When learning to read kanji, you will come across the concepts of kunyomi and onyomi, which are basically the two ways to read a kanji character!
Kunyomi and onyomi are often called the Japanese reading and Chinese reading respectively. But why are there two different ways to read kanji you might ask? And what does kunyomi and onyomi actually mean?
The historical contact between China and Japan resulted in many Chinese influences on Japanese culture. One of these influences was the language – even though the indigenous Japanese people already had their own language at the time, it was a spoken language and not written, so they adopted the use of Chinese hanzi characters to help write their language.
These hanzi characters are known in Japanese today as kanji (漢字) which literally means han character or Chinese character. During their process of becoming part of the Japanese language, some of their Chinese pronunciations at the time were kept and this way of reading the character is known as onyomi.
Meanwhile these same Chinese characters which kept their Chinese pronunciation were also used to attribute a written form for words already existing in the Japanese language, which resulted in a second type of reading of the kanji character, known as kunyomi.
- What is the meaning of onyomi and kunyomi?
- Onyomi and kunyomi examples
- When to use kunyomi and when to use onyomi
- How to remember the kunyomi and onyomi for each character?
- Should you learn kunyomi and onyomi?
What is the meaning of onyomi and kunyomi?
If we look at the characters that make up the word onyomi (音読み) we have: 音 (on) which means ‘sound’ and 読み (yomi) which means ‘reading’. So onyomi literally means ‘sound reading’ because this is the way of reading the kanji character with its original sound in Chinese.
Kunyomi (訓読み）translates to something along the lines of ‘meaning reading’ and is the way of reading a character with the Japanese pronunciation it was given at the time it was adopted into the language.
Onyomi and kunyomi examples
To help you understand onyomi and kunyomi, we’ll go over a few examples.
An easy one is the word for ‘mountain’ in Japanese which is 山.
山 can be read as yama (kunyomi) or san (onyomi).
The word for mountain in Japanese, yama, existed before the arrival of this Chinese character, ‘山’ , from China. The character was given the pronunciation yama by the Japanese while also keeping its original Chinese reading shan but changing it to the Japanese pronunciation san.
Another simple example is 木, which means ‘tree’ when used on its own.
木 can be read as ki (kunyomi) or moku (onyomi).
Whether to read a character with it’s kunyomi or onyomi is the next question we’ll cover – but for now let’s look at another example.
Another important thing to note before we continue is that when you search kanji characters in a Japanese dictionary, the kunyomi is always given in hiragana and the onyomi in katakana.
Other good examples of kunyomi and onyomi are the compass directions, North, South, East and West. When these kanji are seen alone, they are always pronounced with their kunyomi.
|北 （North)||きた (kita)||ホク (hoku)|
|南 （South)||みなみ (minami)||ナン (nan)|
|東 （East）||ひがし (higashi)||トウ (tou)|
|西 （West）||にし (nishi)||セイ (sei)|
These basic examples show how one kanji character can be read in 2 different ways using either kunyomi or onyomi.
But there’s more… within each category of kunyomi and onyomi, there are usually multiple different kun and on readings!
It doesn’t matter how difficult the kanji character is to write, even the most simple characters can have many different readings.
For example 上 (meaning ‘up’ or ‘above’) and 生 (meaning ‘life’) are two of the first kanji characters taught in the jouyou kanji system (the ‘daily life’ kanji taught to Japanese schoolchildren) and also have more readings than many other kanji.
上 has the kunyomi: ue, uwa, kami, age, aga, nobo, and the onyomi: jyou, shyou and shan
生 has the kunyomi: i, u, uma, umare, o, ha, ki, nama, na, mu and the onyomi: sei and shou
Both of these kanji are taught in the Grade 1 Jouyou Kanji and are considered JLPT N5 level.
So how do you learn when to use kunyomi vs onyomi and which reading to choose?
When to use kunyomi and when to use onyomi
While there is no method you can consistently apply with 100% accuracy to decide whether to read a character with its kunyomi or onyomi reading, there are a few tips and tricks people use which can help you get it right maybe 80% of the time!
The remaining 20% can really only be learned through memorization with lots of reading practice. Especially when a particular kanji character has many readings, you can only become familiar with the various kun and on readings through multiple encounters with the character in different contexts.
Let’s take a look at a few ways of making a well-informed guess when applying kunyomi and onyomi readings:
1. Kanji compound words (onyomi likely)
Words that are made up of two or more kanji side by side, with no hiragana separating the characters, have a higher chance of being read with onyomi.
For example: 新幹線 reads shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train). Each one of these characters is read with its onyomi reading: shin (新）+ kan（幹）+ sen（線）.
Like Chinese, these words are made up of just kanji characters, and are known as jukugo (熟語）which means ‘compound word’ in English. Similar to how we have words like ‘bus stop’ or ‘mobile phone’, these are usually represented in Japanese with only kanji.
Other examples of jukugo:
- 公共交通機関 ー koukyou koutsuu kikan (public transport)
- 自然災害 ー shizen saigai (natural disaster)
- 携帯電話 ー keitai denwa (mobile phone)
- 税務署 ー zeimu sho (tax office)
Again, every kanji character reading in the above examples are onyomi readings.
2. Okurigana (kunyomi likely)
Okurigana is the name of the hiragana characters that are used to create words in Japanese in conjunction with kanji. Okurigana is normally used for making verbs and adjectives.
