On’yomi and Kun’yomi


If you’re interested in learning Japanese, you’ll spend much time dealing with Kanji. These characters fall into two groups: On’yomi and Kun’yomi.

In the Japanese language, On’yomi and Kun’yomi are two different reading systems used for Kanji characters, which are logographic characters borrowed from Chinese. Understanding the distinction between these two types of reading is crucial for effective Japanese language learning and comprehension.

If you’re ready to take your Japanese learning to the next level, keep reading! Like any other language, the best way to learn Japanese is to try different methods and, most importantly, enjoy the process! 

Learning More about On’yomi and Kun’yomi Japanese Characters

Japanese writing is an artful blend of characters borrowed from Chinese and native Japanese. Kanji characters often have different ways they can be pronounced. These ways are called “On’yomi” and “Kun’yomi,” which we also discuss in our Teaching Tuesday posts. This happened because Japan didn’t have its written language before they got kanji from China, even though they had a spoken language.

On’yomi, which means “sound reading,” is like the Chinese way of saying kanji. Usually, one kanji can have many on’yomi readings from different places in China or history. You use on’yomi when a word is made of multiple kanji characters.

Kun’yomi is how the Japanese say kanji. Japan needed their spoken language to fit with the new kanji, so they matched the meaning of a Chinese kanji with the pronunciation of a Japanese word that meant the same thing. But Japanese words were longer and sometimes didn’t fit well with the kanji. That’s why they used hiragana to finish the word. Usually, kun’yomi is used when a kanji has hiragana with it or when it’s by itself.

Let’s explore more about these two in the following sections.

On’yomi: Chinese-Derived Readings

On’yomi refers to a special way of reading Japanese kanji characters from the Chinese language. When the Japanese adopted kanji characters from China, they also borrowed the pronunciation of these characters. This led to On’yomi readings, where the Chinese pronunciation was retained while integrating it into the Japanese writing system.

The historical backdrop of On’yomi is rooted in the centuries-old interaction between China and Japan. During ancient times, Japan lacked its writing system. Introducing kanji characters from China was a pivotal moment in shaping Japanese writing. This borrowing of characters was accompanied by adopting their pronunciation, giving birth to On’yomi readings.

Numerous kanji characters have On’yomi readings, which often correspond to how the characters are pronounced in Chinese. For instance, the character 水, meaning “water,” is pronounced as “sui” in On’yomi. Another example is the character 木, meaning “tree,” pronounced as “ki” in On’yomi. These readings provide a direct link to the Chinese roots of the characters.

On’yomi readings are frequently used in compound words and technical terminology. Many specialized fields, such as science, medicine, and law, rely on the precision and consistency of On’yomi readings to convey complex concepts. Compound words formed using On’yomi readings often carry a formal and precise tone due to their direct connection with Chinese pronunciation and meaning.

Kun’yomi: Native Japanese Readings

Kun’yomi represents a distinctive way of reading Japanese kanji characters from the native Japanese language. When the Japanese began adopting kanji characters, they combined them with the sounds and meanings already in their language. This fusion resulted in Kun’yomi readings, where kanji characters took on native Japanese pronunciations.

Kun’yomi readings are deeply rooted in the historical evolution of the Japanese language. As Japan gradually absorbed kanji characters from China, they tailored these characters to match the sounds of their language, thus weaving a connection between meaning and pronunciation unique to Japan. This linguistic adaptation laid the foundation for Kun’yomi readings.

Many kanji characters possess Kun’yomi readings, which are linked to how these characters are spoken in native Japanese words. For instance, the character 手, meaning “hand,” is read as “te” in Kun’yomi. Another example is the character 見, meaning “see,” pronounced as “mi” in Kun’yomi. These readings encapsulate the native essence of the Japanese language.

Kun’yomi readings are prominently used in everyday vocabulary and expressions. When kanji characters were integrated into Japanese words, their Kun’yomi readings seamlessly intertwined with the fabric of the language. This gives rise to common words and phrases that carry the familiarity of native Japanese speech, reflecting the cultural and linguistic heritage of the country. 

When To Use Kun’yomi and When To Use On’yomi

Deciding whether to use kun’yomi or on’yomi readings for kanji characters isn’t always straightforward. While there’s no foolproof rule to guarantee accuracy, some tips might work about 80% of the time.

