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Kanji Japanese Characters

Japan flag. Japanese Language: Kanji

Kanji Overview | Kanji Radical | Kanji Stroke | Kanji Readings | Joyo Kanji | Chinese & Japanese Characters | Kanji Input | Kanji Resources

The kanji for love.

The kanji for "love"愛

Kanji 漢字

Kanji, lit. "Han characters" (漢字), was the first Japanese written language. Kanji are Chinese characters that were gradually adopted by the Japanese to represent the Japanese language, becoming more widespread in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. There was no system of writing for the Japanese language before the introduction of kanji from China. Chinese characters were introduced to Japan, mostly via Korea, in official diplomatic documents and Buddhist texts. Along with the import of Chinese characters came the actual art of writing those characters, known as calligraphy or shodo in Japanese, a subject still required in Japanese elementary schools.

Both Japanese phonetic syllabaries hiragana and katakana developed from kanji as a means of simplifying and adapting the new script to Japanese pronunciation and grammar. Japanese is a radically different language from Chinese, so adapting the Chinese writing system to the Japanese language required the workarounds offered by hiragana and katakana.

Chinese characters are ideograms and represent individual words and concepts both individually and in combinations such as 電話機: 電 den (electric) + 話 wa (speak) + 機 ki (machine) = den-wa-ki (telephone).

Kanji radical 部首

The building blocks of each individual kanji are ideographic elements known as radicals, or in Japanese bushu (部首), of which there are 214. Many kanji take the form of a single radical, however most are a combination of a radical and other elements. Spacially, a radical may take one of fourteen positions, such as top, bottom, left, right, corner, enclosing, etc.

For example, the radical "gold" 金 - typically at the left of a character - signifies that the meaning of character is associated with something metallic. Or the radical for "grass" - typically at the top, such as in "flower" 花 - denotes lesser vegetation, while the radical for "tree" 木 - typically at the left - the arboreal, or at least something usually made of wood.

Kanji stroke

Kanji are listed in the dictionary by stroke number, one stroke being defined as a portion of the character that is created without lifting the pen from the paper. A single stroke is therefore typically a line or a dot, however a stroke can therefore cover a multi-angled line if the calligraphic convention is to create such a line as a continuity. The stroke number of the radical determines the overall organization of a kanji dictionary, with stroke number of non-radical elements governing order of listing within the radical-determined subdivisions. Therefore, a kanji dictionary begins with the kanji for "one": a single horizonal stroke: 一. The kanji in common use (or, joyo kanji) with the most strokes is that for the word "to heed" (kanga[miru] 鑑[みる]) with 23 strokes.

Kanji readings

Two methods of reading the kanji developed over time:
on yomi ("Chinese reading")
kun yomi ("Japanese reading").
on yomi, while it refers to the Chinese reading of the character, literally means "sound reading," i.e. the sound of the character in the original Chinese. kun yomi literally means "explanatory reading," i.e., the Japanese translation of the character.

Thus the character for "go" - 行 - has "gyo" or "ko" as its on yomi and "iku" as its kun yomi, on and ko being how the Chinese said the word "go," and "iku" being the Japanese word for "go." The reason for multiple on yomi, as in the case of "go," is that kanji were introduced from different parts of China at different periods, so variations from within China have remained in the Japanese system.

Japanese newspaper kanji.

A knowledge of the basic kanji (Chinese characters) is essential to be able to understand a Japanese newspaper, book or official document



Joyo Kanji 常用漢字

The basic set of 2,136 Chinese characters (out of a complete number of many, many thousand more characters) is studied at schools from the first year of elementary school onwards. The first set of 1,850 "Current Characters" (Toyo Kanji) was issued by the Japanese government in 1946 in an effort to simplify and standardize the language. This was replaced by a list of Joyo Kanji in 1981 which was last re-issued in 2010. The Joyo Kanji consist of 1,006 characters taught in Japanese elementary schools (the kyoiku kanji, "educational characters"), and 1,130 additional characters taught in secondary schools.

A knowledge of around 2-3,000 characters is considered necessary to be able to understand Japanese newspapers and magazines.

Japanese sign.

Understanding Japanese signs may well be beyond most visitors to Japan



Japanese building sign.

Japanese place name sign written in kanji - on the whole most place names use Chinese characters

Chinese & Japanese Characters

Although similar, characters used in China and Japan are not identical, as reforms and simplifications to the writing system have been introduced in both countries since 1945, particularly in China. Meanings for individual characters, though often the same, can have very different meanings when used in combination.

Kanji Input

Kanji characters are formed from inputting hiragana or romaji from computer keyboards, electronic translation dictionaries or mobile phone keypads. Typically typing a phrase or word in romaji will produce hiragana which then automatically brings up a number of kanji candidates for the user to choose from. (Synonyms are very common in Japanese, thus the multiple kanji candidates.) In the sentence "I am a doctor." (watashi wa isha desu 私は医者です) the characters for watashi (I) and isha (doctor) are generated by inputting the romaji/hiragana.

Japanese kanji aid.

Sixth grade Kanji learning wall chart

Kanji Resources

Some useful books for getting started with kanji are :
The Original Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary
The Kanji Dictionary
Essential Kanji
Kanji Pict-o-Graphix.


Books on Japanese Kanji


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