Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Be sure to subscribe to Langfocus and click the notification button. Man, why does everyone say kanji are so difficult? This one looks pretty easy. So does this one. And this one. It's not bad. And how about the next one? Oh my gosh. What the heck is that? [♪ Peppy music with saxophone and percussion ♪] Hello everyone, welcome to the Langfocus Channel, and my name is Paul. Today, we're going to talk about the Japanese writing system. Well, not the entire writing system. Japanese is written with three different scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji, which is the one that we want to focus on today. Hiragana and katakana were developed in Japan, but kanji are actually Chinese characters that were adapted to fit the Japanese language. Kanji are logograms. A logogram is a character that represents a word or a meaningful part of a word. Kanji are not characters that you read phonetically, but rather each kanji represents a distinct idea rather than a sound. For example, this kanji on its own represents the concept of a mountain, but just from looking at it, there's no way to know that it's pronounced as “yama.” You have to remember how the character is pronounced, and when you see the character you associate it with the sound. But some kanji do also contain a phonetic element, which is something we'll look at later. Japan initially came into contact with Chinese characters during diplomatic missions between the Han dynasty and the Yamato state of Japan, which eventually led to the Japanese adoption and adaptation of kanji. I talk more about this in my video on the Japanese language, which you can find right here. If we include every kanji that has ever been used in Japanese, there are tens of thousands of them. But of course, that includes many obscure or archaic kanji that really aren't worth learning for the average person. In 1946, the Japanese government aimed to simplify orthography by limiting the number of kanji to a smaller list of 1,850 kanji, known as the Tōyō kanji, or “common use” kanji. That list has since been updated to include 2,136 basic kanji, which are referred to as the Jōyō kanji, or “regular use” kanji. This list determines what kanji students are expected to learn at school and what kanji are used in official government documents. With this part of the reform, the Japanese government also simplified some of the more complex kanji, so that they could be read more easily. These kanji are called “shinjitai,” which literally means “new character forms.” For example, this kanji, meaning “iron.” The component on the right was simplified. And this kanji, meaning “wide.” Its inner component was simplified, like this. You might be aware that such a simplification also occurred in the adoption of Simplified Chinese writing in China, but shinjitai were much more limited in scope and these changes only affected a limited number of characters in Japanese. Types of Kanji Kanji can be divided into several categories of “moji,” or “characters,” based on how each character is formed. For example, there are Shōkei moji. This refers to pictograph kanji, such as this one, for “mountain,” or this one, for “tree.” These ones look something like the objects that they represent. Shiji moji and Kaii moji are ideographs, characters that represent ideas rather than visually representing an object. For example, this kanji, meaning “up,” and this one, meaning “rest.” The difference between these two types of ideographs is that Shiji moji are rather simple, whereas Kaii moji are compound ideographs that use multiple components that combine together to create an overall meaning, with each of the components also existing as independent kanji. The component on the left means “person” and the component on the right means “tree.” A person leaning against the tree is “rest”ing. This is a good example of a Kaii moji. Another example is this kanji. Let's see if we can figure out what this one means by looking at the components. I see this character, which I know means “mountain,” and I see this one, which means “up,” and this one, which means “down.” So I'm going to guess that this kanji has something to do with traveling up or down a mountain, like, maybe it's “hiking”? Now if we look at the actual meaning of this kanji, we'll see that it means “a path through the mountains,” or a “mountain pass.” So I'd say that's pretty close. This type of kanji, that kind of tells a story, is a Kaii moji, but only a small number of kanji tell a comprehensible story like that. By far, the largest grouping of kanji is Keisei moji. These are kanji that combine semantic and phonetic elements to make up a new character. The phonetic element is derived from the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji, the on-yomi, which we'll talk about later. A good example of Keisei moji is “shi” which means “poem.” If we look at the left side of the kanji, we see this component, which is most often used in characters that have something to do with language or speaking, such as this one, meaning “language,” and this one, meaning “speaking.” If we look at the component on the right side of this kanji, we see the kanji for “temple.” This doesn't indicate any semantic connection to temples, but rather it serves as an indicator of how to pronounce this kanji. The Chinese pronunciation of this kanji for temple is “shi” or “ji,” and when you see it as a component within another kanji, it indicates that that kanji is pronounced as “shi” or “ji.” Radicals In the characters we looked at in the previous example of Keisei moji, the component on the left is the radical. A radical is the main component of a kanji that generally provides a clue about its root meaning. Some people use the term “radical” to refer to any component of a kanji, like both of these, but to be precise, only this element is the radical, though both can be referred to as “components.” Every kanji contains one radical. Some radicals also exist as independent kanji, such as this one, meaning “gold” or “money.” It appears as a radical with the root meaning of “metal.” Here we can see it in this kanji, meaning “iron,” and in this one, meaning “copper.” Other radicals only exist as an inseparable component of a kanji — like this one, which shows that the kanji has a meaning related to “movement,” like in this kanji meaning “road,” and this one meaning “pass” or “communicate.” As for phonetic components, they don't appear in all kanji, but they appear in many of them, and can be very useful in pronouncing kanji. One example is this