Kanji: Everything about Chinese Characters

Japanese is said to have one of the most difficult writing in the world. Indeed it is harder than Latin letters but it does not mean that it is hard. Kanji, which literally means "Chinese characters" (漢字) are ideograms and pictograms that came from China and that are used in China (Taiwan, Hong Kong included), Japan and Korea (North and South). They were also used during centuries in Vietnam but the government abandoned them in order to use their own script which is a derivate of the Latin alphabet.

This article aims to explain what are exactly Kanji and also to show that is it not a hard concept to understand. 


In order to fully understand how the Kanji have appeared in the Japanese language, we must try to place ourselves in the Japan of the 6th century. At that time the Japanese already knew how to speak their language but did not possess a writing system. On the other hand China was a very influential country with a technical edge superior to other countries. Gradually the Japanese immersed themselves into Chinese culture and end up adopting their writing system namely called "Hanzi" in Chinese.

The Chinese characters were introduced in Japan from Korea thanks to the spread of Buddhism across Asia. Not only did the Japanese adopted the Chinese characters but also the culture in general. Names, religion, festivals, way of living, clothes were all influenced by Chinese culture. For the Japanese rulers at this time copying China was a sign of civilization. But the ideograms were not really adapted to the Japanese language as the two languages are very different, which is why the Japanese began using them for their meanings and not only for their pronunciations. Therefore, Kanji were used in two different ways, for their pronunciations (Sino Japanese pronunciation) and for their meanings (Native Japanese pronunciation).

From the creation of the Chinese characters (2000 BC) until World War II, the characters' shape never changed but in informal letters they were "simplified" to write quicker. After World War II, China (mainland) and Japan decided to simplify the characters to a certain extend in order to make the people literate for China and because of the pressure of the United States for Japan. While Mainland China simplified more than thousand of characters, Japan only simplified few hundreds. They are called "Simplified Characters" in Mainland China and "New Form Characters" in Japan. The only places that did not simplified the original Chinese characters were Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. 


The character for tree is as follow 木 and has two pronunciations as said before. The Sino Japanese pronunciation is "MOKU" , used when combining multiples Kanji (because the word was borrowed directly from Chinese). The Japanese pronunciation is "ki" when used alone (because it is the native way of saying tree in Japanese). Therefore :

・木 (ki) means tree 
・木材 (MOKU ZAI) means wood

Let us make now an analogy with the English word "water". "Water" is a pure native English word but when you refer to water in English you can also say "aqua" like in the word "aquarium". Because "aqua" comes from Latin, English has borrowed many words in their original forms and did not change the spelling of the words it borrowed. Other examples in English/Latin would be "moon/lunar" "brain/cerebral" and so on as English borrowed a huge amount of French and Latin words during centuries the same is true for Japanese which borrowed thousand of words from Chinese. When Japanese used words  from Chinese origin they pronounced the characters in Sino Japanese version which was similar to the ancient Chinese pronunciation.

The basic rule to know if a word is from Native Japanese or Sino Japanese origin is that if the word is composed of only one Kanji then it is Native Japanese pronunciation, in the other case when the word is composed of at least two Kanji it is Sino Japanese pronunciation. To show a visual example the following characters are pictograms representing basic elements with their double pronunciations (Sino Japanese in capital letters, Native Japanese in standard letters) :

・日(NICHI/hi) : day
・月(GETSU/tsuki) : moon 
・火 (KA/hi) fire 
・女 (JO/onna) : woman 
・男 (DAN/otoko) : man 
・音 (ON/oto) : sound 
・人(JIN/hito) : people 
・体(TAI/karada) : body 
・恋(REN/koi) : love 
・戦(SEN/ikusa) : war 
・生(SEI/ikiru) : life 
・学(GAKU/manabu) : learn 
・言(GEN/koto) : word 
・葉(YO/ha) : leaf 
・和(WA/yawaragu) : harmony 
・心(SHIN/kokoro) : heart


Japanese calligraphy is one of the most popular fine arts of Japan. Calligraphic works are valued no less than the works of painting. But this aspect of plastic art also has a philosophical meaning. In the simplest understanding calligraphy is the art of beautiful writing. Called "shodo/書道" in Japanese, it is one of the pilar of education in the country. Children start to practice calligraphy when they are 7 years old and have special classes during school time to learn the way of writing the characters. The harmony and elegance of the lines create not only the aesthetic enjoyment, but also reproduce the millenary wisdom. Each line is justified, each movement of the brush of the calligrapher creates something beautiful. Calligraphy is one the most interesting and beautiful thing in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures. Calligraphy is normally regarded as one of the "arts" in the countries where it is practiced. Japanese calligraphy focuses not only on methods of writing but also on cultivating one's character and taught as a pursuit.

Going further 

The most remarkable feature of Kanji, in contrast to Latin letters or syllabaries which represent only sounds, is that they refer to the senses of the characters. Kanji are generally used to write the root of words, the grammatical dressing of the sentence being written in syllabaries. Chinese characters are more than letters, symbols and drawing. They are piece of art and their roots come from the fusion between humans and nature. When Chinese characters were created, the Chinese people were soaked by Confucianism which try to balance the harmony between humans and nature. This is why so many Kanji feature natural elements like water fire wind tree earth moon or sun. 

Your time to write Kanji

Nowadays in Japan, literate people can read between 2000 and 3000 Kanji (2000 are necessary to read the newspaper). You may think that those characters are hard to learn but Japanese, Chinese and Korean have no problem reading and writing them, you just need to be patient and passionate! You do not need to learn Japanese in order to write Kanji, you can write them while practicing calligraphy which is an amazing art. Take out your brush, pen or pencil and start writing Kanji!

More informations about Japanese name transformation list on our article here!

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Fabien Mizart

Author & Translator

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