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Intro to Kanji #01. What is Kanji?

Intro to Kanji #01. What is Kanji?

Kanji is the ideographic system writing system of the Japanese language that originates from Chinese characters. The kanji for kanji is 漢字 and it literally translates to “characters of the Han dynasty.”

In contrast to the English language and the other two aspects of Japanese written language, hiragana and katakana, all of which are primarily phonetic, kanji is ideographic (also commonly described as logographic), which means that the characters primarily represent ideas as opposed to sounds (although every single kanji character is naturally associated with a respective set of pronunciations).

For example, take the kanji 門, which can be read as “kado,” “to,” or “mon,” depending on the usage. This character is perhaps the most visually indicative of the idea it represents, as it translates to “gate” and quite literally looks like one as well (more so a traditional Japanese gate than a conventional Western gate).

For the sake of comparison, the aspect of the English language that resembles the system of kanji is its implementation of numbers. In short, the sight of the character 1 is not suppose to evoke the idea of the pronunciation of “one” [wuhn] so much as it is suppose to evoke the idea of a singular existence. The same dynamic applies to kanji. Additionally similar is how 1 can be pronounced a vast number of ways (due to the fact that numbers are used in a vast number of languages but also in different instances of the same language such as in “1” and “1st”) but represents the same idea for every single pronunciation. The same goes for kanji, in that the same kanji character can be pronounced differently depending on the circumstances it is used (this variation originates from a very, very long history of Chinese characters being imported into the Japanese language, so it is interestingly enough a condition of time as opposed to the number system’s condition of space).

However, despite kanji’s status as a system of characters that are suppose to graphically represent ideas, not all kanji give a clear idea graphically of what they represent. For instance, while the kanji for “meat,” 肉, visually resembles meat on bones, none of the kanji that are used to mean “circle” (丸, 輪, 円) look like the shape of a circle at all. Kanji can also be misleading, such as the character 口, which looks like the shape of a square but actually represents the concept of “mouth.” In due consideration to this, the visual depiction of a kanji is an ultimately an unreliable method in deciphering its meaning.