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Column #26 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, September 20, 2002
"Getting the upper hand on irregular kanji readings"

Two of the first words I encountered in my study of Japanese--上手 and 下手 --helped spark what is turning into a life-long fascination with the meanings of kanji. These two simple words demonstrate the remarkable ability of individual kanji to combine to form compound words: 上 (upper) joined to 手 (hand) means "skilled," in contrast to 下 (lower) plus 手, which means "unskilled."

The simple logic in these conjoined characters appeared magical to me. The problem lay in trying to remember the correct pronunciations of 上手 (joozu) and 下手 (heta), two examples of kanji words with irregular readings. (Japanese people often compliment foreigners by mentioning that they "have the upper hand" in Japanese: "Nihongo ga joozu desu ne").

To help native speakers deal with the confusing obstacle course of pronunciations of kanji-based words, the Ministry of Education and Science has issued a list of some 100 "approved irregular readings." A number of these are slight variations on regular on (Chinese-derived) pronunciations, such as "zu" in "joozu" (手 is normally pronounced "shu") and "mai" in "maigo" (迷子 lost child; 迷 is normally pronounced "mei"). The list may be viewed on the last two pages of this PDF.

Other irregular readings on the list are examples of "jukuji-kun" (熟字訓), in which two or more kanji are assigned--because of the appropriateness of their meanings-- to a single ancient native Japanese word, while the customary kun (Japanese) and on (Chinese) pronunciations of the kanji are disregarded. 土産 (local-produce, "souvenir"), for example, is not read with an on-on pronunciation--such as "do-san"--but with the special reading "miyage." Other examples of jukuji-kun include: 田舎(inaka,rice field-hut, "countryside"), 浴衣(yukata, bath-clothing, "summer kimono"), and 大和 (Yamato, big-peace, an old name for Japan).

Some of the words with irregular readings on the Ministry list are of limited use in modern-day Japanese society (早乙女 rice-planting girl, 竹刀 bamboo sword, 寄席 variety house, 乳母 wet nurse, etc.). Others, though, are just as useful today as they were centuries ago: お母さん(okaasan, mother), 果物 (kudamono, fruit), 時計 (tokei, clock), and 芝生 (shibafu, lawn), for example.

Words with irregular readings that are not on the list are generally --but not always--written in hiragana. But you are likely to stumble across "unapproved" kanji compounds with irregular readings like 何故 (naze, why), 一寸 (chotto, just a bit), お祖父さん(ojiisan, grandfather), and 一昨日(ototoi, day before yesterday) in your everyday reading. They are worth remembering.

Some kanji words with irregular readings can be grouped together thematically. For example:

Time: 昨日(kinoo, yesterday), 今朝 (kesa, this morning), 明日(asu, tomorrow), and 一日(tsuitachi, the first day of the month).

Family relationships: 息子(musuko, son), 叔父(oji, uncle), and 姉さん(neesan, older sister).

Weather: 梅雨(tsuyu, rainy season), 五月雨 (samidare, early summer rain), and 吹雪 (fubuki, snowstorm).

To learn the pronunciations of kanji words with irregular readings you will, unfortunately, have to rely on your powers of rote memory. However, figuring out the meanings of such compounds can be a breeze if you happen to know an English keyword for each of their comprising characters. Take the often-seen 大人: It is made up of 大 (big) and 人 (person) and means-- you guessed it-- "adult" (otona).

A parting thought. Even educated Japanese people find that mastering all possible pronunciations for Japanese kanji is nearly impossible. However, as a foreign kanji learner who has nailed down just one keyword in your own language for each character, you will have a useful tool to help you through the kanji compound word obstacle course.

QUIZ
Guess the meanings of the following common kanji words (listed with an English keyword for each kanji) with irregular readings:

1) 浮気 (floating around/mind)
2) 相撲 (mutual/deal a blow)
3) 真似 (true/ resemble)
4) 凸凹 (convex/concave)
5) 風邪 (wind/wicked)
6) 為替 (do/exchange)
7) 眼鏡 (eye/lens)
8) 足袋 (foot/bag)
9) 部屋 (section/building)
10) 紅葉 (crimson/leaves)

a) sumo wrestling (sumou)
b) Japanese socks (tabi)
c) Japanese maple (momiji)
d) money exchange (kawase)
e) unevenness (dekoboko);
f) common cold (kaze)
g) eyeglasses (megane)
h) room (heya)
i) adultery (uwaki)
j) imitate (mane);

ANSWERS 1)i 2)a 3)j 4)e 5)f 6)d 7)g 8)b 9)h 10)c.

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