February 25, 2018

Learning Japanese Kanji: What are On and Kun Readings and When to Use Them

On, Kun? What is That? And When Do I Use Which?

Hiragana, katakana, and kanji are the three legs that make up the Japanese writing system stool. The kana (a classification name for hiragana and katakana together) are fairly easy to learn in just a few weeks of careful study. Kanji, on the other hand...


To be fluent in Japanese, the government recommends learning about two thousand kanji characters. Why so many? You should be grateful. China has over 40,000 characters.

Another reason for being grateful: Most kanji have a single core meaning (this could be an abstract notion or something more concrete). While many do have other meanings, [for example, 生 can mean "live," "give birth," or "raw."] most kanji can be safely associated with a single meaning or idea. The problem comes with the “readings” or pronunciations.


However, to complicate matters further, the ancient Japanese seemed to have not realized their language was a different language entirely from Chinese. Most of the time, the meaning behind the imported Chinese characters were often already found in Japanese. To add one more layer of complication, the Japanese thought it best to use the Chinese pronunciation(s) in addition to their own native Japanese pronunciation(s). This is why there are often two totally different sounding readings.

Take 木, the kanji for tree, for example: The Japanese called a tree "ki" but they heard their Chinese neighbors pronounce it as "moku." So, 木 has two readings, a kun (ki) and an on (moku). --Actually, it has a few more, but these are the most useful.

Take a moment to memorize this:

on = pronunciation taken from the Chinese
kun = pronunciation from the Japanese 


音読み on yomi -- ON READING

The on yomi is a representation of the ancient Japanese people's understanding of the ancient Chinese words. As a result, you can often see/hear similarities with modern Chinese or even Korean regarding how they pronounce the same or similar kanji, but it is definitely not the same. Don't expect a study of on readings will give you the ability to speak Mandarin!

In fact, because Japanese has fewer sounds in the language, the more complex sounds and pitches found in Chinese had to be condensed. This further distorted the family resemblance.

  • Nearly all Kanji have at least one on reading. The only exceptions are kanji created in Japan. [Click here for an article on wasei kanji]
  • On yomi is a rough representation of the ancient Chinese pronunciation for that character
  • On readings tend to be a single syllable in length, but not always as the example above with tree. [新 new | on: shin | kun: atarashii]
  • Sometimes there are multiple on readings. This is often due to that kanji being imported multiple times or from different areas of China which had variations in pronunciation. [生 life | on: sei or shou]
  • Kanji were imported in waves from the 4th century through the 16th mostly by priests and spread by the Buddhist or Confucian scrolls they brought.
  • Jukugo, compound kanji word phrases, tend to use on yomi.
  • But sometimes, jukugo could go either way: [旅人 traveler | on: ryojin | kun: tabibito]

訓読み kun yomi -- KUN READING

The kun yomi is the "native" Japanese pronunciation for the concept represented by the kanji.

  • Kun readings tend to be longer than a syllable in length [新 new | on: shin | kun: atarashii] This isn't always the case, however.
  • Most words that consist of a single kanji all by itself, use the kun yomi. [人 person hito | 車 car kuruma | 夏 summer natsu]
  • Kanji followed by hiragana (okurigana) tend to be kun yomi.


The On and Kun readings are similar to what happened to the English language after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The native population's language was mixed with their continental overlords'. As a result, the specialized and refined words of the ruling class spoke a dialect of Old French. The common people spoke Old English. So, common everyday words like tree, hill, town, meal, and earth were of Anglo-Saxon origin, but the Norman (from Latin) influence is still heard in specialized words. We say "cow" while plowing in Anglo-Saxon, but "beef" when eating in the castle.

In our tree example, we find the kun reading, the native Japanese pronunciation, is ki. Today, when you want to say, "There's a tree," you'd say:

ki ga aru.
There is a tree.

But if you want to buy some lumber, you might say,

zaimoku o kaitai desu.
(I) want to buy lumber.


Unfortunately, you really need to learn both on and kun readings for kanji. Some are more useful than others, but if your goal is to be fluent in reading Japanese, learn them both.

It isn't always easy to figure out which to use in context. There are, however, a few quick and dirty tips. (mostly repeated from the above On and Kun sections.)

KUN Tips:

  • As mentioned above, common, everyday words tend to be kun. Specialized words tend to be on. [The kanji for water is 水. To ask for water, use mizu. Swimming is suiei]
  • kun reading dominates ideas that were familiar and common to the Japanese at the time a kanji (the Anglo-Saxon words) was imported.
  • If there is okurigana (the trailing hiragana that is written after the kanji), the kanji will most likely be a kun yomi.

ON Tips:

  • As a general rule, jukugo, compound kanji that form a new word, use on readings.
  • On readings tend to be a single syllable in length. For example: [新 new | on: shin | kun: atarashii] This isn't always the case as with tree: 木 on: moku; boku (each two syllables)


  • Most kanji have only one core meaning. Yeah!
  • The readings are either on yomi” or “kun yomi.”
  • 音読み on yomi–The “on” pronunciation was the original Chinese pronunciation—or at least the sounds Japanese people thought were the Chinese pronunciation.
  • 訓読み kun yomi–The “kun” pronunciation was the native Japanese pronunciation for that particular concept.
  • Due to changes in sounds over time, some kanji have an impressive number of pronunciations. It is best to learn these sounds by example which is why we include multiple example words with each kanji in this newsletter.
  • Jukugo, compound kanji word phrases, tend to use on yomi.
  • Kanji followed by hiragana (okurigana) tend to be kun yomi.
  • Concentrate on the one or two most useful readings for each kanji. You can always go back and learn the rarer ones later. This will make your learning progress faster.
  • As you read, take note of usage. You'll start to associate kanji with their on or kun readings subconsciously.

Sharing is caring!

    • I don’t believe the Japanese had a formal writing system before importing Chinese characters around the 4th or 5th century AD. So, kanji came first. Along with kanji came the multiple pronunciations since the extra (on reading) pronunciation was a representation of the Chinese sound. Lastly, from kanji came katakana and hiragana.

  • Very useful info! One sentence was left unfinished though ^^
    –> kun reading dominates ideas that were familiar and common to the Japanese at the time a kanji (the Anglo-Saxon words)

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