Kanji: An Introduction

The most notorious aspect of the Japanese written language is Kanji, which are Chinese characters adapted for Japanese. Most words in Japanese are written in Kanji even though they are still pronounced with the Japanese phonetic sounds represented by Hiragana and Katakana which I explained in earlier posts.

Stroke Order:

When beginning to learn Kanji, it is paramount to learn it with the proper stroke order and direction from the beginning in order to avoid developing bad habits. Many Japanese learners think that stroke order doesn’t matter as long as the end product looks the same. They are misguided. What they don’t realize is that there are thousands of characters and they are not always meticulously written the way they appear in print. Proper stroke order helps ensure the characters look recognizable even when you write them quickly.

The simplest characters called radicals are often reused as components in larger characters. Once you learn the radical stroke order and get accustomed to the patterns, you will find that it’s not difficult to figure out the correct stroke order for most Kanji. A few radicals are displayed below and hopefully illustrate learning radicals stroke order and use in more complex, but related words.

A general rule is that strokes usually start from the top-left corner toward the bottom-right. This means that horizontal strokes are generally written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. If you’re ever not sure about the stroke order, you should always verify by looking the character up in a Kanji dictionary.


There are about 2,000 characters used in modern Japanese so memorizing them one-by-one as you might for such as when learning Hiragana and Katakana isn’t feasible for most of us.

An effective strategy is learning them with new vocabulary within a broader context. In this way we can associate contextual information with the character in order to reinforce memory. Remember that Kanji, ultimately, is used to represent actual words. So it is important to focus not so much on the characters themselves but the words and vocabulary that include those characters.

Kanji Readings:

The sample Kanji we will learn is “人” which is the character for ‘person.’ It is a simple two-stroke character where each stroke starts at the top. You may have noticed that the character as rendered by the font is not always the same as the hand-written which is another important reason to check the stroke order.

Definition: person

Kun-yomi: ひと

On-yomi: ジン

Kanji in Japanese can have one or several readings. The reading for Kanji is split into two major categories called kun-yomi and on-yomi. Kun-yomi is the Japanese reading of the character while on-yomi is based on the original Chinese pronunciation.

Generally, Kun-yomi is used for words that only use one character. The actual word for “person” is one example. Kun-yomi is also used for native Japanese words including most adjectives and verbs.

On-yomi, on the other hand, is mostly used for words that originate from Chinese, which often use 2 or more Kanji. For that reason, on-yomi is often written in Katakana.

While most characters will not have multiple kun-yomi or on-yomi, the more common characters such as “人” will generally have a lot more readings. Learning a reading without context within vocabulary will only create confusion!

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