The remaining 20% often requires memorizing and practicing a lot of reading. Especially when a kanji character has many ways to read it, you’ll only truly understand the different kun and on readings by encountering the character in different situations.

Now, let’s explore a few strategies that can help you make educated guesses when using kun’yomi and on’yomi readings: 

1. On’yomi For Kanji Compound Words

When words are made by putting two or more kanji characters together, without hiragana between them, they usually use on’yomi readings.

For instance: 新幹線 (shinkansen) means the super-fast Japanese train. All three of these characters are read with their on’yomi readings: shin (新) + kan (幹) + sen (線). 

These words are like how Chinese words are formed, using just kanji characters. In Japanese, they’re called jukugo (熟語), which means ‘compound word’ in English. Just like ‘bus stop’ or ‘mobile phone’ in English, these are often written in Japanese using only kanji.

More examples of jukugo:

  • 公共交通機関 (koukyou koutsuu kikan) means public transport.
  • 自然災害 (shizen saigai) means natural disaster.
  • 携帯電話 (keitai denwa) means mobile phone.
  • 税務署 (zeimu sho) means tax office. 

Once again, each kanji character is read using on’yomi in all these examples.

2. Kun’yomi For Okurigana

Okurigana is the name for the small hiragana characters that work with kanji to make Japanese words. These hiragana are typically used to create verbs and adjectives.

When you see a word with okurigana, the kanji part of the word will likely be read using its kun’yomi reading.

For instance, let’s consider the words 行く (iku – to go) and 小さい (chiisai – small).

In the verb 行く (iku – to go), the く (ku) and the adjective 小さい (chiisai – small), the さい (sai) are examples of okurigana. These hiragana characters combine with the kanji characters to form a word.

Both kanji in these examples, 行 (on’yomi – kou) and 小 (on’yomi – shou), are read with kun’yomi readings (i and chii) in the words above.

To connect this with what we discussed in point 1, where kanji compounds often take on’yomi readings, let’s look at the Japanese word for ‘bank,’ which is 銀行 (ginkou).

In 銀行, you can see that the same kanji from the earlier example, 行く (to go), is used at the end of this word with its on’yomi pronunciation.

  • 行く iku (to go)
  • 銀行 ginkou (bank)

The first example with okurigana uses a kun’yomi reading, while the second example, a kanji compound word, uses the on’yomi reading for both kanji characters. As mentioned, 行 has the on’yomi kou, which follows the same pattern in this second example.

It’s a useful hint that when you see okurigana, the kanji will likely be read using its kun reading (Japanese). However, there are exceptions to this rule, so you can’t always rely on it every time.

3. Kun’yomi For Single Kanji Character

When you spot a single kanji character alone in Japanese, it’s usually pronounced using its kun’yomi. It won’t sound right if you say the on’yomi sound for a single kanji by itself. This is a tip you can usually trust as a solid rule.

For example, take the kanji character for “house,” which is 家. When it stands alone, it’s read as kun’yomi, “ie,” (いえ). But when it’s part of a word like “family,” which is 家族 (kazoku), it uses its on’yomi “ka.” It wouldn’t make sense if you tried to say “ka” for the kanji 家 on its own.

Similarly, the word for “rain” is 雨 (ame), which uses kun’yomi when alone. But when it’s in the compound word 梅雨 (tsuyu) meaning ‘rainy season,’ it switches to its on’yomi “yu.” If you just said 雨 by itself using its on’yomi “yu,” it wouldn’t sound right.

4. Kun’yomi For Names of People and Places

Japanese names for people and places usually use kun’yomi, but there are so many exceptions that it’s not always a strict rule.

This is important because names of people and places often have more than one kanji, which goes against what we discussed earlier.

However, since Japanese names for people and places are usually from Japan, they often use their kun reading, especially for people’s names.

Place names are trickier, even for native Japanese speakers. They often mix both kun and on readings without a clear pattern.

For instance:

Last names and places often use kun’yomi 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

But remember, this isn’t always true like with Tokyo, which is read as its on’yomi “tou-kyou” using the characters 東京.

Then there are places like 北海道 Hokkaido that only use on’yomi, and Kanagawa (神奈川), a place in Japan, mixes both kun and on readings for its characters.

Just ride a train in Japan; you’ll see how station names are read differently. The hiragana above the kanji helps with pronunciation.

