Japanese Kanji Reading Systems-On-yomi and Kun-yomi
For additional information and resources on learning kanji, be sure to visit our article on Kanji Learning Resources (click here!) and take a look at all of the kanji poster cards in our Library (click here!).
Where Do On-Yomi and Kun-Yomi Come From?
The Japanese language developed far before kanji came into use. This has resulted in Japanese kanji having multiple readings. True to the name , the literal meaning of the word “kanji” is “Chinese letters”. Kanji came from China to Japan, beginning between the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
However, Japan before did not use kanji as they are today until several hundred years later. At the time, Japan had no writing system of its own, but it did have an established spoken language.
This move resulted in the development of multiple readings for kanji:
a. readings based on the meaning of the character (kun-yomi)
b. readings based on the character’s original Chinese pronunciation (on-yomi).
Note that the on-yomi of Japanese kanji do not need to correspond precisely with the pronunciation of the said character in a given dialect of modern Chinese (e.g. Mandarin or Cantonese).
This is partly because different on-yomi mixed in at different points in history, and partly because most Chinese dialects have sounds which are not completely replicable through the Japanese alphabet.
A good example of this is the word “preparation“. Its Japanese pronunciation is “junbi,” and in Mandarin Chinese it is “zhunbei.” There is no combination of kana in the Japanese alphabet which can quite equate to the Chinese “zhun,” and so the sound has become “jun.”
What’s the Difference Between On-Yomi and Kun-Yomi? Why is it Important to Learn Both?
While many kanji have one on-yomi and one kun-yomi, some kanji have multiple on- and/or kun-yomi and some kanji only have one or the other. But, when there are multiple on- or kun-yomi oftentimes certain readings will be more common than others.
When first learning kanji, it is good to learn at least one of the most common on-yomi and one kun-yomi for each character you are studying. This will allow you to make educated guesses a greater percentage of the time when you encounter that kanji.
You will learn more in your readings as you progress in your studies. To help you out, there is one way to determine which readings are the most commonly used. Just do a quick search of that kanji in electronic dictionaries such as the Imi Wa? app, and see how to pronounce characters in the top ten or so results.
Many of the simplest and most common kanji, unfortunately, have the largest number of potential readings. This may partially be due to the fact that many simple kanji express very basic concepts like up, down, living, etc.; and thus after importing these kanji into the Japanese language they were applied to a variety of different existing words.
The kanji for “up” (上), for instance, has more than 15 potential readings if on-yomi, kun-yomi, and nanori* readings are all counted. But before you panic, note that when a kanji has a large number of potential readings, many of those readings will probably be rather uncommon. Sometimes okurigana will inform the type of reading to use (see below).
*Along with the kun-yomi and the on-yomi, there is a third type of reading for kanji called the nanori.
Nanori are irregular readings that are seen in given names and surnames, but usually not in other types of words. Because Nanori readings are not frequently applicable aside from reading names, learning nanori is not as emphasized when studying kanji as learning on- and kun-yomi is.
How Can I Use On-Yomi and Kun-Yomi / How Can I Differentiate Them in a Text?
As is unfortunately often the case in any language, there are few rules that apply unequivocally. If you feel unsure of a kanji or kanji compound’s pronunciation, it is still best to look it up. However, here are rules which you can use to determine which readings are most likely apply to a particular word:
1) When the kanji is by itself (e.g. 猫 neko (cat)) or paired with okurigana* (e.g. 食べる taberu (to eat)) use kun-yomi to read it.
This is because single kanji, as well as kanji with okurigana, often represent common or simple words. (cat, white, to talk, etc) Both do not require more than one kanji to express and probably had a word in the Japanese language before the introduction of kanji.
2) When the kanji is in a compound word comprising of two or more kanji, on-yomi is most likely used to read it. (e.g. 勉強 benkyou (studies)). Many kanji compounds, especially if they contain more than two kanji, express more complex ideas than single characters. (hydropower, museum, etc).
