Wolfgang Hadamitzky

Japan-related Textbooks, Dictionaries, and Reference Works



Kanji 漢字 is the Japanese term for Chinese characters: the first character 漢 (pronounced kan, or, in Chinese, han) means “Han”, which is the majority ethnic group in China, and the second character 字 (ji) means “character”.

Origin and pronunciation

Each of these characters is a simple or composite pictogram with a certain meaning that arises from the original picture(s) it is derived from. The pronunciation of the character comes from the word it stands for. The Japanese began to adopt Chinese characters in the fourth century, and along with the characters, they also adopted their Chinese readings. But soon native-Japanese words came to be written with the adopted Chinese characters. That is why today almost every kanji has both a Sino-Japanese on reading, which is a Japanese version of its Chinese pronunciation, and a purely Japanese kun reading. A kanji can have several different on readings, depending on which historical era and which region of China it was adopted from, and the number of kun readings a kanji has depends on the number of different Japanese words it represents. How to pronounce a word that is written with kanji usually depends on context. Besides the kanji that were adopted as-is from China, some kanji were invented in Japan following the Chinese example. These home-grown kanji are called 国字 kokuji (“country characters”).


For thousands of years Chinese characters have had a kind of basic meaning as pictograms representing the objects they picture or the ideas suggested by their combination. Later the meanings of characters were extended (e.g., 日 for both “sun” and “day”, or 木 for both “tree” and “wood”), or completely different meanings were assigned to characters. And further shifts in meaning took place when the Chinese characters were adopted by the Japanese to represent Japanese words of the same or similar meaning.

Context reveals the specific meaning of a kanji. If it stands for a whole word, then it has the meaning(s) of that word. In most cases a kanji stands for several words and can have correspondingly many meanings. These meanings need not be the same as the meaning the kanji has when it is part of a multi-kanji word. This is why character dictionaries generally list the meanings associated with the various readings of a kanji, rather than with the kanji itself.

A kanji that appears as a radical in other kanji can have a special meaning. For example, the kanji 木 for “tree” or “wood” takes on the meaning “made of wood” when it appears as a radical in the kanji for “stick” (棒), “board” (板), and “bridge” (橋). Similarly, the kanji 水 for “water” has the radical form 氵, which indicates the concept of a liquid in such kanji as those for “sweat” (汗), “swim” (泳), and “swamp” (沼). Thus radicals serve to assign the kanji in which they appear to categories of objects or concepts. In the great majority of cases the radical of a kanji appears on its left or at its top.


In the modern writing system, kanji serve to represent concept words like nouns, verbs, and adjectives, as well as Japanese, Chinese, and Korean proper names. In Chinese, each kanji always stands for a complete word, but in Japanese, which is an inflected language, the kanji in an inflected word stands only for the stem of the word, while the word’s ending is written with hiragana. These hiragana that are added to a kanji to show the inflectional ending of a word are called okurigana (“accompanying kana”). Most verbs and adjectives are written with only one kanji (plus okurigana), while most nouns and quasi-adjectives are written with two kanji (without okurigana). The combination of two kanji (with their on readings) is an inexhaustible source for putting together new words, especially nouns.

About half of the characters in a typical text are kanji. The rest of the characters consist of the syllable characters hiragana and katakana (known collectively as kana), with maybe a smattering of Hindu-Arabic numerals (0-9) and roman letters (A-Z, a-z).

The representation of concept words by kanji makes it easier to grasp the gist of a sentence quickly, without being distracted by the grammatical-function words written in kana. At the same time, the mixture of kanji with kana helps the reader to recognize where words begin and end; this is an important function in Japanese texts, which are not written with spaces between words. It would be a laborious chore to read a text written solely in kana, and for this reason, books for children that are written with kana only do use spaces between words.

Kanji are “information-dense” and allow information to be conveyed in less space than would be needed for a message written in kana or roman letters. For abbreviations and where space is at a premium, such as in small video displays, kanji are clearly superior to other writing symbols.

How many kanji are there?

There is no reliable data on the exact number of Chinese characters that have ever been used. The most comprehensive character dictionary, the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten compiled by the Japanese Morohashi Tetsuji (13 volumes, 1955–1960), lists about 50,000 kanji. The number of kanji listed in most Japanese character dictionaries runs to about 10,000 to 20,000. The larger bilingual character dictionaries for foreigners list about 6,000 to 7,000 kanji. The government recommends that everyday and official use be limited to a list of 1,945 kanji, the so-called Jōyō Kanji. University students are expected to know somewhat more than 2,000 kanji. In the first six years of schooling, students are taught the 1,006 so-called Gakushū Kanji (“learning kanji”).

Number and sequence of strokes

The simplest kanji consist of only a single stroke, and the kanji with the largest number of strokes in the Kanji Dictionary by Spahn/Hadamitzky has 64 strokes. The average kanji in the 1,945 Jōyō Kanji has 10 or 11 strokes. There are rules that prescribe the direction and sequence in which the strokes of a kanji are to be written, but the basic rule for both is: from left to right, from top to bottom.


In alphabetical dictionaries, words written in kanji are listed according to their pronunciation together with words written in kana. In addition, there are so-called character dictionaries, in which individual kanji and multi-kanji words are listed in the order of character components called radicals. Also, kanji are listed according to their pronunciation and their stroke count in the readings index and stroke count index of character dictionaries.


In texts intended for Japanese readers, when it is necessary to indicate the pronunciation of a word or proper name written with kanji, its reading is generally spelled out in hiragana. The small hiragana that are written over or under kanji to tell how the kanji are to be pronounced are called furigana or, in word-processing software, rubi. For further information on transcription into roman letters, especially in texts intended for foreigners, see the article Romanization systems and the Kana romanization tables.

Reference literature

W. Hadamitzky, M. Spahn: Kanji & Kana. First rev. ed. Tuttle 1997.
With a detailed discussion of kanji. Gives for each of the 1,945 Jōyō Kanji how it is written, its readings and meanings, and five compounds. With three kanji indexes.

September 2005, W.H. with Mark Spahn

Wolfgang Hadamitzky

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