Learning Japanese Kanji: What are On and Kun Readings and When to Use Them

Learning Japanese Kanji: What are On and Kun Readings and When to Use Them

On, Kun? What is That? And When Do I Use Which?

Hiragana, katakana, and kanji are the three legs that make up the Japanese writing system stool. The kana (a classification name for hiragana and katakana together) are fairly easy to learn in just a few weeks of careful study. Kanji, on the other hand…


To be fluent in Japanese, the government recommends learning about two thousand kanji characters. Why so many? You should be grateful. China has over 40,000 characters.

Another reason for being grateful: Most kanji have a single core meaning (this could be an abstract notion or something more concrete). While many do have other meanings, [for example, 生 can mean “live,” “give birth,” or “raw.”] most kanji can be safely associated with a single meaning or idea. The problem comes with the “readings” or pronunciations.


However, to complicate matters further, the ancient Japanese seemed to have not realized their language was a different language entirely from Chinese. Most of the time, the meaning behind the imported Chinese characters were often already found in Japanese. To add one more layer of complication, the Japanese thought it best to use the Chinese pronunciation(s) in addition to their own native Japanese pronunciation(s). This is why there are often two totally different sounding readings.

Take 木, the kanji for tree, for example: The Japanese called a tree “ki” but they heard their Chinese neighbors pronounce it as “moku.” So, 木 has two readings, a kun (ki) and an on (moku). –Actually, it has a few more, but these are the most useful.

Take a moment to memorize this:

on = pronunciation taken from the Chinese
kun = pronunciation from the Japanese 


音読み on yomi — ON READING

The on yomi is a representation of the ancient Japanese people’s understanding of the ancient Chinese words. As a result, you can often see/hear similarities with modern Chinese or even Korean regarding how they pronounce the same or similar kanji, but it is definitely not the same. Don’t expect a study of on readings will give you the ability to speak Mandarin!

In fact, because Japanese has fewer sounds in the language, the more complex sounds and pitches found in Chinese had to be condensed. This further distorted the family resemblance.

  • Nearly all Kanji have at least one on reading. The only exceptions are kanji created in Japan. [Click here for an article on wasei kanji]
  • On yomi is a rough representation of the ancient Chinese pronunciation for that character
  • On readings tend to be a single syllable in length, but not always as the example above with tree. [新 new | on: shin | kun: atarashii]
  • Sometimes there are multiple on readings. This is often due to that kanji being imported multiple times or from different areas of China which had variations in pronunciation. [生 life | on: sei or shou]
  • Kanji were imported in waves from the 4th century through the 16th mostly by priests and spread by the Buddhist or Confucian scrolls they brought.
  • Jukugo, compound kanji word phrases, tend to use on yomi.
  • But sometimes, jukugo could go either way: [旅人 traveler | on: ryojin | kun: tabibito]

訓読み kun yomi — KUN READING

The kun yomi is the “native” Japanese pronunciation for the concept represented by the kanji.

  • Kun readings tend to be longer than a syllable in length [新 new | on: shin | kun: atarashii] This isn’t always the case, however.
  • Most words that consist of a single kanji all by itself, use the kun yomi. [人 person hito | 車 car kuruma | 夏 summer natsu]
  • Kanji followed by hiragana (okurigana) tend to be kun yomi.


The On and Kun readings are similar to what happened to the English language after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The native population’s language was mixed with their continental overlords’. As a result, the specialized and refined words of the ruling class spoke a dialect of Old French. The common people spoke Old English. So, common everyday words like tree, hill, town, meal, and earth were of Anglo-Saxon origin, but the Norman (from Latin) influence is still heard in specialized words. We say “cow” while plowing in Anglo-Saxon, but “beef” when eating in the castle.

In our tree example, we find the kun reading, the native Japanese pronunciation, is ki. Today, when you want to say, “There’s a tree,” you’d say:

ki ga aru.
There is a tree.

But if you want to buy some lumber, you might say,

zaimoku o kaitai desu.
(I) want to buy lumber.


Unfortunately, you really need to learn both on and kun readings for kanji. Some are more useful than others, but if your goal is to be fluent in reading Japanese, learn them both.

It isn’t always easy to figure out which to use in context. There are, however, a few quick and dirty tips. (mostly repeated from the above On and Kun sections.)

KUN Tips:

  • As mentioned above, common, everyday words tend to be kun. Specialized words tend to be on. [The kanji for water is 水. To ask for water, use mizu. Swimming is suiei]
  • kun reading dominates ideas that were familiar and common to the Japanese at the time a kanji (the Anglo-Saxon words)
  • If there is okurigana (the trailing hiragana that is written after the kanji), the kanji will most likely be a kun yomi.

ON Tips:

  • As a general rule, jukugo, compound kanji that form a new word, use on readings.
  • On readings tend to be a single syllable in length, but not always as the example above with tree. [新 new | on: shin | kun: atarashii]


  • Most kanji have only one core meaning. Yeah!
  • The readings are either on yomi” or “kun yomi.”
  • 音読み on yomi–The “on” pronunciation was the original Chinese pronunciation—or at least the sounds Japanese people thought were the Chinese pronunciation.
  • 訓読み kun yomi–The “kun” pronunciation was the native Japanese pronunciation for that particular concept.
  • Due to changes in sounds over time, some kanji have an impressive number of pronunciations. It is best to learn these sounds by example which is why we include multiple example words with each kanji in this newsletter.
  • Jukugo, compound kanji word phrases, tend to use on yomi.
  • Kanji followed by hiragana (okurigana) tend to be kun yomi.
  • Concentrate on the one or two most useful readings for each kanji. You can always go back and learn the rarer ones later. This will make your learning progress faster.
  • As you read, take note of usage. You’ll start to associate kanji with their on or kun readings subconsciously.
Sick and Tired of Getting Tacos on my Ears Japanese Idiom Lesson

Sick and Tired of Getting Tacos on my Ears Japanese Idiom Lesson


Okay, this has nothing to do with the yummy Mexican food, but see below for what “tako” means in Japanese and your ears.

mimi ni tako ga dekiru
to be sick and tired of hearing something
to hear something over and over again


If someone “talks your ears off,” instead of using this idiom, you can ignore them while claiming your “ears are far” (mimi ga tooi) which means you can’t hear too well.

