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What is Kanji?

Level: N5

Game Location: ハコダテ

Origins of Kanji

A long time ago, Japanese had no writing system, and only a spoken language. Instead of creating a new writing system from scratch, the Japanese decided to use the Chinese writing system and apply it to the spoken Japanese language. This became what we call "Kanji" today.

As you can imagine, there were a few complications that came about when trying to do this.

Kanji readings

One thing that makes Kanji particularly tricky in Japanese is that one Kanji can have multiple pronunciations

Let's use  as an example. 

In the word べる (which means "to eat"), this Kanji is pronounced as (to make the full word べる)。

However, used in the word 堂 (which means food court), the  kanji is pronounced as しょく (to make the full word しょくどう).

How do I know when to use which reading?

The simple answer is that you don't. The only certain way to know how Kanji is read is to know the vocabulary word.

So the first time you encounter a new word written in Kanji, you likely will not know how to pronounce it (although you will get better at guessing as time goes on). This goes for both Japanese people and people studying the language!

The slightly complicated answer is that generally, a Kanji will pronounced one way if there is only one kanji in the word, and a different way if there are two or more kanji.

べる (1 kanji, so pronounced た)

堂 (2 kanji, so pronounced しょく)

欲 (2 kanji, so pronounced しょく)

Remember that is is not a steadfast rule. There can be multiple pronunciations when there are two or more Kanji as well as other exceptions.

If you are interested in a more complicated explanation, I would highly suggest reading more about the difference between on-yomi and kun-yomi readings. Even then, there is no steadfast rule, so we will not go into detail here, but it is a fascinating topic if you want to look into it!

When is Kanji used?

As you likely know by now, there are three alphabets in Japanese: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. All three alphabets are regularly used in Japanese. Let's look at an example sentence.



My name is Bailey.

I have put Kanji in red, Hiragana in blue, and Katakana in magenta.

Let's use this as an example and go over common uses for each alphabet.


  • Kanji is what is used for a majority of words in Japanese.
  • Used in writings meant to be read by adults or older children.


  • For words where there is no Kanji.
  • When writing is geared towards children (who cannot read Kanji).
  • For particles, which are grammatical attachments to words that help explain their grammatical purpose (these will be explained more in details later).
  • As a stylistic choice by some writers.


  • For words imported from a foreign language (for example, your name will likely be written in Katakana unless you are Japanese, Korean, or Chinese, as it is an "imported" word from your native language).

  • Animal and plant names that have difficult/uncommon Kanji
  • For slang and other "casual" words.
  • As a stylistic choice by some writers.



Using our example:


Kanji words: 僕 (Which means "I" and is ready as ぼく), 名前 (Which means "name" and is read as なまえ)

Hiragana: の (particle), は (particle), です(no Kanji).

Katakana: ベイリー (Bailey, since it is a foreign imported word)

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