Learn to Read Japanese

Some people think learning Japanese is easy; others say it is hard. I think everyone can agree that learning to read Japanese takes time and effort. Japanese is one of the most complex written languages in the world, mixing four different scripts:

  • Kanji: Chinese characters, such as 日本語
  • Hiragana: A curvy-looking alphabet that is used to connect words and for words of Japanese origin, such as です
  • Katakana: A squarish alphabet used primarily for foreign words, such as ブログ or コンピュータ
  • Romaji: Words written in roman letters like these

Starting out learning Japanese, any student of Japanese first studies hiragana, followed by katakana. Then, we start up the Kanji mountain. There are about 2,000 Kanji in common use in Japanese, or about 3,000 if you count the poetic and literary usages found in many Japanese novels.

Kanji Readings: Kunyomi and Onyomi

Each Kanji in Japanese typically has two or more different pronunciations, or readings. When Kanji were imported into Japan from China, Japanese assigned the Kanji meanings to words in spoken Japanese with the same meaning. So, yama (mountain) was assigned the Kanji ; kawa (river) was assigned the Kanji ; and so on.

But the Chinese also brought native Chinese pronunciations for these words, as well as thousands of Chinese words using these Kanji, which the Japanese tried to mimic. The closest Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese word for mountain was san, so, in addition to yama, the Kanji could be pronounced san, depending on context. For example, 山脈 (sanmyaku) means mountain range (literally, vein of mountains).

As a result, most Kanji in Japanese today have at least two readings: 

  • Kunyomi (kun reading) is the native Japanese pronunciation, such as yama for
  • Onyomi (on reading) is the pronunciation imported from Chinese, such as san for .
Some Kanji have more than one kun reading; a few Kanji also have multiple on readings as well. On the other hand, some Kanji have no kun reading, and others have no on reading. But, as a general rule, think of one kun reading and one on reading for each Kanji in Japanese.

By convention, kun readings are written in hiragana, and on readings are written in katakana. For example:

Learning Kanji Is Easier Than You Think

Learning 2,000 Kanji may seem impossibly difficult, but you don’t have to learn all 2,000 to read most Japanese texts. In fact, according to this analysis of Kanji usage, if you learn just 1,000 Kanji you can read 93% of the Japanese you find on the web, including Japanese newspaper articles.

The key is to choose those 1,000 Kanji carefully, based on how often the Kanji are used. Many students studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), especially at level N1, N2, or N3, study from JLPT Kanji lists—lists of Kanji specifically targeting the various levels of the JLPT. (Strictly speaking, these lists are designed for the pre-2010 JLPT, but the Kanji lists are still widely used.)

The thinking goes that if you memorize all Kanji on the JLPT Kanji list for your level, you’ll ace the Kanji portion of the test. That is true, but it’s also true your score on the much larger reading comprehension portion may suffer.

If you focus on the JLPT Kanji lists, rather than learning the most often used Kanji first, you wind up delaying the time when you can start reading Japanese text with some confidence. You get less practice reading Japanese, and your speed of reading Japanese suffers.

Start Reading Japanese Fast!

For success in JLPT reading comprehension, or Japanese reading for any reason, I’d recommend this simple approach:

Step 1:  Learn about 500 basic, frequently used Kanji.
Try to learn one kun reading and on one reading for each Kanji. Don’t try to learn extra readings—just get the basics down for now. This will take some time, but don’t get caught up with perfection. The point is to get basic Kanji knowledge, so you can get into real Japanese reading.

Kanji flashcards work great, and there are all kinds of online Kanji resources. Perhaps the fastest way to cement a Kanji in your mind is to practice writing it. Learn the proper stroke order, and, as you write the Kanji, say out loud the Kanji’s kun reading and on reading.

Step 2: Start reading Japanese.
Online reading is easiest, because you can take advantage of helper apps that show explanations and pronunciations of unfamiliar words or Kanji. If you use Firefox, try the rikaichan addon. Another good Japanese tool for all browsers is POPjisyo.com (as in pop-up dictionary—move your mouse over an unfamiliar word or Kanji, and a dictionary entry pops up). Reading Tutor Toolbox is helpful for studying Japanese vocabulary.

Step 3: Read something in Japanese every day.
Even if just a single paragraph, make a promise to train your brain for Japanese every day. I like Japanese newspapers, because they have a wide variety of articles and writing styles. The headline articles tend to use difficult vocabulary words, but some of the articles on Japanese culture, food, or events are a little easier. 

Step 4: As you read Japanese, you will naturally learn lots of new Kanji.
Some people like to make lists of new Kanji, and study them separately from reading. Or, you might decide you like to keep reading more Japanese, and absorb the Kanji knowledge through reading alone. I think both approaches work (probably a mix is best for most learners), but by all means, keep reading!


  1. I will recommend this Kanji site for the beginner, if you would like to read and write Kanji, this one might help you a lot.

  2. In terms of practicality, is it better to just learn the meaning of the kanji and then focus on readings? Or is brute memorization of meaning, reading, and stroke order the way to go?

  3. I like to learn the *basic* readings of a Kanji along with its meaning. There is a lot of overlap between the two--often, the Kanji is a Japanese word in its own right with the same meaning as the Kanji.

    Starting out, I'd stick to the basic Kanji readings: one "on" and one "kun". There are Kanji, like 生, that have many different readings, and you can spend a lot of time learning them all.

    But, for me, I prefer to learn all those extra readings as I learn the Japanese vocabulary they go with.

    As for stroke order, I think writing Kanji does help cement the character in your head.

    In general, stroke order is important to get the written form of a Kanji to look right, but there are finer points of stroke order that don't matter much, except on the Kanken (Japanese Kanji Aptitude Test).

    It's a personal preference as to how much study time you want to devote to memorizing stroke order.

  4. Very interesting guide. I agree with most points you make (definitively read something in Japanese everyday!!), although I wouldn't recommend NOT learning all the jouyou kanji. Actually, you need a bit more kanji than just the general ones if you want to read other kinds of material, like novels and scientific papers.

    I'm wondering... do you know about the book "Remembering The Kanji"?