one, which we saw before in the kanji for copper. This kanji on its own is pronounced “dō” and when you see it as a component in another kanji, it indicates that the pronunciation is “dō” or “tō.” As you can see, these kanji here have nothing to do with each other semantically, and the radicals are different. They're only related in pronunciation. Another quick example is this kanji, meaning “opposition.” It's pronounced “han.” Now look at this kanji, meaning “cooked rice” or “meal.” It's also pronounced “han” based on that phonetic element, and so is this one, meaning “sales,” and this one, meaning “printing” or “publishing.” They're all pronounced “han.” ... Well, they're sometimes pronounced “han.” Sometimes? What do you mean sometimes? The phonetic elements of kanji are based on the Chinese reading of the kanji, also known as the on-yomi reading. And “yomi” just means “reading,” by the way. On-yomi and Kun-yomi If you remember from my previous video on Japanese, there are two basic ways to pronounce kanji: on-yomi, Chinese-derived readings, and kun-yomi, native Japanese readings. For example, this character has a native kun-reading of “kata,” while also having the on-reading “hen.” When used in this word, “hahen,” meaning a “broken piece,” the on-yomi is used. When used in this word “katamichi,” meaning “each way,” the native kun-yomi is used. The real complexity comes with the kanji that have multiple on-readings and multiple kun-readings, requiring you to choose the correct reading based on the context. One example is this kanji meaning “life” or “birth.” It has two on-yomi readings, “sei” and “shō,” so we have this word, “jinsei,” meaning “human life,” and this word, “chikushō,” which means “beast” or “damn it.” And it also has numerous kun-yomi readings. Here are some examples. There's “ikiru,” meaning “to live.” There's “umu,” meaning “to give birth.” There's “ou,” meaning “to grow” (archaic.) There's “haeru,” meaning “to grow” or “spring up.” There's “ki” meaning “pure” or “raw,” and there's “nama” meaning “raw” or “uncooked.” As you can see, it's not always a simple matter of one kanji being equivalent to one word. The kanji is used to represent the core meaning of the word, but when we use them for native Japanese verbs and adjectives, a string of hiragana is attached to the end, to represent the inflection of the word. For example, let's look at the adjective for “cold” — “samui.” As you can see, there's a kanji, and the additional hiragana, “i.” The kanji carries the core meaning of the word, while the inflection, shown in hiragana, shows us that this word is in the non-past positive form for an i-type adjective. So we read this as “samui,” but when we inflect this word in the negative it becomes “samukunai,” where “-kunai” replaces “-i” to indicate the non past negative form. When we look at this word, we know to read it as “samukunai,” with the first two syllables represented by the kanji, and the others placed after it to show inflection. Kanji also work this way with verbs, where the kanji will represent the core meaning of the verb, and the hiragana represent the verb's conjugation. Why bother using kanji if part of the writing is in hiragana anyway? Even though kanji take a lot of effort to learn, they actually make the entire language easier to read. Let's take a look at an example sentence, first written without kanji and next, written with kanji. The sentence means: “I eat Japanese food.” “Boku wa washoku o tabemasu.” Because Japanese is written without spaces, without the kanji the words all blend together. And it's sometimes difficult to quickly see where one word ends and where the next word begins, or it's difficult to see what part of speech, or where it is. Kanji are not really read, but just recognized like symbols, so they allow you to quickly skim a sentence for meaning. But while kanji make Japanese easier to read once you know them, they make Japanese much harder to write by hand. As you can see, some kanji consist of lots of different lines or “strokes.” For example, this kanji, meaning “machine” or “opportunity,” has 16 strokes. This one, meaning “appraise,” has 23 strokes. If we dig back into some historical kanji that are not part of the current Jōyō kanji, some of them have quite a high number of strokes. This kanji, meaning “rough” or “crude,” has 33 strokes. You can see that this one is actually created through reduplication of the same component three times. That component is the kanji meaning “deer.” Here's another kanji meaning “dragons on the move,” which has 48 strokes and consists of the kanji for “dragon” reduplicated three times as components. And this kanji features the same component four times for a total of 64 strokes. It means “verbose.” The biggest freak show of a kanji is this one, with 84 strokes. It features this kanji as a component, which is itself a reduplication of the kanji for “cloud,” and it also features the “dragons on the move” kanji as a component. I don't think the origins or usage of this kanji are very clear, but it may have been used in personal names. These high stroke kanji are very rare. They're not really used anymore. But kanji of up to 20 strokes or even a little higher are quite common. Not only do you have to remember the strokes themselves, but you have to write them in the correct order and the correct direction. There are a series of rules that govern stroke order. The most basic rule is top to bottom and left to right. With the kanji for “river,” we can see that you write a stroke from top to bottom, then you move to the right and add two more strokes. But the first stroke seems to go from right to left. That's true, but here the top to bottom rule takes precedence, so this is allowed. Next, when vertical and horizontal strokes cross, the horizontal line is usually written first. We can see this in the kanji for “10.” Next, vertical strokes that cross through other strokes are written after the strokes they cross through. We can see this in the kanji meaning “middle” or “in.” Horizontal strokes that cross through other strokes are written last. We can see this in the kanji for “mother.” Next, diagonal strokes are written right-to-left before left-to-right, as we can see in the kanji meaning “letter” or “writings.” Next, central vertical strokes are written before their “wings.” We can see this in the kanji meaning “water.” Next, left vertical strokes are written before strokes that go across and down, as we can see in the kanji meaning “mouth.” This across and down stroke is quite common and it's important not to mistake it for two strokes.