Kanji – the most formidable hurdle for learners of Japanese!
We said earlier that kanji is a logographic system, in which each symbol corresponds to a “block of meaning”.
生 life, birth
活 vivid, lively
“Block of meaning” is the best phrase, because one kanji is not necessarily a “word” on its own.
You might have to combine one kanji with another in order to make an actual word, and also to express more complex concepts:
生 + 活 = 生活 lifestyle
食 + 生活 = 食生活 eating habits
If that sounds complicated, remember that you see the same principle in other languages.
Think about the word ‘telephone’ in English – you can break it down into two main components derived from Greek:
‘tele’ (far) + ‘phone’ (sound) = telephone
Neither of them are words in their own right.
So there are lots and lots of kanji, but in order to make more sense of them we can start by categorising them.
There are several categories of kanji, starting with the ‘pictographs’ (象形文字shōkei moji), which look like the objects they represent:
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
In fact, there aren’t too many of these pictographs.
Around 90% of the kanji in fact come from six other categories, in which several basic elements (called ‘radicals’) are combined to form new concepts.
人 (‘man’ as a radical) + 木 (‘tree’) = 休 (‘to rest’)
These are known as 形声文字 keisei moji or ‘radical-phonetic compounds’.
You can think of these characters as being made up of two parts:
- A radical that tells you what category of word it is: animals, plants, metals, etc.)
- A second component that completes the character and give it its pronunciation (a sort of Japanese approximation from Chinese).
So that’s the story behind the kanji, but what are they used for in Japanese writing?
Typically, they are used to represent concrete concepts.
When you look at a piece of Japanese writing, you’ll see kanji being used for nouns, and in the stem of verbs, adjectives and adverbs.
Here are some of them from our sample text at the start of the article:
日本人 Japanese people
多国籍料理 multinational cuisine
Now, here’s the big question!
Once you’ve learnt to read or write a kanji, how do you pronounce it?
If you took the character from the original Chinese, it would usually only have one pronunciation.
However, by the time these characters leave China and reach Japan, they usually have two or sometimes even more pronunciations.
How or why does this happen?
Let’s look at an example.
To say ‘mountain’, the Chinese use the pictograph 山 which depicts a mountain with three peaks. The pronunciation of this character in Chinese is shān (in the first tone).
Now, in Japanese the word for ‘mountain’ is ‘yama’.
So in this case, the Japanese decided to borrow the character山from Chinese, but to pronounce it differently: yama.
However, this isn’t the end of the story!
The Japanese did decide to borrow the pronunciation from the original Chinese, but only to use it when that character is used in compound words.
So, in this case, when the character 山 is part of a compound word, it is pronounced as san/zan – clearly an approximation to the original Chinese pronunciation.
Here’s the kanji on its own:
山は… Yama wa… The mountain….
And here’s the kanji when it appears in compound words:
火山は… Kazan wa The volcano…
富士山は… Fujisan wa… Mount Fuji….
To recap, every kanji has at least two pronunciations.
The first one (the so-called訓読み kun’yomi or ‘meaning reading’) has an original Japanese pronunciation, and is used with one kanji on it’s own.
The second one (called音読み on’yomi or ‘sound-based reading’) is used in compound words, and comes from the original Chinese.
Makes sense, right? 😉
In Japan, there’s an official number of kanji that are classified for “daily use” (常用漢字joyō kanji) by the Japanese Ministry of Education – currently 2,136.
(Although remember that the number of actual words that you can form using these characters is much higher.)