Why Do The Japanese Use Kanji?

by Christian Monson
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My first time in Japan, I went with hours of studying kana, Japan’s native phonetic alphabet, under my belt.  I thought this would allow me to read signs, maps and other important travel documents. In the end, I wasn’t able to read a single thing.

Kanji is arguably the most prominent part of the Japanese writing system. The elegant characters, originally adapted from Chinese, make up most of the Japanese you’ll see written in books and magazines, on signs, and by hand. Understanding kanji is necessary to fully appreciate the Japanese language and culture, so this guide is here to help you get started.

We’ll cover everything from the history of kanji and how it arrived in Japan from China as well as some of the important characters. Finally, read about how the Japanese learn kanji and how you can use these techniques to become literate yourself.

What is the Kanji alphabet?

Kanji are Chinese characters adopted for use with the Japanese language. In fact, the word kanji literally means “Han characters.”

Despite popular belief, Chinese characters aren’t simply pictures of words. They represent morphemes, syllables that contain meaning and can be joined together to form words. As a result, they can easily be used in Japanese for the same words, even though the pronunciation and etymology is completely different. 

A good example is the word school. In Chinese, the word is xuéxiào, written with the characters 学校. Xué (学) is a morpheme referring to learning, and xiào (校) is a morpheme referring to school. Japanese and Chinese are not related in any way, and the word for school in Japanese is completely different: gakkō. However, in Kanji, gakkō is written exactly the same as xuéxiào in Chinese: 学校. 

This is a very simple example, though. Basic nouns are easily transliterated in kanji, but verbs, particles and other grammatical concepts get more complicated. This is especially true because Chinese is a very analytic language, which means it’s not very grammatically complex. Japanese, on the other hand, is quite complex. For instance, Japanese has verb conjugation, whereas Chinese does not.

Consequently, Japanese can’t express itself entirely in Kanji. Japanese also uses a phonetic alphabet unique to Japan called kana. In theory, all Japanese words can be written entirely in kana without kanji. However, the long tradition of kanji in Japanese makes it the primary writing system. Kana just supplements it to write certain grammatical aspects of Japanese, new words or texts for children who don’t yet know kanji.

Why did the Japanese adopt Kanji?

Chinese characters are the oldest writing system in the world that’s still in use. Since Japan was within their sphere of influence from ancient times, it makes sense that they adopted Chinese characters in the form of kanji.

There’s evidence that the Japanese imported goods inscribed with Chinese characters as early as the 1st Century, but they probably couldn’t understand them at all. Japanese texts written in Chinese characters date back to the 5th Century, but even then, they were most likely written by officials bilingual in Chinese, not Japanese written in kanji.

It seems that the Chinese finally came to be used for Japanese in the 7th Century. This is also when the Japanese phonetic alphabet kana developed as a simplification of the Chinese characters.

kanji dictionaries

So how many Kanji are there?

A lot. The Chinese writing system technically does not have an official count, but scholars estimate there to be around 85,000 characters. Most of these are very uncommon, including archaic characters that you’d only find in ancient poetry. 

As for Japanese kanji, the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten, which is an official dictionary of kanji, lists about 50,000 different characters. However, most of these are rare or specific to certain fields of study. There is an official list of important characters called the jōyō kanji. It contains 2,136 characters a person needs to be functionally literate.

Kanji Review

A list of important Japanese Kanji

Even the shortened list of 2,136 characters can seem daunting. If you want to read and write in Japanese, that’s what it takes. Getting around town, though, doesn’t require quite that much. If you’re worried about reading maps or menus, here are 100 essential kanji to familiarize yourself with.

On these charts, you’ll notice that there are two columns for onyomi and kunyomi, both representing Japanese words. Onyomi are the Japanese pronunciations of the original Chinese words. In most cases, the word was adopted from Chinese so long ago, that the modern onyomi word isn’t very similar to the modern Chinese word. The kunyomi are the native Japanese words that correspond with the characters. Keep in mind that these are just the roots and oftentimes there will be conjugation or other declension based on Japanese grammar.

