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Intro to Kanji #03. On’yomi & Kun’yomi (How-to Read Kanji)

Intro to Kanji #03. On’yomi & Kun’yomi (How-to Read Kanji)

When reading kanji, it can be said that any given kanji character has an on’yomi reading and a kun’yomi reading. This division of all kanji into two distinct categories can be a very helpful tool in knowing which way to read a kanji depending on how it appears in a sentence.

The on’yomi reading (音読み) of kanji is considered the original Chinese reading (though that is not to say that it is identical to the Chinese language, essentially, it is the best Japanese approximation of what the original Chinese pronunciation sounded like).
The key tip on when to use on’yomi, the Chinese reading, is when the kanji appears alongside other kanji characters (i.e. when it is a compound-kanji word and there are no accompanying hiragana) and, at times, when the kanji appears by itself. Of course, once you have concluded that the on’yomi reading is to be used, since most kanji have multiple on’yomi readings (due to a long Japanese history of importing the Chinese language across numerous dynasties, from numerous regions), which reading is to be used must then be decided.

The kun’yomi reading (訓読み) of kanji is the Japanese reading of the character.
The kun’yomi reading is the result of the Japanese language being integrated into the imported Chinese writing language. At the time, Chinese kanji characters would be interpretted by their meaning, and an equivalent Japanese word with that same meaning would be then be associated with that kanji. However, since the Chinese writing language already had its own established guideline of associating generally only one syllable to a kanji, many native Japanese words were too long to correspond to a single Chinese kanji. The solution to this became what is now hiragana, which is added after kanji characters to complete the word, and even further, denote grammatical nuances such as tense and form.
The key tip that this historical context offers is that the kun’yomi reading is generally used when a kanji character appears accompanied by hiragana. Combining this tip with our knowledge that Japanese verbs are split into the categories of る-Verbs and う-Verbs (る and う being instances of hiragana), this also means that verb words are generally to be read with kun’yomi reading. Even further, this also means that い-Adjectives and な-Adjectives with hiragana characters are generally read with the kun’yomi reading.


Distinction between Verb and Compound-Kanji Noun

行 – going, journey, carry out, conduct, act, line, row, bank
Kun: いく, ゆく, -ゆき, -いき, おこなう, おこなう
On: コウ, ギョウ, アン
行く (いく/iku) – to go
行う (おこなう/okonau) – to perform, to do, to conduct onself, to carry out
銀行 (ぎんこう/ginkou) – bank
行動 (こうどう/koudou) – action, conduct, behavior


楽しい (たのしい/tanoshii) – enjoyable, fun
Kun: たの-, この
On: ガク, ラク, ゴウ
楽しい is an い-Adjective is a word abundant with hiragana, having the two characters し and い at the end. This inclusion of hiragana suggests that we should use the kun’yomi reading for the kanji, which successfully turns out to be たの.

Distinction between な-Adjective with Hiragana and Compound-Kanji な-Adjective with no Hiragana

綺麗 (きれい/kirei) – pretty, lovely, beautiful
綺麗 is a な-Adjective but the な only appears if it is modifying a noun. So, 綺麗 by itself is a word with compound kanji with no accompanying hiragana. As such, the on’yomi reading can be presumed to be used for both of the kanji characters that make up the word. Appropriately, the on’yomi reading for 綺 is “キ/ki” and the on’yomi reading for 麗 is “レイ/rei.”

静か (しずか/shizuka) – quiet, silent
Kun: しず-,
On: セイ, ジョウ
静か is a な-Adjective that has the hiragana character か as an indispensable part of its word. This inclusion of hiragana suggests that we are better off using the kun’yomi reading of the character. Sure enough, しず is the kun’yomi readings for the kanji 静.