What Is Kanji?

By Taylor Ahlstrom,

If you’re just starting to learn Japanese, congratulations! You may have already learned hiragana and katakana, and if you’re reading this it means you’ve probably come across your first kanji. But what IS kanji exactly? Is it Chinese? Is it Japanese? How do I pronounce kanji? How do I remember kanji? How many kanji ARE there? How many kanji do I have to learn? Why are there so many strokes???

These are all excellent questions, and ones we are about to answer for you!

What IS Kanji, exactly?

Kanji is one of three Japanese writing systems along with hiragana and katakana. Both hiragana and katakana are phonetic, meaning that each character represents a single syllable, and that character will never be pronounced any other way. Kanji is a system of symbols that represent words or ideas, and that can have different meanings and pronunciations depending on their context. A kanji can be a word all by itself, like (which means tree) or a kanji can be part of another word like 木造 (which means ‘wooden, or made of wood’).

Are Kanji Chinese or Japanese?

what is kanji
Kanji are believed to have originated in China, though it is not certain exactly when they were first written. Some believe the first writings appeared in 4500 BC, and the oldest known modern kanji is dated to 1600 BC. The original kanji are meant to be pictograms, that is, they express an idea through a picture. Over time, those representations evolved into the characters written today. In many kanji you can still see the original picture quite easily, others, not so much. Here are a few examples of the evolution of kanji:

While kanji existed in China for many centuries, it didn’t reach Japan until 57 AD and still wasn’t adopted by the Japanese until the early 5th century AD. At the time kanji came to Japan, the Japanese had no written language of their own. Everything was written and read in Chinese. By the 8th century AD, the Japanese began to annotate the Chinese characters in order to mark pronunciation and to change them to make sense with existing Japanese grammar. And so, katakana and hiragana were born!

Are Kanji the Same in All Asian Languages?

Kanji have been used by the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, but they aren’t called kanji in every language. In Chinese, it is 汉字, the literal meaning is “han characters” and will be pronounced like something close to hàn-jī depending on where you are. In Korean, kanji are known as hanja (한자, 漢字) and in Vietnamese, chữ Hán (𡨸漢). In Japanese, of course, they are called kanji (漢字, かんじ)! Both Korea and Vietnam have stopped using them in daily life, instead moving to completely phonetic alphabets.

Since one must be educated in order to learn how to pronounce Han characters (汉字), many people thought it was a way to keep the poorer classes from becoming literate and rising up. While Chinese characters are still taught in schools in Korea, their use is highly debated as many think they should be abandoned altogether. Japan and China are the last two countries who rely on kanji for literacy. The argument to get rid of kanji exists in Japan too, but it is not very popular.

So How Do I Pronounce Kanji?

OK, this is a tough one, and we have another post that covers this more fully. But basically, there are multiple ways to pronounce almost every kanji. These are known as “readings.” There are readings that came from the original Chinese and then readings that came from the original Japanese. The Chinese readings are known as On’Yomi and the Japanese are Kun’Yomi. You should check out this blog post on the difference between on’yomi and kun’yomi when you’re ready to learn more about that.

How Do I Remember Kanji?

Another excellent question! Memorizing kanji is hands-down the hardest part about learning Japanese, but luckily kanji aren’t as confusing as they look at first glance. The kanji “alphabet” is actually made up of a system of 216 radicals. These radicals are the building blocks of every single kanji. The radical of a kanji will usually (not always) carry some semantic meaning to the kanji itself. Let’s look at our previous example of: 木造. We know that 木 means “tree” and 造 means “create or make” we can see that word means “made of wood.” While this will work for many simple kanji, it often won’t. Kanji like to be tricky that way.

How Many Kanji Are There?

The real answer: nobody knows! Kanji are so old and have changed forms so many times that there is no definitive count of all the kanji in existence. That being said, the most reliable number out there is between 50,000-85,000. Hey, don’t freak out! You definitely don’t have to learn 50,000 kanji, we promise! There are 2,136 kanji considered common in daily use, and these are known as the joyo kanji. If you learn all those (and the grammar, of course) you will be considered literate in Japanese. While 2,136 sure seems like a lot, there are lots of different tools and tricks out there to help you out.

What is with all these strokes?

highest stroke count kanji
While many kanji can be very simple to write, the most complicated kanji can have 10, 20, even 30 or more strokes! Of course, most the kanji you need to know will be below 25 strokes and many will be below 20. The highest stroke count ever is 84…but when you look at it, it’s really just the same strokes repeated a bunch of times. And that is the real trick to learning kanji! Once you learn the radicals and how those usually work and where they usually go, building more complicated kanji isnt that hard at all. OK, it’s still hard, but not AS hard as you thought it was!

If you’re struggling with your stroke order, head over to our learning tools and check out our printable writing sheets. You can add ANY kanji you want to learn to a sheet, print it out, and we will help you perfect each and every stroke. Writing is also proven to increase retention so you can be committing the kanji to memory at the same time!

Want to learn all the joyo kanji, but don’t know where to start? You should join our Daily Kanji Challenge!

Join the Kanji Challenge
 

Feedback

  Comments: 1


  1. Thank you for the information and encouragement haha

Your feedback