To write in the Japanese language, one must know three, yes I said THREE, alphabets. The first two are phonetic alphabets known as Hiragana and Katakana. The third is Kanji. Here I am going to quickly go over how to read Kanji. But first…
What are Kanji?
According to the Kanji & Kana dictionary, Kanji are pictographic-ideographic characters, adopted from the Chinese language and used for conceptual words and indigenous names.
When the Japanese adopted Chinese characters into their writing system, they kept the meaning of the characters the same, but changed the pronunciation to fit the Japanese language. This is why Kanji have more than one pronunciation in Japanese.
There are over 20,000 Kanji. 6,000 – 7,000 are used in everyday written Japanese, and over a 1000 are taught in the first 6 years of schooling.
Kanji have two readings:
1. ON DOKU 音読
ON DOKU is a Chinese-derived phonetic reading. This mean that this pronunciation is derived from the Chinese language. ON readings are identified by the use of KATAKANA or UPPERCASE LETTERS. For example: SHIN– truth, reality.
2. KUN DOKU 訓読
KUN DOKU is the Japanese-derived literal meaning. This means that KUN reading comes from native Japanese and is the literal meaning of the Kanji. KUN readings are identified by the use of hiragana or lowercase letter. For example: ma– true, pure.
There are four criteria to determine when to use an ON or a KUN reading:
- One character words are read with KUN DOKU– 心 kokoro “mind, heart”.
- Words with okurigana are pronounced with KUN DOKU– 悟り satori “enlightenment”
- Words without okurigana are pronounced with ON DOKU – –見性 KENSHŌ “to see oneself, enlightenment”
- Personal names are usually read with KUN DOKU — 山田 Yamada
*Okurigana is when kana (hiragana or katakana) follow Kanji to complete its meaning.