Japan Kanji Museum

Japan Kanji Museum & Library, Kyoto 漢字ミュージアム

The impressive Japan Kanji Museum right on Shijo in Gion near Yasaka Shrine opened in June 2016 in what was once an old school building.

Kanji Museum building.
Japan Kanji Museum entrance building
The Kanji Museum, Gion, Kyoto.
Japan Kanji Museum & Library, Gion, Kyoto

Housed in a modern conversion designed to have the look of a Kyoto machiya, the Japan Kanji Museum & Library introduces the history of kanji (Chinese characters) in China and their spread to Japan. Visitors are first invited to view a high-definition video of the birth and growth of what is the world's oldest writing system still in use today.

A wall panel charts the development of kanji from its beginnings in China when characters were first written on sand and earth and then on turtle shells as part of a ritual of divination to its arrival in Japan during the 5th century. First katakana and then hiragana were developed in the Heian Period for priests (men) and women respectively to transcribe and pronounce the characters.

Main Hall of Kanji Museum.
Main Gallery of the Japan Kanji Museum showing the history and development of the characters
Exploring the kanji, Kanji Museum, Kyoto.
Wall panel, Japan Kanji Museum, Kyoto

The 50,000 Kanji Tower (漢字5万字タワー) stands close to the stairs connecting the first and second floors and is a 7.8-meter high column displaying the characters found in the Dai Kan-Wa jiten dictionary. The different colors and sizes represent how common the characters are in everyday usage.

The museum's first floor also charts the development of kanji published in wood block prints and later in the first newspapers in the Edo and early Meiji periods. A modern kanji typewriter produced by Toshiba and other means of kanji writing such as pens, pencils, mobile phones and computers are also on display.

50,000 Kanji Tower at the Kanji Museum.
50,000 Kanji Tower, Kanji Museum, Kyoto

The second floor contains the library and lots of fun, interactive games to test your kanji knowledge of such things as everyday household objects, sushi, animal, bird and fish kanji as well as your familiarity with the radicals that are the building blocks of kanji.

This section is a lot of fun and must appeal to the elementary and junior high school students the museum is primarily aimed at.

The second floor also has the original "Kanji of the Year" on display - huge pieces of calligraphy of a single character that best represents the events of a particular year, drawn in a special ceremony by the head priest of Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto on the 12 December each year.

For example, in 2010 the kanji chosen was sho (暑) or hot, in 2011, the year of the huge earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, the kanji was kizuna (絆) - meaning bonds, ties or connections pronounced kizuna.

This character was chosen due to the large level of support and help ordinary Japanese gave to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in March that year that devastated the Tohoku area of the country north east of Tokyo.

In 2017, the "Kanji of the Year" was kita (北) reflecting the threat posed to Japan by repeated North Korean missile tests.

Kanji of the Year at the Kanji Museum.
Kanji of the Year, Japan Kanji Museum, Gion, Kyoto

If you are studying Japanese, the Kanji Museum can be a useful couple of hours, especially if you visit with friends and compete at the interactive games on offer. Try your luck at four-kanji compound phrases (yoji jukugo), kanji for country names (米国, 中国, 英国, 仏国, 蘭国, 泰国 etc), the different readings for the same character, regional kanji and kokuji - kanji originating in Japan rather than China.

However, the lack of English signage at present, means that visitors with no knowledge of the Japanese language may struggle to enjoy the museum, even though furigana is used on the wall charts. There are plans to introduce English, Chinese, and Korean explanations in the near future.

Test your kanji skill at  the Kanji Museum in Kyoto.
Test your kanji skill at the Kanji Museum in Kyoto

The Kanji Museum is run by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, the organization that runs the Kanji Kentei Test (漢字検定 or 漢検 kanken for short) and the annual Kanji of the Year (今年の漢字) poll. More and more foreign Japanese language-learners are now sitting the Kanji Kentei Test.

Waraku Cafe, Kanji Museum, Kyoto.
Waraku Cafe, Kanji Museum, Kyoto

The building also includes a cafe - Waraku - and a shop where visitors can purchase a variety of Kyoto and kanji-themed souvenirs.

The shop has an impressive replica of a hoko float from the annual Gion Matsuri and a large electronic folding screen or byobu showing the history of Kyoto.

Sushi kanji cup at Kanji Museum.
Sushi kanji cup, Kanji Museum, Gion Kyoto

Japan Kanji Museum (Official site in Japanese)
Gion-machi, Higashiyama-ku
Kyoto, Kyoto 605-0074
Tel: 075 757 8686

Hours: Open from 9.30am to 5pm
Closed Mondays, unless a national holiday, and over the New Year period.

Admission: Adults 800 yen
University & High School students 500 yen
Junior High School & Elementary School students 300 yen

From Kyoto Station, Kyoto city buses 12, 31, 46, 80, 100, 201, 202, 203, 206, 207 to Gion.

The nearest Kyoto subway station is Higashiyama. Use Exit 2. Shijo Kawaramachi Station is an 8-minute walk away. Shijo Keihan Station is just a 5-minute walk.

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