reading meaning radical strokes grade
Introduction | Instructions

An Introduction to Kanji

In addition to Hiragana and Katakana, written Japanese also employs some four to five thousand Chinese characters, or Kanji. Thankfully, only about two thousand of these are commonly used, and the first half of these are learned in grades one through six of Japans school system. This is a dictionary of these 996 Kanji, known as the Kyouiku Kanji or "education characters." You can search based on various criteria and customize the output for purpose of study, as described in How to use this Dictionary. If your new to Japanese you may be wondering what Kanji is. If so read on:

The Origins of Kanji

Kanji is a compound word consisting of kan (漢:han4 in Pinyin), which refers to “old China” or the ruling dynasty in China at roughly the time that Chinese was first introduced to Japan, and ji (字:zi4 in Pinyin) which is the Chinese character for “character” or “symbol.” Kanji of today are simplified version of Chinese characters adopted by the Japanese as their first written language. Chinese characters have their origins on oracle bones and tortoise shells of the Shang period (1766-1027bc) in northeast China. They began chiefly as pictograms (glyphs that represent objects, i.e. 馬:horse) and ideograms (glyphs that represent objects or concepts through association i.e. 好:like, good - a combination of the characters for 女 woman and 子 child). As written Chinese developed, new characters often incorporated elements of previous characters, sometimes for their meanings and sometimes for their sound. With time it came to be that a bulk of Chinese character were neither pictograms or ideograms but phonograms, that is characters that consisted of elements from other characters for purposes of borrowing their sound rather than their meaning.

Many script styles have developed for Chinese characters through the millennia. There are thousands of unique ways in which to convey brush-rendered characters. However most of them can generally be grouped under five categories, all invented within about 300 years (ca. 221bc to 87ad) in China: Seal Script, Official or Clerical Script, Regular Script, Running or Semi-cursive script, and Grass or Cursive script. These scripts were brought to Japan with the characters themselves and can still be seen today. Seal Script, as the name implies, is now commonly used only for the characters engraved on seals (a.k.a. chops; the article used to imecho ones seal, usually in red ink, onto a document or work of art). Official Script is a shorter, wider script invented for scribes to replace Seal Script (which is more cumbersome to write for long periods of time). Regular Script is the script most commonly used today and consists of symmetrical characters composed of even, tapered strokes. Running Script can be thought of as semi-cursive, with flowing strokes that lead into each other. However the characters themselves remain autonomous to one another unlike Grass Script in which the characters too flow together forming what appears sometimes to be one continuous flowing stroke. Grass Script is considered to be the highest form of calligraphy and the subtle nuances associated with it are mastered only by the most experienced of calligraphers. It is widely accepted that Hiragana letters originate in certain Chinese characters written in Grass Script.

The Introduction of Kanji to Japan

Chinese influence in Japan has a long history starting during the Late Yamato Period (552-710ad) with diplomatic envoys and trade, and again in the 13th century when China was effectively the hub of culture, art and religion in East Asia. The use of Chinese characters is not unique to Japan. During China’s golden age the Chinese language was the vehicle that spread it’s culture, literature, government and religion throughout East Asia. In Japan, Korea and many parts of southeast Asia, all documents were written in Chinese and generally only officials and aristocratic types knew how to read and write it. Because there was no Japanese written language when Chinese culture began influencing Japan, early Japanese works were written entirely in Chinese characters. Some works like the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan) were written in actual Chinese while other works such as the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Manyoushuu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) were written in Chinese characters with the purpose of transliterating the Japanese language. Chinese was the only method of writing until the Heian Period (794-1185ad) when kana (syllabary for writing the Japanese language) began to develop. The man credited with creating Hiragana, Japan’s first phonetic syllabary, is Kuukai (774-835), a Buddhist monk known posthumously as Koubou Daishi. He is believed to have been influenced by the study of Sanskrit (a phonetic syllabary from India) while in China. Perhaps the best-known literary work to first employ this new system of writing was Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji ca.1002), which also happens to be the world’s first novel. Murasaki Shikibu was the pen name used by a court-lady of the Fujiwara clan and it is no coincidence that it was written by a woman. This is because it was primarily women who employed Hiragana during this period and who turned out the best literature of the period. Men of status considered mastery of the Chinese language a status symbol and still used Chinese characters, if only to transliterate the sounds of the Japanese language (which, as a spoken language is not even remotely related or similar to Chinese). Gradually Hiragana, and later Katakana (collectively known as “kana”) became more widely used, but interestingly Chinese characters never lost their place in the Japanese written language. Not until World War Two were the number of regularly used Chinese characters significantly reduced to standardize the written language and facilitate learning and thus help increase the literacy rate. Many characters were simplified at this time as well. A similar reduction and simplification of Chinese characters took place independently in mainland China while Mao Zedong was head of state, though the characters omitted were different and the simplification more extreme. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and many Chinese communities outside of China continue to use the traditional, more complex characters. Korea too used Chinese as their written language for much of its early history. However, after the development of Hangul (the phonetic system used in Korea) during the Choson dynasty (1393-1910), Chinese characters have become increasingly uncommon and it is rare to see them used today in South Korea if at all in North Korea.

Kanji of Today

After World War Two, the Japanese government set about simplifying and reducing the number of characters that were taught in school and commonly used in modern literature in an attempt to promote literacy. In 1954 the number of Kanji to be officially recognized as essential for everyday use was limited to 1908 characters by the National Language Commission organized by the Japanese Ministry of Education, with an additional 92 approved for use in Japanese names. This was not to say that non-recognized characters were banned completely. But pre-war Kanji are relatively rare in modern Japanese literature, and when they appear they are generally accompanied by furigana (Hiragana usually placed above Kanji, to indicate the reading of the Kanji when it is assumed the reader may not know). These 1908 Kanji are referred to as the Touyou Kanji, or “daily usage Kanji.” The number of these that are taught in grades one through six of the Japanese school system varies from 881 to 996 depending on the source, but in all cases these Kanji are referred to as the Kyouiku Kanji or “education characters”. The remaining characters of the 1908 Touyou Kanji are referred to as the Jouyou Kanji or “common usage characters.