How to read kanji -- a Japanese perspective

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How to read kanji -- a Japanese perspective

Post by InsanityRanch » Mon 10.10.2005 6:50 pm

Note -- edited (when I got my hands on the actual book!) to include publication information.

Hi, all. My teacher and I have been working through a really cool book on kanji. The title is 4級漢検分野別問題集 -- sample questions and answer for level 4 of the 日本漢字迫ヘ検定. From what it says in the book, I gather this is a test somewhat like the kanji sections of the JLPT, but designed for Japanese adults who want to brush up their kanji a bit, or win the competitive kanji bee at the office... or something. <g> There are tests from level 8 (440 kanji, for elementary school kids) to level 1, for which would need to know 6000 kanji. I have no idea why my teacher picked the level 4 one to work on. I am thinking that if I go to New York and get a chance to hit Kinokuniya bookstore I will look for the earlier levels' prep books and work through them consecutively.

If you want to know more about these tests, you can go to

At the front of the book is a very nice explanation of "how to know how to read kanji". We read through that bit last week -- it's about six pages and includes various really cool charts. I haven't seen all this information collected in one place in English -- in fact, some of it I haven't seen at all in English. I thought I'd try my hand at a translation and post it here. I'll do it in pieces as I have time. Basically, the article consists of:

1. An introduction, explaining where kanji come from.
2a -- A discussion of the early, GO-on readings, with a list of representative examples.
2b -- A discussion of the most common, KAN-on readings, with a list comparing words with GO-on and KAN-on readings
2c -- a discussion of the TOU-on readings with another chart of examples.
3. A discussion of on- vs. kun readings, again with examples.
4. A discussion of special readings, Japanese-made kanji etc. ... with examples.

I hope people will be interested. I know I was.

Headline: All those kanji readings make my head hurt!

Surely you've heard expressions such as「馬から落馬する」or 「火を消火する」? This kind of redundant expression is called a 「重言」, and it is not very good Japanese usage. For instance, if you were to say 「頭痛で頭が痛い」, the word 「頭痛」already contains the meaning of 「頭が痛い」, so putting both together is not appropriate. One should say either a)「頭痛がする」or b)「頭が痛い」.

[NOTE: An example of a similar and cringeworthy English expression might be "3 a.m. in the morning." ]

In these cases, both expressions use the same kanji to describe the identical situation, but the way the kanji are read in each expression differs. There are generally two ways to read any kanji: the pronunciation(s) of the Chinese speaking people at the time the kanji was transmitted is called the 「音」(on) reading, while the meaning of the kanji expressed in the contemporary Japanese language is called the 「訓」(kun) reading. So in our example, 「頭痛」 uses on-readings and 「頭(が)痛い」uses kun-readings. But if we confine ourself to the character 「頭」, we find that it has not only the on-reading 「ズ」as in 「頭痛」, but also 「トウ」as in 「頭髪」, 「先頭」and others, and even 「ジュウ」as in 「體ェ」. Why?

A kanji may have various on-readings.

The on-readings of kanji are originally based on Chinese pronunciation but as with 「頭」above, a kanji can have several different on-readings due to the historical process of transmission to our country. Kanji were carried to Japan over a long interval, and during that time the pronunciations in China underwent change. It's possible to distinguish three broad groupings of on-readings, known as the 呉音(GO-on), 漢音(KAN-on) and 唐音(TOU-on) readings. Still using 「頭」as an example, this kanji's GO-on-reading is 「ズ」, it's KAN-on-reading is 「トウ」 and its TOU-on-reading is 「ジュウ」.

Below this is a little illustration showing the three "waves" of kanji coming from China. It explains that the GO-on readings are from the late fourth through sixth centuries and apparently came from the southern part of China. The KAN-on readings came from slightly further north from the 7th century on. The TOU-on readings came from the 11th century on from still further north.


To be continued...
Last edited by InsanityRanch on Wed 10.26.2005 6:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself." -- Vilfredo Pareto

Posts: 227
Joined: Tue 04.19.2005 2:17 pm

RE: How to read kanji -- a Japanese perspective

Post by InsanityRanch » Wed 10.12.2005 2:55 pm

Here's the next installment -- short but surprisingly hard to translate (for a novice like me!). This covers GO-on readings, which are the earliest historically but not the most used. However, I have put a bit of a musing at the end.

