The Most Confusing Japanese Kanji (and how to tell the difference)

By Taylor Ahlstrom,

We’re talking a lot about Japanese kanji lately and how to learn them. Obviously, learning kanji takes a lot of rote memorization. You have to keep revisiting the kanji to remember the shapes, the strokes, the meaning, and how to pronounce it (which can be different depending on what word it’s in)! While some Japanese kanji may seem easy to learn like 人 (person) what about when you find 入 (to enter)??? They look so similar! So today we’re going to review a lot of kanji that can be confusing, and help you remember how to tell them apart! Learning confusing kanji together is the best way to remember their differences and stop yourself from getting all mixed up!

Don’t forget to utilize our stroke animation feature to help you visualize the differences in strokes. Just click the pencil button up at the top of any dictionary entry!
stroke order image
Also, printing out practice sheets is a great way to learn! We’ve created a printable practice sheet of all the kanji on this list to help you learn the difference!

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At first glance these two kanji might seem impossible to tell apart! But if you look closely you can see the kanji for “soil” has a shorter horizontal line than the kanji for “gentleman.” In 士 the middle stroke is longer than the bottom stroke and in 土 it is shorter. Now you have to be careful when you are reading, but remember context can always help you as well!

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The kanji for “thousand” is one of the first kanji you will learn and it’s clear to see that the top stroke comes up. In the kanji for “to dry” the stroke is flat.

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The kanji for “day” or “sun” is one of the most common ones out there and I’m sure you already know it! But don’t get it confused with the kanji for “say” or “reason.” The center stroke in this kanji doesn’t touch the other side!

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Can you see the difference between the kanji for “un-” and the kanji for “end?” That’s right, the two horizontal strokes are switched! In 未 the first stroke is short and the second stroke is long. But in 末 the first stroke is long and the second stroke is short! Practicing writing and watching our stroke order animation can really help you to learn these subtle differences!

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While “fur” and “hand” are very similar, you can see that “fur” has lines at a slight angle and a stroke that hooks up to the right. “Hand” has more horizontal strokes and a smaller hook that faces the left. I like to think the angled lines of “fur” are more like hair, and the straight lines of “hand” are more like fingers!

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We mentioned this in the opening, but the kanji for “person” and for “enter” are separated but just one small stroke at the top! Remember also that some kanji will look different in handwriting than when typed.

stroke animation for 入

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The following are kanji with strokes sticking out or not:

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The kanji for “power” has the extra stroke sticking out at the top, and the kanji for “sword” does not.

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The kanji for “stone” doesn’t have the stroke sticking out, and the kanji for “right” does!

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“Cow” has a longer stroke that sticks out, where “noon” has a flat top instead!

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The kanji for “friend” has a stroke sticking out, and the kanji for “anti-” doesn’t.

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The kanji for “name” doesn’t have a stroke sticking out, and the kanji for “each” does!

These kanji are different with just one more line (一)!

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The kanji for “tree” doesn’t have the extra stroke here. And everyone should know the kanji for book, as it’s part of the word for Japanese, 日本語!

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The kanji for “white” has just two strokes inside, and the kanji for “oneself” has three!

These next kanji are separated by a single dot (、)!

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The kanji for “gem” has an extra stroke added to the kanji for “king.” I like to remember this by thinking that the king will wear a gem!

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The kanji for “dog” has one extra stroke than the kanji for “big.” How can you remember this? I like to think that the big dog has a spot!

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The kanji for “direction” or “method” has an extra stroke on top than the kanji for “ten-thousand.” I think 方 looks like a man pointing in a direction, so this one is easy to remember. 万 has no head so he doesn’t look like a man!

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It’s no surprise that the kanji for “water” and the kanji for “ice” are similar! Just remember that ice is like water with a little something extra.

These kanji are different, but they’re made up of the same parts!

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The kanji for “elder” and “consider” both start with the same four strokes, but the kanji for “consider” ends with a sharp hook down and the kanji for “elder” ends with a smooth hook up.

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“Compare” and “north” are easy to tell apart, you just have to remember which one is which! In “compare,” the parts of the kanji are facing the same direction. In “north” the two halves of the kanji are facing in opposite directions. You can remember this by thinking, “people will run away from the north!.” Or that you can compare two things that are side by side.

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The kanji for “know” and the kanji for “harmony” or “Japanese style” are very similar. Just remember 禾 is the radical for “two tree branch” and 矢 is the radical for “arrow.” Knowing your radicals can often help in figuring out which kanji is which!

And here are some other kanji that also happen to look similar!

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The problem with these kanji is that not only do they look similar, but they have similar meanings! While “obey” is the primary meaning of 従, it can also mean “subordinate.” 徒 also has several meanings, and one of them is “junior” which is similar to subordinate! So how can you tell them apart? Unfortunately, sometimes with kanji you just have to memorize them!

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While these two kanji don’t look exactly alike, they have very similar meanings, which means it can be difficult to remember which is which! 験 means “verification” or “testing” and 検 is the kanji for “examination” or “investigate.” The way you can tell these apart is that 験 uses the kanji for horse (馬) as its radical and 検 uses the radical for tree (木). So you must remember to test a horse and investigate a tree.

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惑 is the kanji for “beguile” or “perplex” and 感 is the kanji for “emotion.” So these have very different meanings, but very similar structures. “Emotion” is inside the radical and “perplex” is open on the outside. Because when you feel perplexed you are lost out in the open and emotions are things we keep inside.

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These are really similar and especially troublesome because 拾 means “pick up” and 捨 means “discard” or “throw away.” The meanings are literally the opposite of one another! The only difference in strokes are two perpendicular lines under the roof in “discard.” It’s like a plus sign because you have too many things and you need to get rid of them! “Pick up” has only one line under the roof because there is room to pick up more things!

Do you have any similar or confusing kanji you want to add to this list? Let us know so we can add them to our practice sheet to help you learn!

Here is a link to a printable practice sheet with all of these confusing kanji added to it!

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