3) If the kanji is part of a compound word with another kanji but has attached kana (e.g. 生け花 ikebana (flower arranging) or 髪飾り kamikazari (hair decorations)), use kun-yomi to read it. The other kanji (the one without attached kana) in the compound word will probably also be read using kun-yomi, but may or may not have a slightly altered pronunciation (for instance, when it is by itself the 花 in 生け花 is pronounced hana, not bana.
Note that this rule does not apply if the kanji compound word is followed by する suru (to do). Though する may look like okurigana, する-verbs that use kanji compounds (e.g. 勉強する benkyou suru (to study)) often still follow rule #2.
4) If the kanji is part of a surname** or place name, use kun-yomi to read it even if it comprises of two or more kanji.
Like rule #1, this is probably because many surnames and place names were in existence before the adoption of kanji, and names that were made later on followed old patterns.
When it comes to names, it is a good idea to ask the person in question (in the case of a surname) or a local (in the case of a place name) for confirmation of pronunciation. Sometimes even common surnames or place names can have multiple potential readings (for instance, 上野 can be either “Ueno” or “Kamino”).
*Okurigana are kana that attached to a kanji. Okurigana will often provide an indication of which kun-yomi is being used; for example in the two verbs 入る hairu (to enter), which has only る ru as okurigana, and 入れる ireru (to put in), which has れる reru as okurigana.
**Some first names use kanji quite creatively, especially in recent decades; and thus frequently do not follow any rules at all.
For example, parents may use a name with foreign origins but still write it in kanji of their choosing, or apply unusual kanji to a name typically written with common kanji.
Note that every one of these rules has exceptions! In general, following them will give you a good idea of whether an on-yomi or a kun-yomi applies in a particular situation.
3 Examples of On-Yomi vs Kun-Yomi
Watashi wa yoku shokudou de taberu.
私 (watashi) stands alone with no other kanji attached to it, so use kun-yomi to pronounce it (rule #1).
食堂 (shokudou) has no okurigana and is a two-kanji compound, and so both its kanji use on-yomi (rule #2).
食べる (taberu) uses the same kanji as the first kanji of 食堂 (shokudou), but okurigana follows the kanji in this word and there are no other kanji attached to it. Use kun-yomi (rule #1).
Tanaka-san wa Nagasaki no chuushinchi ni sundeiru.
田中 (Tanaka) is a kanji compound, but is also a surname; so use kun-yomi to pronounce it (rule #4). The same goes for Nagasaki because it is a place name.
中心地 (chuushinchi) uses one of the same kanji as Tanaka, but is not a surname or place name and so follows rule #2.
住んでいる (sundeiru) has no other kanji attached to it and the kanji is followed by okurigana. Use kun-yomi to pronounce it (rule #1).
Densha no noriba ni wa, joukyaku ga ippai narandeiru.
電車 (densha) is a two-kanji compound word with no attached kana, so use on-yomi to read it (rule #2).
乗り場 (noriba) is a two-kanji compound word but the り (ri) in between the kanji indicates that the first kanji uses kun-yomi (rule #3). The other kanji in this type of word is not necessarily pronounced with kun-yomi, but in this case it is.
The first kanji of 乗客 (joukyaku) is the same as the first kanji of 乗り場 (noriba), but 乗客 (joukyaku) has no kana between its kanji, so use on-yomi to pronounce it (rule #2).
Just as with the other verbs in examples 1 and 2, 並んでいる (narandeiru) follows rule #1.
What methods do you use to study and memorize on-yomi and kun-yomi? What is the strangest or most surprising reading for a kanji you have ever come across? Leave us a comment with your kanji tales!
Also, if you visit the Library section of Kawa Kawa Learning Studio, you can download many free resources such as word and phrase lists.
Sign-up is quick and easy! It will give you access to lots of useful materials that will help get you to kanji fluency!