Compared to mastering the pronunciations of Japan's 1,945 general-use kanji, learning to write them from memory is a piece of cake. Take the case of 生 ("life"), an exceedingly popular character with an especially high number of different pronunciations. Ask a Japanese friend to provide you with an example word for each of the following common pronunciations of 生: sei, shou, nama, ki, umu, ikiru, hayasu, ou, and naru. (e.g.: 生徒 seito "student," 生ビールnama-biiru "draft beer").
If you have not already done so, you can probably learn to write 生 from memory in a couple of minutes. However, you might still be discovering pronunciations for this character 10 or 20 years from now.
How did the headache-inducing Japanese kanji pronunciation system come into being? By all accounts, the Japanese were speaking their language long before they borrowed China's time-tested kanji writing system, which was already in use in Japan by the eighth-century dawn of the Nara Period. Because the two spoken languages were markedly different, the Chinese characters were not well-suited for writing Japanese, but with the addition of the kanji-based hiragana and katakana "alphabets," Japanese took shape as a written language.
To demonstrate why there are highly varied, multiple pronunciations for most kanji, let's look at 東 ("east") and 都/京 (both meaning "capital city"). Before embarking on their love affair with kanji, the Japanese already had two perfectly serviceable words meaning "east" and "capital city" (higashi and miyako, respectively). Many pre-kanji, native Japanese words like these were assigned to kanji with the same meanings; such pronunciations are called "kun readings." Some characters have no kun reading, but most have one or more.
Added to this kun base are the extremely altered Japanese imitations of Chinese pronunciations for kanji, called "on readings." To get an idea of how the Japanese in past centuries readily altered the pronunciations of foreign words to suit their linguistic needs, we need look no further than the modern terebi ("television") and makudonarudo ("McDonald's").
Kanji entered Japan from various dialect areas of China, over different historical periods, adding further to the current hodgepodge of on pronunciations. The "Chinese readings" are generally unintelligible to Chinese people. A typical kanji has one, two, or three on pronunciations.
On readings are favored over kun in forming compounds, but exceptions abound. For instance, 東("east") and 京 ("capital city"), when placed together to form the single word 東京, are pronounced "Toukyou" (commonly spelled "Tokyo"). On the martial arts front, 剣道 "kendo" and 柔道 "judo" also employ on readings, while 空手 "karate," comprised of 空 ("empty") and 手 ("hand") uses kun readings. The great majority of Japanese surnames and place names, like 鈴木 Suzuki and 横浜 Yokohama,have kun readings.
An occasional compound contains a mixture of on and kun pronunciations, for example, 毎朝 (maiasa, "every morning"). The mai pronunciation comes from China, and the asa from Japan.
Further adding to pronunciation frustrations are compounds with "special readings." These consist of two characters assigned on the basis of meaning only, with no relation to pronunciation. One example is 大人 ("adult"): comprised of 大(dai, "big") and 人(jin, "person"), it is pronounced, not daijin, as you might expect, but otona.
Finally, let's not forget ateji, kanji that are used phonetically with little or no relation to their meanings. 寿司 sushi, arguably the most widely-known Japanese word in the world, is an example of ateji. 寿司 is an on-on compound whose characters mean "longevity" and "officiate," which do not immediately bring to mind "raw fish on vinegared rice."
Ateji are also sometimes cleverly combined to replace katakana in representing words borrowed from English. One example is 倶楽部 (kurabu, "club"), which you might spot if your evening travels include nightclub areas. The characters mean: "joint pleasure department."
Without a doubt, the hardest part in coming to grips with general-use kanji are their pronunciations. Next time, we will explore how to use "component analysis" as an aid to predicting kanji pronunciations.
In the meantime, instead of the usual "Tokyo," try popping "Higashi-Miyako"
into a conversation. (e.g.: "How 'bout those Higashi-Miyako Giants?!")
You are certain to get some kind of reaction and may soon find yourself
involved in a spirited, informative discussion on the subject of kanji
Here's another column about kanji pronunciations.