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Glossary - 0-9

Wakon-yōsai
和魂洋才
"Japanese spirit
and Western techniques"

KANJI

Kanji (漢字) are the adopted logographic Chinese characters (hanzi) that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana and katakana.

The Japanese term kanji for the Chinese characters literally means "Han characters" and is written using the same characters as the Chinese word hanzi (simplified Chinese: 汉字; traditional Chinese: 漢字)

There is no definitive count of Kanji characters, just as there is none of Chinese characters generally.

The Dai Kan-Wa Jiten, which is considered to be comprehensive in Japan, contains about 50,000 characters, but the Zhonghua Zihai, published in 1994 in China, where Chinese characters are used more extensively, contains about 85,000 characters.

However, the majority of these are not in common use in any country, and many are obscure variants or archaic forms.

Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 characters are in common use in Japan, a few thousand more find occasional use.

Because of the way they have been adopted into Japanese, a single Kanji may be used to write one or more different words, and thus the same character may be pronounced in different ways.

From the point of view of the reader, Kanji are said to have one or more different "readings".

Although more than one reading may become activated in the brain deciding which reading is appropriate depends on recognizing which word it represents, which can usually be determined from context, intended meaning, whether the character occurs as part of a compound word or an independent word, and sometimes location within the sentence.

For example, (今日) is usually read kyō, meaning "today", but in formal writing is instead read konnichi, meaning "nowadays" - this is understood from context. Nevertheless, some cases are ambiguous and require a furigana gloss, which are also used simply for difficult readings or to specify a non-standard reading.

Kanji readings are categorized as either on'yomi (literally "sound reading", from Chinese) or kun'yomi (literally "meaning reading", native Japanese), and most characters have at least two readings, at least one of each.

However, some characters have only a single reading, such as kiku (菊, chrysanthemum) (on) or iwashi (鰯, sardine) (kun); kun-only are common for Japanese-coined Kanji (kokuji).

Some common Kanji have ten or more possible readings; the most complex common example is 生, which is read as sei, shō, nama, ki, o-u, i-kiru, i-kasu, i-keru, u-mu, u-mareru, ha-eru, and ha-yasu, totaling 8 basic readings (first 2 are on, rest are kun), or 12 if related verbs are counted as distinct.

Most often a character will be used for both sound and meaning, and it is simply a matter of choosing the correct reading based on which word it represents.

In other cases, a character is used only for sound (ateji), in which case pronunciation is still based on a standard reading, or used only for meaning (broadly a form of ateji, narrowly jukujikun), in which case the individual character does not have a reading, only the full compound; this is significantly more complicated.

Confused?   You are not alone...

While Japanese is considered to be one of the easiest languages in the world to learn to speak, it is also said to be one of the hardest to learn to read.




POSTSCRIPT:

Has living in the Global Village taught us nothing?

How strange it is that so many people can laugh unabashedly about Asia’s attempts at “Engrish” and yet remain stubbornly ignorant of the meanings behind many Asian symbols, whether they’re printed on T-shirts or inked into their skin?!

A brief word of warning to those considering getting a Kanji tattoo, or Kanji embroidery on a tokko fuku, etc....

NEVER, EVER rely on online translation services like 'Google Translate', 'Babylon', 'Bing', 'Freetranslation', et al.

While they may be OK to use to get the general idea of a word or simple phrase, when it comes to something that is to be inked on your body, or will cost you a small fortune to have embroidered, these services are, frankly, LESS accurate than the Weather Report on the nightly News... and about as useful as tits on a Nun...

Always, ALWAYS consult as many NATIVE Japanese speakers as you can find.   The more the better, because with something like 85,000 Kanji characters, many sharing the same phoenetic sound, but having ENTIRELY different meanings, even the Japanese themselves will sometimes make mistakes...

Opens in New Window
"That's the Wrong Kanji..." scene - 'Kamikaze Girls' (2004)
Click Image to Play

...and if even those whose first language is Japanese can make mistakes, you certainly DO NOT want to rely on that Otaku mate you know from school, or that cosplayer you talk to on Facebook occassionally, if you are going to get a Kanji tattoo or expensive embroidery done, unless you want to run the risk of looking like the Global Village Idiot like these guys...

KANJI FAILS: You can't fix Stoooopid!
HOW NOT TO CHOOSE A KANJI TATTOO: A guide for World Cup footballers
TEN TERRIBLE KANJI TATTOOS TRANSLATED



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