Japanese Kanji Pronunciation is
More Art Than Science
Japanese kanji pronunciation is a sticky area in a language with many of them. You have to know about 2,000 kanji just to read a newspaper article. Pronouncing them right every time takes a lot of practice, but knowing the basics will get you far down the road.
What Are Kanji?
A kanji is just a Japanese character or symbol. Kanji literally means "Chinese letter", because they actually originated in China several thousand years ago.
The Japanese didn't have a written language, so they adopted the Chinese characters, most likely around the 6th century.
What's Are The Basics of Kanji Pronunciation?
The two most important words to know about Japanese kanji pronunciation are onyomi and kunyomi.
An onyomi literally means "sound reading" and is usually a single syllable that is given to a kanji when it's written next to another kanji. For example, when you have a word that is made up of three kanji, chances are that the word is made up of three syllables.
These one-syllable kanji pronunciations sound eerily similar to the Chinese pronunciations because they actually share the same linguistic roots.
There are only a few dozen syllables in the Japanese language, so there can be dozens or hundreds of different kanji that have the same onyomi, which can be really confusing at times.
A kunyomi is usually a longer kanji pronunciation that actually resembles a whole word (as opposed to just one syllable). Generally, if you see a single kanji not surrounded by others, you pronounce its kunyomi and not its onyomi.
Some Gray Areas, Simplified
A Japanese kanji (again, just a character) usually has one kunyomi and a couple of different onyomi. But a kanji can have no kunyomi, or 5 different onyomi. A whole word can be made up of only one kanji, or six stuck together. It just depends.
Some Things That Don't Change
Though there are all these exceptions for how to pronounce kanji, there are also some things that always hold true. For instance, you can't have a verb or adjective word that's made completely from kanji.
Also, "imported" foreign words (gairaigo) are never written in kanji. If you study or speak Japanese, you'll probably also know that particles (things with meaning like "to", "from", "and") are never written in kanji.
Similar to how many old Western families have a coat of arms, Japanese family names are always made up of kanji, all of which reveal a traditional meaning behind a family name.
The Simpler Side of Kanji Pronunciation
After World War II, the Japanese language moved to a simpler type of reading system, called shinjitai. Some of the original characters were made a little simpler, but most important was that kanji became used somewhat less, and the simpler and easier hiragana syllables were used more.
That simplification took a lot of the blunt memorization and practice out of being able to read words properly.
More recently, some people have wanted to get rid of kanji completely and just use the simpler syllables of hiragana.
As Japan mixes with other countries more, it has been slowly moving away from kanji, but the challenges of pronunciation don't show any signs of going away soon.
Did you know...
The breeding of carp (known as Koi) is a special pastime for the people of Japan. The carp are usually an addition to a garden area, housed in special ground-level pools with oxygenation and filtration. Koi are also celebrated by the flying of large, fish-shaped flags.