Numbers

Kanji CharacterOnyomiKunyomiEnglish Translation
ichihitoone
nifutatwo
sanmithree
shiyonfour
goitsufive
rokumusix
shichinanaseven
hachiyaeight
kyuukokononine
juutoten
hyakuhundred
senchithousand
man, banten thousand
enmaruYen

Time

Kanji CharacterOnyomiKunyomiEnglish Translation
nichihi, kaday, sun
shuuweek
getsutsukimonth, moon
nentoshiyear
jitokitime, hour
kanaidaspan of time
funwaminute
gonoon
zenmaebefore
kouatoafter
kinimanow
sensakifuture
raikucome
hannakahalf
maievery
kananwhat, which

Objects and People

Kanji CharacterOnyomiKunyomiEnglish Translation
jin, ninhitoperson
nanotokoman, male
nyoonnawoman, female
shikochild
bohahamother
fuchichifather
yuutomofriend
kahifire
suimizuwater
mokuki, kotree, wood
dotsuchiearth, ground
konkanemoney
honmotobook
senkawariver
kahanaflower
ki, kespirit
shouikirulife
gyosakanafish
tenamaheaven
kuusorasky
sanyamamountain
uamerain
denelectricity
shakurumacar
gokatalanguage
jimimiear
shutehand
sokuashifoot
mokumeeye
kukuchimouth
myounaname

Essential Verbs

Kanji CharacterOnyomiKunyomiEnglish Translation
kenmisee
monkihear, listen
shokawrite
dokuyoread
wahanashitalk
baikabuy
kouigo
shutsudaleave
nyuuhaienter
kyuuyasurest
shokutaeat
innodrink
gen, gonitalk
ritsutastand
kaiameet

Important Adjectives

Kanji CharacterOnyomiKunyomiEnglish Translation
taooa lot, many
shousukoa little, few
kofuruold 
shinataranew
daioobig
shouchii, kosmall
anyasucheap
koutakaexpensive
chounagalong
hakushirowhite

Direction and Location

Kanji CharacterOnyomiKunyomiEnglish Translation
tenmiseshop
ekistation
doumichistreet
shayashiroshrine
kokukunicountry
gehokaoutside
gakumanalearn
kouschool
shouueup
kashitadown
chuunakamiddle
hokukitanorth
西sainishiwest
touhigashieast
nanminamisouth
yuumigiright
sahidarileft

How do the Japanese learn Kanji?

Japanese children start learning kanji in elementary school. This involves learning to both read and write complex characters. Although they start with the phonetic alphabet kana, they eventually begin studying all subjects with characters at their level of knowledge. Often, when children first start to learn kanji, they may study texts with the kana phonetic characters and the Chinese characters side by side to see the transliterations.

By the sixth grade, the Japanese government requires that students know a list of 1,026 characters known as the kyōiku kanji. Curriculums usually break this down by year, teaching about 80 in first grade, 160 in second, 200 in third, 200 in fourth, 185 in fifth, and 181 in sixth.

Learning kanji at any age mostly involves memorization. Sometimes, characters have an obvious similarity that might help people remember. For example, the character for water (mizu) is 水, and the character for ice (kōri) is 氷. As you can see, they’re quite similar, reflecting the relationship between ice and water. 

One of the most important parts of learning kanji and something that is employed heavily in Japanese schools, is real-world, situational learning. While students do use flashcards for rote memorization of the characters, it’s equally important to see their context in other texts like fictional stories or science books.

Do you need to learn Kanji to learn Japanese?

Languages are first and foremost spoken means of communication. Humans used language long before they developed the written word, and until very recently, most people never learned how to read and write. That’s all to say, it’s certainly possible to learn Japanese without learning kanji, just as it would be possible to learn English without learning the alphabet.

However, anyone who wants to understand Japanese fully needs to dedicate the time to at least a basic understanding of essential kanji. For one thing, the intricate relationship between Chinese vocabulary, onyomi and kunyomi means you can more easily understand vocabulary and its contextual use if you know the Chinese characters that go along with it. 

More importantly, though, any considerable interaction with Japanese society requires kanji. Japan has little English, so being able to read Japanese is necessary for getting around, reading signs and instructions. Reading Japanese means reading kanji. So get out your flashcards and get to work. 

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