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Kanji: What are On readings and Kun readings

I’m sure everyone has wondered at some point what those little tabs on dictionaries with On and Kun readings mean when looking up Kanji definitions, but we’re going to tell you what exactly they are!

Ah, Kanji, these characters that originally came from China are so wonderful and so overwhelming at the same time. It is estimated that 50 thousand of them exist, but only around 1,945 of them are 常用じょうよう or daily use. Aren’t you thankful that you only have to learn 3.89% of the total number of Kanji available? Let that sink in for a moment. 1,945 is a very small number in comparison to 50 thousand.

But I digress, I’m getting sidetracked here, this article was about On and Kun readings, right? Those weird names at one side of the entry for a Kanji you’ve looked up. Let’s see what they are!

On Readings /On Yomi

On readings, or On Yomi as they’re sometimes referred to, are literally sound-based readings. おと means “sound,” and appropriately, its On reading is オン. This kind of reading is a Japanese approximation of the way a word is pronounced in Chinese. Yes, Kanji are Chinese characters, and sometimes they even retain their Chinese pronunciation, but in a manner that Japan can pronounce with their syllabaries.

They are always written in Katakana. Want to know the reason? It’s because Chinese is another language, and what do we use to write words that come from languages other than Japanese? Eeeeexactly!

Kun Readings / Kun Yomi

Contrary to what may sound logical, Kun readings are not readings of the くん honorific (lame pun, I know, I know), but actually, they are readings that reflect the Japanese way of pronouncing a Kanji. Some of them may have multiple Kun Yomi, but some Kanji don’t even have a single Kun Reading of their own!

But let’s start with an example! When the kanji ひがし was introduced, Japan already had a word for east, which was ひがし, so the Kun reading トウ was added as On reading.

Normally, On readings are part of a compound, meaning that’s what it sounds like with another Kanji, and Kun reading is how the Kanji is read by itself. In East, 東, the Kun reading is ひがし, that’s what it sounds like without another character in a sentence. For example: ひがし から ました, which is (I) came from the east. Now, paired with another Kanji may have multiple readings, depending on the word. For example in 関東カントウ, 東 reads as トウ, let’s see that in a sentence: レッド  は 関東カントウ に います, it means Red is in Kanto.

It’s usually recommended to learn Kanji readings as part of a vocabulary, because some of the readings that can be seen on a dictionary are rare, archaic, or very advanced (like, say, JLPT N2) but here on Game Grammar we want to show you practical examples of most, or if possible, all the readings of basic Kanji. It’s not an easy task, but someone has to do it! whenever we can we’ll throw in video game related examples, because darn it! learning is more fun that way!



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