Learning to pronounce names accurately every time is tough, even for Japanese people, because characters can have many readings. Even native speakers often ask for help when saying the names of people or places.

For example, when a guest’s name appears on the screen on Japanese talk shows, they put furigana there to help viewers pronounce it right. This is especially useful when it’s unclear whether the name should be read with Kun’yomi or On’yomi.

Should You Learn Kun’yomi and On’yomi?

Learning both kun’yomi and on’yomi readings is beneficial for understanding and reading kanji characters in Japanese. While they shouldn’t be solely relied upon as strict rules, knowing the distinctions between these readings provides valuable insights into the language’s structure and vocabulary. 

As you memorize vocabulary and encounter kanji in various contexts, you’ll naturally develop the ability to read words without constantly deliberating between kun and on readings. So, while not the ultimate guide, understanding kun’yomi and on’yomi enrich your language skills and aids in becoming a proficient reader of Japanese texts.

The Pros of Learning Kun’yomi and On’yomi

  • Vocabulary Expansion

Mastering both kun’yomi and on’yomi readings expands your vocabulary horizons. Kun’yomi introduces you to native Japanese words, while on’yomi acquaints you with terms influenced by Chinese characters. By understanding both readings, you gain access to a broader array of words, enabling you to engage in diverse conversations and comprehend a wider range of written material.

  • Cultural Insight and Connection

Recognizing kun’yomi and on’yomi helps you understand Japan and China’s historical and cultural connection. Understanding the origins and evolution of these readings provides a window into the cultural exchanges that shaped the Japanese language. This knowledge deepens your appreciation for the language’s roots and the rich tapestry of cultural interaction.

  • Contextual Reading Proficiency

When you encounter kanji characters in texts, knowing both readings aids comprehension. You can infer the correct reading based on the word’s context. This skill enhances your reading comprehension, allowing you to decipher the intended meaning of words within their context accurately.

  • Versatility Across Genres

Comprehending Kun’yomi and On’yomi readings equips you with versatility in reading various text genres. Your reading skills are adaptable when exploring literature, news articles, academic papers, or even digital content. This adaptability enables you to engage with various topics and sources, enhancing your language proficiency.

  • Personal and Professional Growth

Learning kun’yomi and on’yomi readings enriches your language skills and contributes to personal and professional growth. As you navigate complex texts and conversations, your confidence in communication grows. Moreover, proficiency in these readings opens doors to opportunities in fields that require a thorough understanding of written Japanese, such as translation, content creation, and academia.

The Best Approach to Learning Japanese On’yomi and Kun’yomi

Understanding the differences between on’yomi and kun’yomi readings in Japanese is a rewarding yet challenging endeavor. Let’s explore each approach in detail:

1. Immersive Learning

Immersive learning is like diving into a pool of Japanese culture and language. Imagine you’re reading a popular manga series. Flipping through the pages, you spot the kanji character for “大” (big) in a dialogue bubble. It’s read as “だい” in on’yomi. In the same manga, you encounter the kanji “山” (mountain) with its kun’yomi reading “やま.” As you follow the characters’ adventures, you’re not just reading a story; you’re absorbing how on’yomi and kun’yomi readings come to life in real-world situations.

Now, let’s switch to watching a Japanese movie. The subtitles provide on’yomi and kun’yomi readings for the Kanji characters on the screen. As you enjoy the film, you notice the character “日” (day/sun) with its on’yomi “にち” and kun’yomi “ひ.” The movie’s context gives you a natural understanding of how these readings blend seamlessly into dialogue.

As you immerse yourself in various forms of Japanese content—a novel, anime, movie, or show—you develop an intuitive sense of when to expect on’yomi or kun’yomi readings. It’s like learning to swim by being in the water, making your encounter with kanji readings a part of your daily language experience.

2. Flashcards with Context

Creating flashcards that include both on’yomi and kun’yomi readings and example sentences is a highly interactive approach. 

For example, one flashcard features the kanji character “学” (study/learn). You flip it over to find its on’yomi reading “がく” and its kun’yomi reading “まな.” But there’s more to it than just readings.

To add context, you can include an example sentence on the back of the flashcard: “学校で勉強する” (study at school). This sentence illustrates how the kanji “学” fits into real communication. It’s as if you’re placing this kanji puzzle piece into the bigger picture of a sentence. You see how “学” connects with other words to convey a meaningful message.

