This section is still getting expanded as I do more research and collect my thoughts, however if you want a kickstart course on kanji I recommend reading the following links:

What are Kanji?

You can think of kanji as something similar to very specialized emojis. If you take the Japanese spoken language and put it into writing, you can decide to write words in hiragana, katakana, or add extra flavor with kanji.

Kanji have a lot of different uses, but probably the most evident one is to make it easier to distinguish word boundaries (as traditional Japanese does not use spaces) and to differentiate between homonyms (words pronounced the same but with different meanings).

It is common to teach kanji to foreigners by assigning an English keyword/meaning to each symbol. However, I think it’s more appropriate to think of them as individual components that act as replacement for already existing words in the language. While an individual kanji can carry certain meanings and connotations, in reality it will always be a representation of a real Japanese word.

  • Some words can be replaced with a single individual kanji:
    • にく(meat) can be replaced with just にく.
  • Some other words can instead be composed of multiple kanji in sequence:
    • くも (spider) can be written as くも.
  • Some take the form of combinations of a fixed kanji “root” and some additional conjugations in hiragana (called okurigana):
    • The verb のむ (to drink) is む and its conjugations modify the む part of the word (まない, める, んで, etc)

It is important to understand the relationship that the kanji symbols have with the actual readings of the words they represent, otherwise you might end up thinking that kanji are words. Kanji are not words, they are a typographical representation of a spoken language.

Origin of Kanji (short version)

NOTE: This is a very brief summary, it’s not meant to be a historically accurate and thorough explanation.

A long time ago, the ancestor language of modern Japanese existed only as spoken language within the island of Japan. It did not have a writing system. One day a bunch of scholars arrived from China and brought into the country a multitude of Chinese scriptures and other ornamental tools full of kanji.

Japan, needing a writing system for itself, decided to adopt these symbols for its own literature (see: Japanese writing systems). A bunch of transformations happened to the language over the centuries and we ended up with hiragana and katakana as simplifications of man’yogana (phonetic kanji) and hentaigana.

Despite all this, the kanji system remained and eventually split from the original Chinese version. Today you will see that Japanese kanji are often different from (modern) Chinese symbols (called hanzi), although they still share a lot of similarities.

Fundamentals of Kanji