The Difference Between On’Yomi and Kun’Yomi

When you start learning Japanese, you first learn hiragana, and then you learn katakana, and then– the dreaded KANJI! While hiragana and katakana can both be sounded out by syllable, kanji must simply be memorized. And as soon as you start memorizing kanji, you realize that there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to say almost all of them! Some have even more than 10 pronunciations! WHAAAA? So what’s the difference between On’Yomi and Kun’Yomi? And how do you know which to use when, and WHY???

on'yomi vs kun'yomi

There is a perfectly good explanation for all of this (sort of), and so this week on the blog we’re going to break down the difference between On’yomi and Kun’yomi and when you should use each one. So let’s start with the basics:

What is On’Yomi?

So, long long ago, before Japan had a written language, Chinese characters started making their way across the sea from China to Japan. Japan began to adopt those characters in their own language and tried to use the Chinese pronunciations too. But of course, Japanese sounds different from Chinese so they didn’t always get it exactly right. On’Yomi is the basically the Japanese version of the Chinese reading. So for example the On’Yomi for the kanji 山 (which means ‘mountain’) is サン. Seems simple enough.

Except to top it all off, different accents and dynasties and pronunciations all came over for hundreds of years and Japan decided to keep them ALL. So, many kanji you see may have multiple On’Yomi!

For example, the On’Yomi for 木 (which means tree) are “モク” or “ボク.” When you say 木ようび (Thursday) , you should pronounce “モクヨウビ,” while たい木 (big tree) should be “タイボク.” Same kanji, different words, different pronunciations.

Very confusing, I know. But let’s move on.

So Then What is Kun’Yomi?

You guessed it… Kun’Yomi is the JAPANESE pronunciation for words that already existed before the written Chinese language came over. So since Japanese already had a word for “person” the Kun’Yomi for the kanji 人 is ひと. There can also be multiple Kun’Yomi for a kanji, just because they like to make things difficult. But we’ll get in to more detail on that in a bit.

How Do I Know When to Use On’Yomi?

Excellent question! The Chinese reading will usually be used in more complicated words that use multiple kanji. These words are called 熟語 (jukugo). These words probably didn’t have a Japanese translation when they came over from China. Since they are “foreign” words, they will also be seen written in katakana in dictionaries. However, Japanese people usually don’t use katakana for 熟語 when they don’t know the kanji. These words can be considered very academic and you will sound smart the more 熟語 you know!

And When Do I Use Kun’Yomi?

Most common adjectives and verbs in Japanese will use the Kun’Yomi, because this was the original Japanese way to say it! And like we said before, even if there are multiple Kun’Yomi, there will often be some hiragana after which is called “okurigana.” For example, in the adjective 大きい (big), the part “きい” is okurigana. This okurigana will come after the kanji and will help tell you which way you should pronounce the kanji in different contexts.

An example of a kanji with multiple Kun’Yomi is 家 (house). Its Kun’Yomi are “いえ” and “や.”

In this word you can see it is pronounced, “いえ.”

家, いえ: house, residence, dwelling, family, household, lineage, family name

And in this word, it is pronounced や

屋, 家, や: (something) shop, somebody who sells (something) or works as (something), somebody with a (certain) personality trait, house, roof

While there are general rules to follow, of course there are also exceptions to every rule! This means that ultimately you really have to buckle down and memorize the kanji one by one. Just don’t get overwhelmed by the different readings off the bat. Try to find words that each kanji is used in to help you learn contextually, rather than just memorizing the readings individually.

If you think you’re ready to learn kanji, try joining our Kanji Challenge! Every day you will learn three new kanji along with all the readings and most popular usage to help you learn context. There are also printable flashcards and study lists to help you learn each and every kanji!


  Comments: 9

  1. This really helped me a lot!

    I read it while I pooped behind the refrigerator!

  2. Xavier Stanford

    Thanks this helped a lot

  3. Wait.
    Does that mean that we have to learn onyomi AND kunyomi?

  4. This is great! I love it! I’ve learned another lesson. It made my Nihongo Practice a lot crazier in so many levels. FAAACKKKKK!!!!

  5. Aaah. I was wondering why so few words are the same in Japanese and Chinese, such as 愛. I know some would be impossible given ones in Chinese which end in “-ng” (Korean doesn’t seem to have that limitation however) and that they use lots of “l’s” (and even rarely “r’s”).

  6. naughtysensei

    so okurigana is kinda like furigana?

    • Anjanette Garcia

      Not really. Basically Furigana is information, written in hiragana/katakana about the pronunciation of a word. There are thousands of kanji characters in Japanese. And not all people are able to read them. Sometimes, foreign words will also get a furigana, written with katakana to inform the reader about the pronunciation. Okurigana are kana that appear inline at normal size following kanji stems. In this use they may also help to disambiguate kanji with multiple readings; for example, 上がる (あがる, agaru) vs. 上る (のぼる, noboru). Unlike furigana, the use of okurigana is a mandatory part of the written language.

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