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Sep 21, 2018

What is Kanji? Why is Kanji necessary for Japanese?

Hello! I'm Kosuke!

How is your study going?

Maybe you already know that Japanese has three types of characters, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

In this article, I will explain about Kanji!

Is this too late?

This is the 41st article of this blog.

I have already explained about Hiragana and Katakana.
  Hiragana >>
  Katakana >>

I even developed small games for them...!
  Hiragana quiz >>
  Katakana quiz >>

However, I didn't explain about Kanji until now...

Did I forget it? hehe

Actually, I think Kanji is too difficult for beginners.

In addition to that, Kanji is not mandatory to remember for you to speak Japanese.

Japanese children speak Japanese without knowing Kanji.

However, for Japanese people, Kanji are very important characters.

Without Kanji, Japanese sentences are very difficult to read even for native Japanese people...

Kanji makes it easier for Japanese people to read sentences.

Let's learn what is Kanji in this article!

Also, after understanding the importance of Kanji from this article, please try to remember Kanji characters in this vocabulary list:
  Japanese Vocabulary List >>

Below is the index of this article!

1. What is Kanji

1-1. Relation with Chinese

Kanji is the character imported from China.

If we write Kanji in Kanji, it is "漢字".
(I am sorry for the confusing sentence. hehe)

"漢(kan)" is the old way to call China.

"字(ji)" means "characters".

Therefore, "漢字(kan ji)" means "Chinese characters".

After Kanji was imported from China, Hiragana and Katakana were made based on Kanji.

Therefore, Kanji is very similar to Chinese characters.

When we read Chinese sentences, we can understand the rough meaning of the sentence, even though we don't know Chinese.

It is because Kanji is very similar to Chinese characters.

Maybe, Chinese people can understand the rough meaning of Japanese Kanji characters.

However, pronunciation of Kanji is very different from Chinese.
So I can't understand what they are speaking in Chinese.

1-2. Kanji includes meanings

One Hiragana or Katakana character represents one sound.

For example, the Hiragana character "あ" represents the sound "a".

However, "あ(a)" doesn't have any special meaning.

It is just representing the sound.

It is the same as the alphabet.

On the other hand, one Kanji character represents one meaning.

(Sometimes, it represents more than one.)

For example, "電(den)" is a Kanji character, which represents "electric".

"力(ryoku)" is a Kanji, which represents "power".

When we connect them, they become "電力(den ryoku)".

"電力(den ryoku)" means "electric power".

"線(sen)" means "line" or "wire".

If we connect it with "電(den)", it becomes "電線(den sen)".

"電線(den sen)" means "electric wire".

Like above, one Kanji character basically represents one meaning.

By connecting them, we can make a word which includes the meaning of both Kanji characters.

1-3. On-yomi and Kun-yomi

Basically, one Kanji character has two ways to pronounce it.

The ways to pronounce them are called "On-yomi" and "Kun-yomi".

"On-yomi" is Chinese-style reading.

"On-yomi" is based on the sound of very old Chinese languages.

"Kun-yomi" is native Japanese reading.

The sound of "Kun-yomi" is based on the original Japanese language.

For example, "草" is a Kanji, which means "grass" or "weed".

"On-yomi" of "草" is "sou".

"Kun-yomi" of "草" is "kusa".

When we read "草", we pronounce it "kusa", which is "Kun-yomi".

It is because "Kun-yomi" is the original Japanese way to read.

However, when we connect more than two Kanji characters, it is usually pronounced using "On-yomi".

For example, if we connect the two Kanji characters, "草" and "食", they become "草食(sou shoku)".

"食(shoku)" means "eating".
So "草食(sou shoku)" means "herbivorous".

In this case, "草" makes the sound "sou".

Like above, when we make a word by connecting different Kanji characters, we often use "On-yomi".

2. Why is Kanji necessary for Japanese?

When I was a child, I asked my mother,
"why should we learn Kanji?"

Learning Kanji was so hard for me, and there are too many Kanji characters.
I didn't think there was enough benefit to learn Kanji, because Hiragana can represent all sounds of Japanese.

I wanted to play video games instead of studying it.

My mother replied,
Japanese is too difficult to read without Kanji.

Now, I think I can understand what she wanted to say...

2-1. Indicate clause

When we see a sentence written in only Hiragana, it is so difficult to read...

The sentence below is just an example.
You don't need to understand the meaning.

ge n da i no ni ho n sha ka i no sho mo n da i wo i c cho u i s se ki ni ka i ke tsu su ru ko to wa i chi ji ru shi ku ko n na n de a ru to i e yo u

The sentence above means:
It is possible to say that, resolving the problems of modern Japanese society, in a short period of time, is significantly difficult.

