Posted by Miho sensei On March - 21 - 2011 0 Comment

Hi guys!

Today, I want to tell you about the Japanese writing system. We have 3 different kinds of characters in Japanese:

ひらがな:Hiragana, カタカナ: Katakana, and 漢字Kanji.

We have 46 basic hiragana syllables.

Hiragana and katakana represents the sounds, so it’s like the Japanese alphabet. A or B by itself doesn’t mean anything, right? あ or い doesn’t mean anything. When you learn Japanese you might not be able to read hiragana syllables, so some books will be written in roman letters.

Let’s use my name for an example.

みほ:It says Miho in Hiragana.

ミホ:It says Miho in Katakana.

Miho : You know, it’s roman letters.

美穂 : It says Miho in Kanji. Since kanji by itself has many meanings, my parents had to choose the specific kanji to capture their intended meaning for my name.  美穂 : my name has a meaning.

美(mi) → beauty

穂(ho) → it’s like an “ear of rice.”

So 美穂 : Miho indicates beautiful harvest.

When I was kid, I learned Hiragana first. Generally, we all learn hiragana first, because that’s the easiest. So we put our name in hiragana first and katakana next.  As we grown up, we learn kanji.

Now, let’s learn about kanji. Kanji is a system of writing that uses ideograms (ideograms are symbols that represent ideas or concepts). Each kanji represents an idea. There are over 2000 official kanji recognized as “daily use” kanji. So kanji are much different from hiragana (which is more like an alphabet). If this isn’t confusing enough, most kanji can be pronounced multiple ways: on-yomi and kun-yomi. You can see about this Video in here.

First, 音読み:On-yomi is like the Chinese reading. When we imported kanji from China, we also imported its readings. However, as the time goes by, the reading got changed in our way. But still it is called the Chinese reading. We use On-yomi when we have a word that is comprised of more than one kanji.

音読み On-yomi

先生(sensei) = teacher
学生(gakusei) = student
時計(tokei) = watch, clock
一時(ichi ji) = one o’clock
来週(rai shuu) = next week
月曜日(getsu you bi) = Monday
日本語(nihon go) = Japanese language
富士山(huji san) = Mt. Fuji

訓読み : Kun-yomi is the Japanese reading. I’m not sure, but this is how it happened:

A long time ago, we had a spoken language in Japan, but we didn’t have a formal written language. So we imported the kanji from China, like : 学校(Gakkou) (This is Onyomi. Chinese reading)


Each sound doesn’t have a meaning.

がっ If you say “がっ,” it doesn’t mean anything.

こう If you say “こう,” it doesn’t mean anything.


However, each kanji has meaning.

: learning, study

: school building

Isn’t that awesome!? Kanji has a meaning by itself! It’s like a picture. If you see the kanji, we know what that means, just like a picture.

Now, of course we already had a word that indicates to learn in spoken Japanese. That’s まなぶ(Manabu). However we didn’t have kanji for it, so we decided to put this kanji into this word まなぶ(manabu) and create a new Japanese writing system.

まなぶ(Manabu) → 学ぶ(Manabu)

I think that’s how it happened.(L) It may not be exactly the same, but if you think in this way, it’s probably easy for you to understand, right?

訓読み : Kun-yomi

時(toki) = time
人(hito) = parson
月(tsuki) = moon
山(yama) = mountain
私(watashi) = I, me
今(ima) = now
食べる(ta beru) = to eat
行く(i ku) = to go

Onyomi and Kunyomi is just a way of reading. Usually compound kanji is used Onyomi. If you see only one kanji, it’s probably kunyomi.

I go to school.

学校 = onyomi
行きます = kunyomi


Polite form

Now, you can make a word into polite form by adding お(o) or ご(go) in front of the word.

ご(go) will be used for onyomi readings. お(o) will be used for kunyomi readings. However, there are always some exceptions. So, it’s probably better for you to learn this on a case-by-case basis, when you hear the words with ご(go) or お(o).


ご with on-yomi reading

家族(Kazoku)=Family → ご家族(go kazoku)

両親(ryousin) = Parents → ご両親(go ryoushin)

案内(Annai) = Guide → ご案内(go annai)

来店(raiten) = visiting the shop → ご来店(go raiten)

来日(rainichi) = visiting to Japan → ご来日(go rainichi)

検討(kentou) = considering, reviewing → ご検討(go kentou)

返事(henji) = response → ご返事(Go henji) But many of us say → お返事(o henji)

苦労(Kurou) = hardship, trouble → ご苦労様(go kurou-sama) = Thanks for your trouble. / You’ve worked hard.

お with Kun-yomi reading

祝い(iwai) = celebrate → お祝い(o iwai) Ex. We must celebrate! (お祝いしなきゃ!)

礼(rei) = thank-you → お礼(o rei) Ex. Say thank-you. (お礼をいう。)

考え(kangae) = thinking → お考え(o kangae)

客(kyaku) = customer → お客様 (o kyaku sama)

名前(Namae) = name → お名前(o namae)

仕事(sigoto) = job, work → お仕事(o shigoto)

手紙(tegami) = letter → お手紙(o tegami)

荷物(Nimotsu) = luggage → おにもつ(o nimotsu)

Exceptions: (there are always exceptions!)

食事(Shokuji) = eating → お食事(o shokuji)

天気(Tenki) = weather → お天気(o tenki)

荷物(Nimotsu) = luggage → お荷物(o nimotsu)




kanji to English (Translator)

Japanese Kanji Dictionary


Japanese Radicals Reading