Between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese characters, or kanji, are used in written Japanese. In 1981 in an effort to make it easier to read and write Japanese, the Japanese government introduced the jōyō kanji hyō (List of Chinese Characters for General Use), which includes 1,945 regular characters, plus 166 special characters used only for people’s names. All government documents, newspapers, textbooks and other publications for non-specialists use only the these kanji. Writers of other material are free to use whatever kanji they want.

Japanese children are expected to know all of the jōyō kanji by the end of high school but to read specialist publications and ordinary literature, they need to know another two or three thousand kanji.

The word kanji is the Japanese version of the Chinese word hànzì, which means “Han characters”. Han refers to the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) and is the name used by the Chinese for themselves.

Whent the Japanese adopted Chinese characters to write the Japanese language they also borrowed many Chinese words. Today about half the vocabulary of Japanese comes from Chinese and Japanese kanji are use to represent both Sino-Japanese words and native Japanese words with the same meaning.

For example, the native Japanese word for water is mizu while the Sino-Japanese word is sui. Both are written with the same character. The former is known as the kun yomi (Japanese reading) of the character while the latter is known as the on yomi (Chinese reading) of the character.

Examples of how the Japanese character for water is used

Another example: the native Japanese word for horse is uma while the Sino-Japanese words are ba and ma.

Japanese character for horse and how it's used

The characters in the word baka, which mean “horse deer”, are used for their phonetic values alone. The word comes from the Sanskrit moha – ignorance, via the Chinese măhū.

The general rule is that when a kanji appears on its own, it is given the kun yomi, but when two or more kanji appear together, they are given the on yomi. There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule. For example it is sometimes difficult to work out how to pronounce people’s names because some of the kanji used for names have non-standard pronunciations.

Some kanji have multiple on yomi and kun yomi (the first three readings are on yomi, the last three are kun yomi):

An example of a kanji with multiple readings

In Mandarin Chinese, this character is pronounced ‘xíng’ or ‘háng’.

Multiple on yomi are often a result of borrowing words over a period of many centuries, during which Chinese pronunciation changed, and also borrowing words from different varieties of Chinese.

Some of the kanji have been simplified, although not always in the same way as characters have been simplified in China:

A comparison of some traditional and simplified characters used in Chinese and Japanese

There are also a number of characters, kokuji (national characters) which were invented in Japan.

kokuji (kanji invented in Japan)


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