When you come across another flashcard with a different kanji character, say “食” (eat), you repeat the process. You note its on’yomi reading “しょく” and kun’yomi reading “た.” Then, you create a sentence like “朝ごはんを食べる” (eat breakfast). This flashcard teaches you readings and how to use the kanji in practical situations.

By using flashcards with context, you’re building bridges between readings and real-life scenarios. As you flip through these cards, you’re not just memorizing readings; you’re connecting them to their natural habitats—sentences people use daily. This approach transforms the learning process into an interactive journey of discovery and application.

3. Progressive Vocabulary

Starting with a few kanji characters simultaneously allows you to build a progressive vocabulary. For instance, focus on learning the kanji for “人” (person) with its on’yomi “じん” and kun’yomi “ひと” readings. As you gain kanji knowledge, you can expand your vocabulary to include words like “学生” (student) and “人気” (popularity), gradually increasing your knowledge while mastering associated readings.

4. Cultural Connection

The historical and cultural significance of on’yomi and kun’yomi readings offers insights into the evolution of the Japanese language. For instance, learning that on’yomi readings have Chinese origins while kun’yomi readings are native to Japanese culture enhances your understanding of language development and cross-cultural influences.

5. Diverse Reading Materials

Reading materials refer to written content spanning various genres, sources, and styles. Engaging with diverse reading materials is a valuable language learning strategy, exposing learners to various vocabulary, expressions, and contexts. This practice helps learners develop a nuanced understanding of on’yomi and kun’yomi readings by observing their usage in different situations.

You can refer to:

  • News Article
  • Novel Excerpt
  • Online Content
  • Historical Text
  • Conversational Dialogues

Regularly engaging with these different reading materials gives you a comprehensive grasp of on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, their applications, and their cultural significance. This exposure contributes to a well-rounded language proficiency adaptable to various communication scenarios.

6. Interactive Apps

Interactive apps are software applications that engage users through active participation, feedback, and dynamic experiences. These apps are particularly effective in domains where hands-on learning and practice are essential. Language learning apps, such as those focused on learning the Japanese writing system’s readings like on’yomi and kun’yomi, exemplify the concept of interactive apps.

In the context of language learning apps, here are their interactive features:

  • Exercises
  • Quizzes
  • Games
  • Interactive Feedback
  • Progress Tracking
  • Engaging Content

Through these interactive features, the app keeps you engaged and motivated to continue practicing on’yomi and kun’yomi readings. The dynamic nature of the app enhances the learning experience and helps you retain knowledge more effectively.

7. Visual Learning

Watching Japanese shows and movies with subtitles introduces you to on’yomi and kun’yomi readings in a visual context. For example, while watching a drama, you see kanji characters accompanied by hiragana subtitles, helping you associate readings with spoken language and enhancing your overall comprehension.

8. Vocabulary Lists

Creating a personalized vocabulary list that includes both On’yomi and Kun’yomi readings allows you to focus on specific words and phrases. For instance, you could compile a list of family-related terms like “父” (father) with its On’yomi “ちち” and Kun’yomi “とう” readings. Regularly reviewing and practicing these lists reinforces your memory of readings.

9. Community Engagement

Joining language exchange groups or online forums connects you with fellow learners who share insights and challenges related to On’yomi and Kun’yomi readings. Discussing different readings and their applications offers a collaborative learning experience and fresh perspectives.

10. Patience and Consistency

Recognizing that mastering On’yomi and Kun’yomi is a gradual process emphasizes the importance of patience and consistency. Making mistakes is a natural part of the learning journey, and approaching your studies with a willingness to learn and improve is essential to successfully grasp these fundamental aspects of Japanese characters.

Japanese On’yomi and Kun’yomi: The Key Takeaway

If you find On’yomi and Kun’yomi confusing, you’re not alone. Go slowly. Remember, most of the time, Kanji can be read in many ways.

Now that you understand the basic difference between Japanese On’yomi and Kun’yomi, use them in your studies. To learn Japanese well, use different methods—reading, writing, and speaking. And don’t forget, Denwa Sensei can also help you with practicing these readings. With discipline and consistent effort, you’ll master On’yomi and Kun’yomi in no time.