Onyomi and Kunyomi

The question of “How do I read this kanji?” is a common point of confusion among beginners of Japanese.

The truth is: for every kanji you encounter there will always be multiple ways to read it based on how it is used in a sentence. This is because kanji aren’t words. The spoken words are representative of the pronunciation, not the individual kanji.

Take for example the following emojis: 🚗 ✈ 🇬🇧

Now read the following sentences:

  • “There are a lot of 🚗 on the road.”
  • “I bought a new 🚗 today.”

You probably read 🚗 as cars (plural) in the first and car (singular) in the second sentence.

Take now the following examples:

  • “I ✈ to 🇬🇧 for the holidays.”
  • “The stewardess on the ✈ did not speak 🇬🇧 at all.”

You probably read ✈ as flew or travelled in the first sentence, and plane in the second one, while you read 🇬🇧 as England in the first sentence and English in the second one.

This is because our brain completes the gaps with words we already know, as the language exists before the emojis. Emojis are just used as a substitute for the actual words, and depending on the sentence they will be read in different ways. The same thing (just a bit more complicated) applies to kanji.

“Japanese” words

Due to the need to adopt a completely foreign logographic writing system over their own native language, when Japanese came across kanji they merged them on top of the already existing words that were spoken at the time.

These Japanese words are called 和語わご (Japanese words). The choice of which kanji to use to represent which word was based on which meaning was originally assigned to each symbol in Chinese, but the pronunciation was kept the same as the original Japanese one.

As a (historically incorrect) example:

The word たべる (to eat) got assigned the kanji 食 which meant “meal” or “food” in Chinese, and it became べる. This was done completely independently of the Chinese pronunciation of the symbol 食.

This is called a 訓読くんよみ (Japanese reading) for the kanji 食.

If you notice, 訓読くんよみ often have a “stem” or base in kanji and some extra hiragana attached at the end. When this happens, their reading will often be represented with a dot or a pair of parentheses in a dictionary.

For example:

食 → た . べる or た(べる)

“Chinese” words

To make things more complicated, people weren’t happy with just having kanji represent the original Japanese words. Due to the strong cultural and religious influences from China, they actually took and assimilated Chinese words, phrases, and proverbs into Japanese.

During this process, since they needed to import Chinese pronunciation into the Japanese phonetic system, they created separate readings that deviated significantly from their original Chinese versions.

These words are called 漢語かんご (Chinese words). They are usually (but not always!) compounds of multiple kanji together (called 熟語じゅくご).

To continue with the earlier example, the kanji 食 is used in the word 食事しょくじ (meal) and is read しょく・じ. しょく being the 音読おんよみ (Chinese reading) of the kanji 食.

In dictionaries, it is common to represent 音読おんよみ in katakana. For example:

食 → ショク

Multiple readings

Without going into too many details on the why, we need to write a note about the fact that it is very common for kanji to have multiple おん and sometimes even くん readings. When kanji were imported from China, they arrived into Japan at very different times in history. These large gaps in time delineated different historical periods within China, who also had a significant restructuring of their own language at the time. Because of this, the same word or symbol often got re-imported into Japan with different readings, which fossilized into the language and are still in use today.

Furthermore, the kanji themselves also went through significant changes over the years, as Japanese invented their own words and even distorted some of the readings by joining different Chinese and Japanese variants together.

This is why it’s sometimes impossible to know how a word written in kanji is pronounced if you don’t already know it, and why it’s necessary instead to use furigana or consult a dictionary.

You can think of 音読おんよみ and 訓読くんよみ as the equivalent of Latin and Greek roots for modern European languages.

To see a few more examples of 和語わご and 漢語かんご words, see 漢語 (Chinese-origin) vs 和語 (Japanese-origin) word table#.

Further reading: