Japanese Language Basics: Kanji, the Japanese Writing System

Kanji” is Japanese for the Chinese hanzi characters that Japan has adopted as part of its modern writing system. Over 100,000 of these logograms, or visual word symbols, exist but only about 5,000-10,000 are in common use today. Memorizing the still enormous number of kanji is a big challenge. In 1981, the Japanese government decided to implement the jōyō kanji hyō, or List of Chinese Characters for General Use, in their documents and publications. The list contains 1,945 regular characters and 166 special characters reserved for people’s names.


KCP students practicing writing kanji. | KCP Flickr

Before kanji, the Japanese had no written language. Chinese characters were introduced to Japan through imported articles, and it is believed that Chinese immigrants wrote the first Japanese documents. Over time, the Chinese writing system evolved to accommodate the rules of Japanese grammar and linguistics, and became a system known as “kanbun.”

Kanji makes up part of the modern Japanese writing system, which also includes the kana syllabaries, hiragana and katakana. Each of these systems have specific purposes, For example, kanji are used when writing nouns, verb stems, and adjective stems; hiragana are used to represent particles, inflected verb and subject endings; and katakana are used for certain plant and animal names and onomatopoeic words.

Chart of common Kanji characters | Beheim

Here are some types of kanji:

Shōkei-moji (象形文字) – pictograms that visually represent the meaning of a word. For example, the kanji character “木” means “tree” and also resembles a tree.

Shiji-moji (指事文字) – simple ideograms that represent abstract concepts. An example is the kanji character “上”, which means “up” or “above”.


Kanji for “strong” | Amazing_Japan

Kaii-moji (会意文字) – compound ideograms: a combination of two or more pictograms. An example is the kanji “峠” (kokuji) which means “mountain pass.” It is a combination of  “山” which means “mountain”, “上” which means “up” and “下” which means “down.”

Keisei-moji (形声文字) – the most widely used in modern standard lists of kanji. These are semantic-phonetic characters generally made up of two components: meaning and pronunciation or sound. An example is “茎” which means “stem” or “stalk.” It is composed of “艹” which means “plant” and “圣” or “straight.”

Kanji on Japanese lanterns. | credit_00