Literally, “get calluses on one’s ears.” The “tako” here means “callus” such as what guitar players get on their fingers or the “corn” found on feet.

Other common words with the same “tako” pronunciation are:

  • tako octopus
  • tako kite (the toy you fly in the sky)
  • The Mexican food, taco, is pronounced タコス takosu.


shukudai o shinasai to, mimi ni tako ga dekiru hodo haha ni iwareta.
“Do your homework!” my mother said so many times my ears developed calluses.”

宿題 shukudai—homework
しなさい  shinasai—do (something) [command] と to—quotation marker
ほど hodo—to such an extent
言われた iwareta—said

“Here’s Looking at You, Kid” in Japanese 「君の瞳に乾杯」Casablanca

“Here’s Looking at You, Kid” in Japanese 「君の瞳に乾杯」Casablanca

In Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart speaks Japanese, everyone listens. Okay, this only happens with subtitles, but that’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it?

Did you know “Here’s looking at you, kid” apparently was not written in the original script, but was an off-the-cuff comment Bogart made to Ingrid Bergman. And the awesome sounding “Play it again, Sam” is really boring old “Play it, Sam.”

But enough cinema trivia. You are here for Japanese!

First, Casablanca in Japanese isn’t 白い家 shiroi ie (white house), but simply the katakana form of the sound: カサブランカ kasaburanka.

One of the best known lines from Casablanca is the aforementioned “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Let’s look at the Japanese:


kimi no hitomi ni kanpai

You might recognize 乾杯 kanpai as the Japanese way drinkers say “cheers!”

So, what does the Japanese version of “Here’s looking at you, kid” mean? First, no goats are involved. Sorry. There are pupils, though, and pupils are usually kids–unless they are eyes. Right. Eyes. Maybe something like, “A toast to your eyes.” “Here’s cheers to your eyes!”


君の kimi no–your [the の makes it possessive] 瞳 hitomi–eye; pupil
君の瞳 kimi no hitomi–your eyes [note: this could be plural eyes or singular eye] に ni–to [particle that shows direction or purpose]

君の瞳に kimi no hitomi ni–to your eyes
乾杯 kanpai–cheers!

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I Want to… I Really Do, But How Do I Say I Want to in Japanese?

I Want to… I Really Do, But How Do I Say I Want to in Japanese?

Basic Japanese grammar lesson: Using ~たい ~tai–to want to…

  • Adding ~tai adds the “want to” meaning.
  • This is formed by finding the ~masu form and adding ~tai.
  • For example:
    To eat → to want to eat:
    食べる → 食べます → 食べ+たい → 食べたい
    taberu → tabemasu → tabe+tai  →  tabetaiTo Drink → to want to drink:
    飲む → 飲みます → 飲み+たい → 飲みたい
    nomu → nomimasu → nomi+tai  → nomitai


nanika nomitai desu.
I want to drink something.

なにか nanika–something
飲みたい nomitai–want to drink [This is formed with the ~masu form of 飲む nomu–to drink + たい tai–(want to…)] です desu–copula (usually like to be)

Next, let’s turn this into a question.

Notice in the above example, we didn’t use a pronoun. The “I” was understood. In this next example, we still won’t use a pronoun, but by adding the question marker か ka, the “you” is implied.


nanika tabetai desu ka.
Do you want to eat something?

なにか nanika–something
食べたい tabetai–want to eat [This is formed with the ~masu form of 食べる taberu–to eat + たい tai–(want to…)] です desu–copula (usually like to be)

Pimsleur Language Programs


Oh, My Ears are Burning! Japanese Idioms 耳が痛い

Oh, My Ears are Burning! Japanese Idioms 耳が痛い

mimi ga itai
(of a reprimand) to make one’s ears burn; hit where it hurts




When someone says something that hits on a touchy subject or reminds you of a weakness you have, then your “ears hurt.”

Literally, “ears hurt.” The “hurt” in your ears comes from hearing something you don’t want to hear.


kare no chuukoku o kiku no wa, mimi ga itai.
Hearing his advice really hit a nerve.

忠告  chuukoku—advice; warning
聞く kiku—to hear; to listen

Pimsleur Language Programs

大きな顔をする To Look as if One is Important; Puffed Up

大きな顔をする To Look as if One is Important; Puffed Up

大きな顔をする To look as if one is important; puffed up



Said when someone is overly proud (and the speaker thinks that he should be more humble).
Literally, “to make one’s face large.” Having a large face means people are more likely to take notice of you.


kare wa mada shin nyuu sha in na noni, mou ookina kao wo shiteiru.
Although he’s still a new employee, he sure acts like a big shot.

まだ mada—still (only a new employee)
新入社員 shin nyuu sha in—new employee
[lit: 新 shin (new); 入 nyuu (enter); 社 sha (company); 員 in (member)] なのに nanoni—although; in spite of the fact…
もう mou—already

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