Headline: GO-on readings: still struggling!

The sounds of kanji transmitted to our country from the end of the 4th through the 6th centuries are known as 「呉音」or GO-on readings. This occurred during the period of Chinese history known as 六朝時代(Rikuchou Jidai -- the Six Dynasty period?), but the center of government and literary life was the region of 呉 (Go, =Wu in Chinese?) on the lower Yangtze River, so that is the pronunciation that was transmitted. Because GO-on readings were transmitted mainly by Buddhist priests, many of the remaining GO-on readings are used to describe Buddhist concepts.

Examples of Buddhist religous terms using GO-on readings:
修行 (shugyou) To zealously seek to embrace the Buddha's teachings and reduce the mind's distractions
 権化 (gonge) The fleeting forms in which the Buddha appears in this world.
開眼 (kaigen) 1) To infuse a newly created Buddha-statue or Buddha-picture with the presence of Buddha by drawing in eyes on it. 2) To realize the truth of Buddhist teaching.
 読経 (dokyou) Reading sutras aloud.
 解脱 (gedatsu) Reaching enlightenment without attending to illusory thoughts.
 金堂 (kondou) The central part of a temple where the Buddha images are installed. Also called the 本堂 (hondou)
 建立 (konryuu) The building of temples and temple structures.

OK, this seems pretty esoteric for an ordinary student of Japanese.

BUT, there is one point that struck me (and when I translate subsequent sections, this point will be made more strongly). Often a kanji has not just separate readings, but separate senses.

For instance, iirc correctly, the reading GATSU for (ordinal) months is a GO-on reading while GETSU is a KAN-on reading. Both mean "month" (even in English), but the actual meaning is different. Similarly, 家 (house) is often used as a suffix. When the GO-on reading of ke applies (本家、宗家...), the meaning of the kanji is family or clan. When the KAN-on reading of ka is used it refers to an individual ((作家、実業家...) or sometimes to a physical house (一家、実家)
"Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself." -- Vilfredo Pareto

Posts: 227
Joined: Tue 04.19.2005 2:17 pm

RE: How to read kanji -- a Japanese perspective

Post by InsanityRanch » Wed 10.26.2005 5:58 pm

Sorry to be so slow with this translation -- I was reading about twice as many pages as usual to finish Shonen H in the past couple of weeks.


Headline: KAN-on readings -- these are the usual suspects!

Kanji readings brought back by our country's envoys, overseas students and overseas monks from the 7th century on -- that is to say, during the 隋 (Sui) and 唐 (T'ang) Chinese dynasties -- are known as KAN-on readings. At the time, the pronunciations used in the area around the Yellow River basin capital of 長安 (Chuan?), modern 西安(Seian?) were the standard one in China, so in our country as well, the respected KAN-on readings began to replace the older GO-on readings. In Buddhist scripture and Buddhist religious writings the obsolete GO-on readings were still used, but KAN-on readings were used in Confucian writings and gradually became the accepted pronunciation. For the most part, the kanji we use today are most likely to be pronounced according to their KAN-on reading.

Words with GO-on and KAN-on readings in everyday use:
GO-on [quote][/quote] KAN-on
会釈 Eshaku, bow 会見 KAIken, interview
強引 GOUin, force(ful) 勉強 benKYOU, study
人間 NINgen, person 人権 JINken, human rights
正直 shouJIKI, integrity 直接 CHOKUsetsu, direct
体力 TAIryoku, physical strength 風体 fuuTEI, appearance
代理 DAIri, agent 交代 kouTAI, taking turns
化身 KEshin, incarnation 進化 shinKA, evolution
気配 KEhai, a feeling 気品 KIhin, aroma
下校 GEkou, leaving school 地下 chiKA, underground
定規 JOUgi, a measuring stick 定着 TEIchaku, establishing
図工 ZUkou, drawing 図書 TOsho, books
極上 GOKUjou, first rate 極力 KYOKUryoku, to the utmost
本家 honKE, birthplace 作家 sakKA, author
無言 muGON, silence 発言 hatsuGEN, utterance 
"Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself." -- Vilfredo Pareto

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