When you see a word written with okurigana, it is more than likely the kanji parts of that word will be read with their kunyomi reading.
For example: Let’s take the words 行く (iku – to go) and 小さい (chiisai – small).
The く(ku) in the the verb 行く(iku – to go) and the さい (sai) in the adjective 小さい (chiisai – small) are called okurigana. They are hiragana characters that work together with the kanji characters to create a word, in this case the Japanese verb for to go and the Japanese adjective for small.
Both kanji in these two examples, 行 (onyomi – kou) and 小 (onyomi – shou) are read with kunyomi readings (i and chii) in the the words above.
To apply the point made in number 1, that kanji compounds usually take the onyomi reading, we can look at the word for ‘bank’ in Japanese which is 銀行 (ginkou).
In the word 銀行, we can see that the same kanji from the above example 行く(to go) is being used at the end of this word (highlighted in red) with its onyomi pronunciation.
- 行く iku (to go)
- 銀行 ginkou (bank)
The first example with okurigana, uses a kunyomi reading while the second example, a kanji compound word, takes the onyomi reading for both kanji characters. As mentioned above, 行 has the onyomi kou, and it follows suit in this second example.
It is a helpful clue that the presence of okurigana means the kanji is likely to be read with its kun reading (Japanese reading). However, there are too many exceptions to this rule for this to be followed every single time.
3. Single kanji character (kunyomi likely)
When you see a kanji character on its own in Japanese, it’s almost always read with its kunyomi. If you read a stand alone kanji with its onyomi pronunciation, it won’t make sense. This is probably the only tip on this list you can count on as being more of a rule!
For example the kanji character for house is 家 and by itself it takes the kunyomi reading ie (いえ). However, when you see it as a compound as in the word for family which is 家族 (kazoku) it takes its onyomi ka. If you were to just say ka for the character 家 by itself, it would not make sense.
Similarly, the word for rain is 雨 ame which uses kunyomi by itself, but it changes to it’s onyomi, yu, when it becomes part of the kanji compound word tsuyu 梅雨 meaning ‘rainy season’. Again, if you just called this character by itself 雨 with its onyomi, yu, it would not make sense!
4. Names of Japanese people and places (kunyomi likely)
Native Japanese names for people and places will often be read with kunyomi but there are too many exceptions for this to be considered a rule as well!
This is important though because place and people names are usually kanji compounds, which goes against the point made in number 1.
However, because names of people and places in Japan are usually of Japanese origin, they will typically be pronounced with their kun reading, particularly names of people.
Names of places are a lot more difficult to interpret, even for native Japanese speakers, and they often mix both kun and on readings, with no logical order.
Last names and places following kunyomi readings:
- 山口 ー yama guchi
- 中村 ー naka mura
- 黒川 ー kuro kawa
- 宮本 ー miya moto
- 埼玉 ー Saitama
- 横浜 ー Yokohama
- 青森 ー Aomori
- 広島 ー Hiroshima
As mentioned, this is not a tried and true rule. Tokyo, for example, is read with its onyomi, tou-kyou for the characters 東京.
Then there’s place names like 北海道 Hokkaido which also use only onyomi, and Kanagawa (神奈川), a prefecture in Japan, mixes both kun and on readings for the characters.
All you have to do is take a train in Japan to see the different ways of reading station names, and the furigana (pronunciation guide in hiragana) is always written above the kanji at each station to assist with pronunciation.
Learning to read names correctly every time is so close to impossible due to the number of different readings each character can have, that even Japanese native speakers themselves often have to check how to pronounce names of people and places.
It is pretty normal for native Japanese speakers to look for clarification from others when trying to pronounce the name of a person or place.
On Japanese talk shows, if a guest is introduced and their name comes up on the screen, the furigana will often be included to assist watchers with pronunciation in contexts where the kunyomi or onyomi reading is not obvious.
How to remember the kunyomi and onyomi for each character?
There is only one way to memorize the different kunyomi and onyomi readings for each individual kanji – and that is practice!
The points above serve as a guide at best, but there are far too many exceptions to these tips for them to be used all the time!
Reading a wide variety of materials that include furigana (the small hiragana written above kanji as a reading guide) such as the NHK Easy news, novels, manga and subtitles for movies / tv shows is a great way to start familiarizing yourself with the common readings of a kanji character.
To get those kunyomi and onyomi readings to really stick in your memory, create a vocabulary list using an application like Anki which you can go over repeatedly.
It helps to begin learning to associate words as a whole with specific readings, as opposed to trying to apply kunyomi and onyomi readings to individual characters within a word each time you read.
Try learning vocabulary as whole words, and then as you encounter this word in different contexts you will start to become familiar with how each individual character looks and what the most likely pronunciation is based on association.
Should you learn kunyomi and onyomi?
People often wonder whether it’s really necessary to learn kunyomi and onyomi and the truth is that it’s good to know what they are and how they can be applied but don’t rely on them as the ultimate guide to reading kanji.
As you begin memorizing vocabulary, you will start developing the ability to read words as a whole without really thinking about whether to use kun or on readings. It will come naturally!
Onyomi vs kunyomi and beyond
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Francesca is a freelance copywriter and teacher, who moved to Tokyo from New Zealand at age 24. A linguistics and ESL major, she spent 3 years teaching at an all-boys high school. Now based in France, she remains a self-confessed Japanophile who loves kanji, cooking, cats and the outdoors.