What is Kanji? How is it Used in Japanese?

by Megan Taylor Stephens

What is Kanji?

Kanji (漢字) is one of three writing systems of Japan. Kanji are Chinese characters that are best described as ideographs, or written representations of ideas. In other words, each kanji symbol represents a meaning or idea. Kanji can also be considered logographic because the symbol or character represents a word.

Some kanji are easy to decipher. Examples of simple kanji are 二for the number “two” (ni) and 山for “mountain” (yama). Imagine a three-humped mountain that got eroded over time to a stick figure. Most kanji are not so transparent. In the word kanji, kan (漢)means China, and ji (字)means characters or writing.

There are 1,006 kanji for Japanese elementary school children to learn. These basic kanji are called kyōiku kanji (教育漢字). By the time they graduate high school, Japanese pupils have learned an additional 1,130. These 2,136 characters make up the everyday, core kanji referred to as jōyō kanji (常用漢字).

“How many kanji are there in all?” you could be wondering. Even though there are more than 40,000 kanji in Japanese, many are considered obscure or obsolete. You only need to know about 2,000 to read the Japanese newspaper! Well educated Japanese people might know up to 8,000.

What is the History of Kanji?

In Chinese, kanji are called hanzi, which is written as 漢字 in traditional script and 汉字 in simplified script. Chinese characters were discovered carved into turtle shells in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), and these oracle bone carvings are some of the earliest forms of writing in China. Similar symbols kept popping up around China, so historians know the writing was systematic. Although the Sumerians got an earlier start on their cuneiform writing, it eventually petered out. That means Chinese characters are the world’s most ancient continuously used writing system!

Japanese is thought to have been an oral language until about 500 or 600 AD. That is when, during the Yamato era, China introduced their kanji writing system to Japan alongside the spread of commerce and Buddhism. Having a common way to record transactions and share ideas was useful for Japanese monks, government bureaucrats, and tradespeople.

How did Kanji Evolve?

Early on in China, kanji were pictographs that looked more like the real object, such as a tree with foliage on top. Later the foliage disappeared and only an abstract trunk, limbs and roots remained: 木 (tree, ki). Over time, the elements could be mixed and matched into compound ideographs. You can lean and smoosh a person 人against a tree 木 to symbolize the idea of resting 休. You can build from there by adding the concept of rest 休to another concept, like breath 息, and you get the idea of rest and relaxation: 休息.

Although understanding kanji might seem complicated to a second language learner, it’s largely a matter of combining parts of meanings, just as is done with Greek or Latin roots and affixes. By putting parts together, we generate words such as micro (tiny) + scope, scop (look) + ic (adjective suffix) for “microscopic.” The added bonus with kanji is that you get more visual clues about the meaning, which helps with recall!

Differences Between Japanese and Chinese Kanji

You might wonder how Japanese kanji and Chinese kanji are different. After Japan adopted kanji from China, the two kanji systems began to diverge to some degree. However, it is estimated that about 70% of the meanings conveyed by kanji are still shared between the two languages.

One thing that happened with kanji in China is that many characters were simplified. For example, the word “to like” depicts a mother and child together: 好. This is how the kanji was introduced to Japan thousands of years ago. Over time, 好 was simplified in China to 欢 but stayed in its original kanji form in Japanese.

Another major difference between Chinese and Japanese writing is that Japanese only uses kanji for nouns, verb stems, and adjective stems. Hiragana, the simpler kanji offshoot, is used for grammatical housekeeping like verb conjugation, inflections, or particles. That’s why in Japanese there’s a mix of kanji and hiragana in one sentence. (More on hiragana soon!)

The effort to put spoken Japanese into the Chinese written form has always been a bit clunky. This is because the basic grammar, phonetic structure, and just about everything else is so different between the two languages!

What is Hiragana and Katakana?

Kanji was deemed too complicated for the average Japanese commoner, including women, to learn. Even if they did learn kanji, they were rarely in positions of authority to need to write it. But along the way, the average Joe or Jane (or Kenji or Keiko) probably clamored to get some literacy skills to enjoy the entertainment, practicality, knowledge, and even power that come with understanding the written word.

At the same time, it was recognized that kanji alone couldn’t encapsulate all of the elements of the spoken Japanese language. Japan needed its own writing system. Thankfully, in the 9th century, another form of writing called hiragana came into existence in Japan. One style of kanji, manyogana, became more and more cursive and simplified. This manyogana writing shifted into hiragana and became widely known as “women’s writing” (onnade, 女手).

