Kanji: On-Yomi and Kun-Yomi

Recently, I was discussing Japanese with someone studying for the old JLPT level 4 test (now the new level 5). He was using smart.fm for vocabulary, which is no crime, but what happened was something that stayed in my mind. I offered a link to my free eBook on mastering early Japanese kanji (including ones he must study for this test). He did not know what on-yomi and kun-yomi meant.

Well, we can’t have that. In fact, my eBook, Mastering Japanese Kanji Volume 1, was focused on getting the information to the student’s mind without a long lead-up and actually lacked what I would consider a normal explanation. I wanted to think that any large book on kanji would explain but…? Well, who knows?

The bottom line is, some people don’t know.


The so-called “on-yomi” is, quite literally, the phonetic reading of a kanji. This is, mind you, the phonetic reading in Japanese. The sounds may be based on Chinese kanji, like a drama might be based on a true story, but the Japanese tongue says sounds differently than the Chinese tongue for language purposes.

Typically, the on-yomi is used for compound kanji words. This is because on-yomi are designed to be easy to say in quick succession. The same is not true for many native Japanese words, which must be strung together in a more prolonged, less rapid-fire method.


The “kun-yomi” is the instructional reading of a kanji, teaching the native Japanese reading associated with that kanji. Many of these are complete words; that is, they are not fragments of words, but are words (kotoba) themselves.

Kun-yomi often include the stems of verbs. Single kanji verbs tend to use the kanji (which represents the stem) and hiragana (which conjugate).

Example: In taberu (To Eat), たべる is the kana. 食べる is the kanji. The 食 part is read as “ta” with the べる read as the “beru,” but essentially, the kanji is a flag indicating the word must be about eating, and by quickly glancing at the kana, the reader knows that “taberu” (To Eat) is the only possible reading of the word (the kotoba) involved.

Example: Water

Let’s take 水 (water) as an example.

On its own, 水 is read as みず (mizu), the native Japanese word for water. The kanji concept also represents water, so in this case, the kanji and the word are in perfect harmony. Mizu is the kun-yomi of 水.

Now, let’s take 水銀. This kanji is read as すいぎん (suigin). The すい (sui) part is the on-yomi of 水. The second part of the compound is ぎん (gin), for “silver.” This word actually means mercury, also known as quicksilver because it appears to behave like liquid silver.

This is a simple example of on-yomi and kun-yomi.

Article first published as Kanji: On-Yomi and Kun-Yomi on Technorati.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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