediate Exam contains questions on approximately 1000 kanji, and the Advanced Exam assumes a near-native level of fluency and tests knowledge of around 2000 kanji. Learn more about the kanji on the exam at www.jlpt.jp/e.
Although you can read a lot of Japanese writing after mastering both hiragana and katakana, there’s simply no avoiding learning kanji if you wish to be truly fluent in the language. Most signs, newspapers, periodicals, manuals, and other publications in Japan assume that their readers have achieved an adult level of literacy, which requires a basic knowledge of around 2000 kanji characters. Although learning this many kanji may take you a long time, if you regularly practice and review, you can gradually expand your kanji vocabulary bit by bit every day.
Frequent review is essential to learn kanji. Use our flash cards, quizzes, and resources to practice. Teach yourself at least one new kanji every day and take the time to review the ones you’ve already learned or you might forget them!