We can understand the meaning of the Japanese sentence.
We can understand, but it is very hard to read!!!

Mainly because it is difficult to know where each word starts and ends.

If it is English, we can easily know because the sentence includes spaces.

However, Japanese sentences don't include spaces.

If we use Kanji for the sentence above, it becomes:


Yes, it became easier to read...

If we put line breaks right before each Kanji word, the sentence is chopped, like this:


Each line becomes a block which has an understandable meaning.

現代の: modern
日本社会の: Japanese society's
諸問題を: problems
一朝一夕に: in a short period of time
解決することは: resolving
著しく: significantly
困難であると: is difficult
言えよう: It is possible to say

Like above, Kanji helps us to understand the meaning of the sentence so much.

2-2. Enable to predict meanings

Do you know the English word, "anthropology"?

The answer is probably "yes" if you are a native English speaker...

Actually, I didn't know this English word until recently...

If we write "anthropology" in Kanji, it is "人類学(jinruigaku)".

"人" means human.
"類" means kind.
"学" means study.

Therefore, we can predict that "人類学" is the study about humankind.

All three Kanji characters, "人", "類", and "学", are taught in elementary school in Japan.
So even elementary school students can predict the meaning of this word easily.

Sometimes, there are predictable words also in English.

For example, if you know the word "believe", you can predict the meaning of "unbelievable".

However, in Japanese, we can always understand the meaning of the word from Kanji characters.

2-3. Distinguish homonyms

In Japanese, there are so many homonyms.

For example, the sound "kanji" has two meanings below:


"漢字" means Kanji.
"感じ" means "feeling".

They have the completely same pronunciation.

If we use Hiragana for them, it is "かんじ(kanji)".

We can't know which meaning is used only from that Hiragana.

If you already know some Kanji, it is better to use when you write something, because it prevents misunderstanding caused by homonyms.

As another example, when we say "きげん(kigen)".

It has many meanings:

"起源 (origin)",
"期限 (deadline)",
"機嫌 (mood)",
"紀元 (era)",
 and so on...

If we stop to use Kanji, many misunderstandings will happen because it is difficult to read, and there are many homonyms in Japanese...

3. Radical of Kanji character

"Radicals" are parts of Kanji characters.

For example, the Kanji characters below have the same radical:

 枝: branch
 林: woods, forest
 根: root
 杉: cedar
 松: pine tree

On the left side of the Kanji characters, they have "木".

"木(ki)" is a Kanji character, which means "wood".

Therefore, this radical has the meaning of "wood".

When we put "木(ki)" on the left side of a Kanji character, that part is called "Ki-hen".

Ki-hen is used for Kanji characters, which are related to wood.

For another example, there is a radical regarding water.

 液 (liquid)
 海 (sea)
 池 (pond)
 泳 (swim)
 沈 (sink)
 波 (wave)
 浅 (shallow)
 深 (deep)
 湖 (lake)
 涙 (teardrop)
 沖 (offshore)
 沢 (swamp)
 流 (flowing)
 港 (harbor)
 汁 (soup)
 沼 (marsh)
 湾 (bay)
 漁 (fishing)
 潤 (moisture)
 滝 (waterfall)

This radical is called "Sanzui".

Even if you have never seen the Kanji characters, you can anticipate the meaning of the Kanji from radicals.

Radicals are not always on the left side.

They are sometimes on the right side, upper side, or lower side.

For example, the Kanji characters below have a radical on the top of them:

 草 (grass, weed)
 芝 (turf)
 花 (flower)
 芋 (potato)
 茎 (stalk)
 葉 (leaf)
 苗 (seedling)
 苺 (strawberry)
 茶 (tea)
 菜 (vegetable)
 菊 (chrysanthemum)
 藁 (straw)

The radical is called "Kusa-kammuri".

All the Kanji characters above are related to plants.

In most cases, one Kanji will consist of some radicals.

Therefore understanding the meanings of radicals will help you understand the meanings of  the Kanji characters, and it sometimes tells you how to pronounce the Kanji characters.

4. Conclusion

As I explained first, Kanji is not mandatory to remember for speaking Japanese.

However, you will use them when you read Japanese.

At first, maybe it is very tough to remember Kanji characters.

However, understanding radicals will help you to remember.

Also, I made a Kanji Quiz to help you to remember Kanji characters:
  Japanese Kanji Quiz >>

I hope this free quiz application will help you.

After you remember Kanji characters, it will help you to read Japanese sentences!

I hope this article helps you to study Japanese!
Please enjoy studying Japanese!

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