Post Reply Kanji Lessons: Introduction (Read first!)
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Posted 5/7/09 , edited 5/18/09
Whenever I talk to people learning the language, the first thing I usually get is something along the lines of, "why the heck are there so many Kanji to memorize!?" and "Japanese is easy... but the Kanji is just hard!" Indeed, the Chinese characters that abound in the Japanese language are perhaps one of the more formidable opponents that deter people from having immediate access to the written language. There are around 1,800 or so of these characters used in everyday publications, like newspapers and periodicals, and an additional 200 or more used specifically in names. This makes around 2,000 or so Chinese characters that are more or less essential before having reasonable proficiency in the Japanese language.

These 2,000 "essential" characters are excellently expounded in P.G. O'Neill's Essential Kanji, which I urge any student serious in the language to purchase for its comprehensive coverage of the subject matter. My Kanji lessons, here, will more or less follow the order prescribed by O'Neill, but I encourage everyone to purchase this great book to maximize all that you may learn, here.


Lesson 1: Let's Count the Days! (characters 1~14)

Introduction to Kanji

Perhaps the first thing people wonder about regarding Kanji is its purpose: why do we need the Kanji when there's already the Hiragana and Katakana to begin with? One of the more pertinent reasons is that homonyms, or words with the same pronunciation but different meaning, abound in the Japanese language, and Kanji serves the purpose of differentiating one word from the other in cases where they would otherwise be confused. Spoken variants would simply be distinguished by accent or context, alone. Another reason, though not formally expressed, is that Kanji eases the reading process by grouping "ideas" into characters that can be discerned on the spot.

To put it simply, compare looking at a tree and reading the word "tree" on a piece of paper. When you read the word "tree", your mind looks at the letters, individually, and combines them together to create the idea that is attached to it ~ namely a tree. When you look at a tree, your mind immediately attaches the image to the idea to which it is associated with, in this case, a tree. Similarly, pictographic elements in a written language, supposedly, "speeds up" the thinking process and allows ideas to be likened to watching a video. Though this idea may be contended here and there, the basic premise is that the pictographic elements of Kanji aid in making reading simpler. Others would just say it's an alternative paradigm to the whole concept of ideas of association.

Lastly, Kanji characters usually serve as markers for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Unless the word is a native word with a pronunciation that is uniquely Japanese, a reader can more or less assume that Kanji characters are associated with "centers of thought", in that if we were to ignore elements of speech (i.e. inflections, particles, tense, etc.) altogether, you could pretty much infer the meaning of a sentence through Kanji alone (although not accurately).

Components of Kanji

The annoying thing about Japanese Kanji is that a single character may have different readings depending on the context, placement, and associated characters that the Kanji is presented with. This said, there are two basic readings for a Kanji, an Onyomi and a Kunyomi reading.

The Onyomi reading refers to the "Chinese reading" of the Kanji, and is an approximation based on the original "sound" of the character from its original Chinese source. The character (sea), for example, has the Onyomi reading "Kai", which is similar to the original "Hai" (with a retroflex) in the Chinese reading.

The Kunyomi is more or less understood as the "Japanese reading" of a Kanji character, and is the sound closest to what it represents in Japanese speech. As in the previous example, the Kunyomi reading would be "umi".

Some characters may have several Onyomi and Kunyomi, while others might have no Kunyomi at all. What you have to keep in mind is that Kanji characters may not necessarily have similar meanings between Onyomi and Kunyomi. This means that though an Onyomi reading may have so and so meaning, this does not necessarily mean that the Kunyomi reading would have the same meaning as that of the Onyomi reading. To truly master a character, therefore, the student is urged to memorize not just the appearance and reading of a character, but the meaning attributed to each reading within a character.

Format of the Lessons

In each lesson, a GIF of the Kanji character will be presented, showing the number of strokes in the character and its stroke order. For beginners, it is advisable to follow the stroke order, but if you're used to it, you can change stroke orders here and there, whichever makes things easier for you. The GIFs are based on the JEDict database, which I highly recommend students to download (for Macintosh).

Following each GIF is the Onyomi reading in ALL CAPS, and the Kunyomi reading in italics. Onyomi with readings that can stand as independent words will be indicated with an asterisk ( * ) mark. Meanings of each reading will be separated by semicolons, and associated inflections (for Kunyomi) will be placed in parenthesis.

When necessary, indicators for the Radical of the character (indicated as "R: word") will be included (see the end of this section for an explanation on this). Examples for each kanji will also be given, along with their meanings. As much as possible, these examples will employ combinations from previously learned characters to enhance learning.

GAKU* learning, study; mana (bu) learn [R: Child]
e.g. 入学する ~ nyûgaku suru ~ to enter school

Comment: This character has an old variant, this form of which is usually found on school plaques or certificates. People commonly memorize this character by imagining "children (radical) under a roof = studying (in school)".

I may sometimes give a commentary on the character where I deem it necessary. These may be in the form of warnings so as not to confuse one character for another due to similarities in appearance. Note also that alternative or "old" versions of some kanji will be shown, as well (in grayscale). This may be useful, as some of these old variants are still present in some publications, so though you don't need to memorize them, at the very least be aware of them.


If there's anything to remember regarding Kanji, it's that they're made up of radicals and phonetic elements. The Radical simply gives us the general "area of meaning" in a character, and helps in searching it up in dictionaries. The Phonetic element gives us an idea of how it is sounded. More important is the Radical, which is an element or character within another. I won't delve too much into how to identify radicals, but as early as now, note patterns in characters and how certain elements tend to repeat one another. The characters , , and , for example, all have the water radical in them (the three "dashes" on the left of the character), while , , and all have the grass radical (the "hat" on top of each character).

Instead of individually stating out what each radical looks like (since each may have variant forms in certain characters), I leave it up to the student to notice recurring patterns in characters that have radicals indicated by the R in the character description.

Final Notes

Some people wonder when using Onyomi or Kunyomi is warranted. For what it's worth, it is purely a matter of context, but you can almost always assume that a Kanji is read using the Kunyomi when it is followed by inflections (such as the hiragana "ぶ" in the kunyomi "mana (bu)" in the previous example). Hence, if you see 学ぶ, you can assume that the kanji is read as "mana" and not "gaku" (be careful of conjugated variants, such as 学んで or 学びたい). On the other hand, Onyomi is used most of the time, but not always, for combined kanji or compound words. Therefore, if you see 留学生, you can assume that it is "gaku" and not "mana(bu)" in this case. 入学する in the previous example is a verbal noun (with the verb "する" which means "to do"), and in effect, has a different inflection than that used for the kunyomi reading. In this case, you should also assume that the reading is the Onyomi over the Kunyomi.

Note that what I just explained is simply a guide, and may not necessarily be the case all the time. In addition, several other uncommon readings exist for characters beyond those indicated in my lessons.


Majority of my sources and lessons will come from P.G. O'Neill's Essential Kanji.
GIFs and character images sourced from JEDict.
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Posted 7/7/11
Wow this was so helpful! Thanks!
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