The last and most notorious aspect of the Japanese written language is Kanji, which are Chinese characters adapted for Japanese. Most words in Japanese are written in Kanji even though they are still pronounced with the Japanese phonetic sounds represented by Hiragana and Katakana.
When learning Kanji, it is very important to learn it with the proper stroke order and direction from the beginning in order to avoid developing any bad habits. Japanese learners often think that stroke order doesn’t matter as long as the end product looks the same. However, what they don’t realize is that there are thousands of characters and they are not always meticulously written the way they appear in print. Proper stroke order helps ensure the characters look recognizable even when you write them quickly or use more cursive styles.
The simpler characters called radicals are often reused as components in larger characters. Once you learn the radical stroke order and get used to the patterns, you’ll find that it’s not difficult to figure out the correct stroke order for most Kanji.
One good general rule of thumb is that strokes usually start from the top-left corner toward the bottom-right. This means that horizontal strokes are generally written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. In any case, if you’re not sure about the stroke order, you should always verify by looking the character up in a Kanji dictionary.
Kanji in Vocabulary
There are roughly over 2,000 characters used in modern Japanese so you can imagine that memorizing them one-by-one as you might for syllabaries such as Hiragana does not work very well.
An effective strategy for mastering Kanji is learning them with new vocabulary within a larger context. This way, we can associate contextual information with the character in order to reinforce memory. Remember that Kanji, ultimately, is used to represent actual words. So it is important to focus not so much on the characters themselves but the words and vocabulary that include those characters.
In this section, we will learn how Kanji works by learning a few common characters and vocabulary.
The first Kanji we will learn is 「人」, the character for ‘person.’ It is a simple two-stroke character where each stroke starts at the top. You may have noticed that the character as rendered by the font is not always the same as the hand-written style below. This is another important reason to check the stroke order.
Kanji in Japanese can have one or several readings. The reading for Kanji is split into two major categories called kun-yomi and on-yomi. Kun-yomi is the Japanese reading of the character while on-yomi is based on the original Chinese pronunciation.
Generally, Kun-yomi is used for words that only use one character. The actual word for “person” is one example.
Example: 人 【ひと】 – person
Kun-yomi is also used for native Japanese words including most adjectives and verbs.
On-yomi, on the other hand, is mostly used for words that originate from Chinese, which often use 2 or more Kanji. For that reason, on-yomi is often written in Katakana. We’ll see more examples as we learn more characters. With 「人」, one very useful example of an on-yomi is to attach it to names of countries to describe nationality.
- アメリカ人 【アメリカ・じん】 – American (person)
- フランス人 【フランス・じん】 – French (person)
While most characters will not have multiple kun-yomi or on-yomi, the more common characters such as 「人」 will generally have a lot more readings. Here, I only list the ones that are applicable to the vocabulary we learned. Learning a reading without a context within vocabulary will only create unnecessary confusion so I do not recommend learning all the readings at once.
Now that you have the general idea, let’s learn some more vocabulary and the Kanji used within them. The stroke order diagrams with red highlights show you where each stroke starts.
- 日本 【に・ほん】 – Japan
- 本 【ほん】 – book
|Definition: sun; day
|Definition: origin; book
- 学生 【がく・せい】 – student
- 先生 【せん・せい】 – teacher
|Definition: ahead; precedence
- 高い 【たか・い】 – tall; expensive
- 学校 【がっ・こう】 – school
- 高校 【こう・こう】 – high school
|Definition: tall; expensive
- 小さい 【ちい・さい】 – small
- 大きい 【おお・きい】 – big
- 小学校 【しょう・がっ・こう】 – elementary school
- 中学校 【ちゅう・がっ・こう】 – middle school
- 大学 【だい・がく】 – college; university
- 小学生 【しょう・がく・せい】 – elementary school student
- 中学生 【ちゅう・がく・せい】 – middle school student
- 大学生 【だい・がく・せい】 – college; university student
|Definition: middle; inside
- 国 【くに】 – country
- 中国 【ちゅう・ごく】 – China
- 中国人 【ちゅう・ごく・じん】 – Chinese (person)
- 日本語 【に・ほん・ご】 – Japanese language
- 中国語 【ちゅう・ごく・ご】 – Chinese language
- 英語 【えい・ご】 – English
- フランス語 【フランス・ご】 – French
- スペイン語 【スペイン・ご】 – Spanish
With only 14 characters, we’ve managed to learn over 25 words ranging from China to elementary school student! Kanji is usually regarded as a major obstacle but as you can see, you can easily turn it into a valuable tool if you learn it in the context of vocabulary.
Okurigana and changing readings
You may have noticed some words that end with Hiragana such as 「高い」 or 「大きい」. Because those words are adjectives, the trailing Hiragana, called Okurigana are needed to perform various conjugations without affecting the Kanji. The thing to watch out for is remembering exactly where the Kanji ends and Hiragana begins. For example, you never want to write 「大きい」 as 「大い」.
You may have also noticed that the Kanji readings don’t always match the reading in a particular word. For example, 「学校」 is read as 「がっこう」 and not 「がくこう」. Readings often go through these small transformations to make pronunciation easier.
Ultimately, you’ll want to check the reading for any new words you encounter. Fortunately, it has become much easier to look up new Kanji thanks to online tools and electronic dictionaries. You can find a tutorial on how to use these tools at the following link:
Different Kanji for similar words
Kanji is often used to make subtle distinctions or give a different shade of meaning for a word. In some cases, it is very important to remember to use the correct Kanji for the correct situation. For example, while the adjective for hot is 「あつい」, when used to describe the climate, you must write it as 「暑い」. When you are describing a hot object or person, you must write it as 「熱い」 instead.
|Definition: hot (for climate only)
|Definition: heat; fever
In other cases, while there is generic Kanji that can be used for all situations for a given word, the writer may use a more specialized version for stylistic reasons. The examples in this book will generally use the generic and usually simpler Kanji. If you want to find out more about using different Kanji for the same word, see the following link: https://guidetojapanese.org/learn/resources/learning_words