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The kanji for the word "kanji".

Kanji is one of the three forms of Japanese writing. A kanji is an ideogram: that is, a kind of simple picture. It is a symbol of an idea such as an object, thing or quality.

Kanji ideograms (or “characters”) were taken from Chinese characters, and many were gradually changed. The word “kanji” means “Han characters” (i.e. “Chinese characters”).

There are two other systems used to write in Japanese. These systems are called Hiragana and Katakana (together they are called “Kana”). They show how a word is pronounced because each character stands for a syllable (a, ka, sa, ta etc.). Each kanji could also be written in kana, indeed they are in children’s books or books for foreigners learning Japanese.

Many words in Japanese can have more than one meaning, e.g. “hana” can mean “nose” or “flower”, but the kanji character for each is quite different. However, each kanji character can have several different pronunciations, according to which meaning (which “reading”) is intended.

Kanji was originally written to look like what it means, thus the Japanese symbol for mouth is 口 (which is said as "koo-chi"), and looks like a mouth. Another word, 山 (said as "ya-ma") means mountain. The Japanese have Kanji for many words. Many can be shown with just one Kanji, but sometimes two Kanji characters are combined to make new words, such as 山口 (yamaguchi), "mountain-mouth", meaning a cave. (It is also a surname and the name of a prefecture).

Kanji is often combined with hiragana to show the grammatical meaning of the word. In English this would be done with endings (e.g. “act” (the verb), “action” (the noun) etc.

Many kanji characters can be pronounced in two different ways according to whether the word stands alone (this is called the “kun” reading, or “kun-yomi”), or whether it is combined with another word (this called the “on” reading or “on-yomi”). The kun reading is based on Japanese pronunciation, the on reading is based on Chinese pronunciation. For example, 山on its own is "yama" (the Japanese word for “mountain”). When it is combined with another word or name, it is pronounced "san" e.g. “Fuji-san” (Mount Fuji).

Kanji characters are classed on the basis of how many brush strokes they are made of. The simplest kanji have one stroke and the most complex may have up to 23 strokes.

There are many different Kanji, the exact number is not known but it is around 50,000[source?]. However, not all 50,000 are taught in schools. The government of Japan has set up a 1945 basic Kanji list (Jōyō Kanji) that those learning the language ought to know. They are the ones most commonly used in newspapers and magazines, along with street signs and store signs. Kanji takes many years to learn. By the end of his school years a pupil should know about 1.850 Kanji. A university graduate would need to know about 3000. If someone does not know the Kanji for a word, they can write it in Kana and it will be understood, but it is not the proper way to write it.


  • New Japanese-English Character Dictionary ed J Halpern Kenkyusha 1990

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