Unlike kanji, one hiragana syllable (or mora, to be precise) doesn’t convey a word meaning in isolation. Instead, the 46 basic syllables of the hiragana “syllabary” behave in a way that is similar to how the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet work. You need to stick the hiragana syllables together to form a word. For example, the Japanese word ume, which means “plum” and sounds like “ooh-may,” can be written in the two hiragana syllables う(u) plus me め (me). It can also be written in the kanji character 梅. 

Hiragana solved a few problems. It made literacy more accessible to common folk. It also made it possible to encode all those little grammatical bits that make Japanese different than Chinese. Take the sentence “I like plums,” which in Japanese is Ume ga suki desu  梅が好きです. Hiragana is used for things like the object marker が (ga) that tells you plums are the target of adoration. 

Katakana appeared around the same time as hiragana. Katakana is similar to hiragana, except it is reserved for proper nouns of foreign origin, borrowed loanwords, and a few other special things such as emphasis. There are 46 basic katakana syllables to learn, and they sound the same as in hiragana but they look a bit different.

Katakana appear more angular than rounded hiragana lettering. Writing the English word “steak” (sutēki ) in four katakana characters looks like ステーキ (“su-te-e-ki”). A good contrast is suteki in hiragana (すてき), which means “splendid.”

Hiragana and katakana are the two writing systems that young Japanese children get exposed to first since they’re a more straightforward alphabet. Kanji is the third and most complex writing system that one never really stops learning well into adulthood.

How Can you Learn Kanji?

The best way to learn Japanese kanji is to get a basic kanji workbook. The workbook teaches you each character in the order that little kids learn them at school, following the established kyōiku kanji (教育漢字).

A kanji workbook will teach you the pronunciations, stroke order, and example words that the character shows up in. Then you write the kanji repeatedly to build up your muscle memory and eventually master the kanji. Watching tutorial videos helps ensure that your pen strokes are correct and the end result is a masterpiece…or at least legible!

You can probably learn a few kanji per week with the old-fashioned workbook approach. The bad news is that, according to this math, learning two new kanji per week means you won’t be able to read a Japanese newspaper for about 20 years. The good news is that you’ll be able to read lots of random—and often inaccurate—kanji on people’s clothing and artwork in no time!

Learn Kanji About Japanese Food

If you came to the Bokksu site because you like Japanese food, here is a short Japanese reading, writing, and speaking lesson:

“I like Japanese food [cooking]” is Nihon ryori ga suki desu. 日本料理が好きです

Let’s break that down into some edible bites!

“Japan” is written 日本and pronounced nihon, or “nee-hone” if you need it spelled phonetically. It can also be pronounced nippon, or “nee-pone,” but not in this particular phrase.

The kanji characters for Japan mean “origin of the sun.” 日 (pronounced ni, nichi, hi, jitsu, ka) means “sun” and 本 (pronounced hon, pon, bon) means “root” or “origin.” Can you visualize how the square sun 日used to be round and had a glowing center? See how tree 木 is marked with a line 本to indicate its root?

You might be peeved because each kanji seems to have multiple variations in terms of pronunciation. We didn’t want to discourage you early on, but it’s true that there are more Japanese-inspired ways to read kanji (kunyomi) and more Chinese-inspired ways to read them (onyomi), and you only know which one it is based on context. The sun (日) in Japan (日本) is pronounced ni but the sun in Sunday (日曜日nichiyōbi ) is pronounced both nichi and bi.

It’s also imperative to only write kanji strokes in a certain order. You get the stroke order drilled into you when you learn to write. It just looks weird if you don’t. Here’s the stroke order for “Japan”:  

Okay, at this rate, it will take another hour to explain the whole sentence! May we instead suggest you grab a snack and some tea from Bokksu.com, look at some kanji tutorials, and soak it all in?

This Color Changing Yunomi Teacup: Sushi Design is perfect for your kanji study time. When it’s filled with cold liquids, it shows different types of seafood common in sushi. When it’s filled with hot liquid, the kanji for each seafood appears!

Now that you learned some kanji, it's time to put it to the test in our reading Japanese signs video!

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Author Bio

Megan Taylor Stephens interest in the Japanese language, culture, and food goes way back. She was a Japanese exchange student in high school. Then she studied Japanese and linguistics in college, returned to Japan to work through the JET program (Coordinator of International Relations), and was an interpreter and translator for a while. Megan taught English as a Foreign Language in Japan and other countries before getting a Master's degree in ESL and becoming an ESL teacher. She then pivoted to becoming a school-based speech-language pathologist, so still gets to be immersed in the field of applied linguistics and loves working with bilingual students. Megan enjoys writing on the side for companies like Bokksu. A love of language, culture, travel, food, and learning never dies, it only gets more intense--just like cravings for ramen and Pocky!