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My question comes from this case:

  • 会う
  • 逢う
  • 遭う
  • 遇う

I see they all are read あう, and mean "to meet". So, why are there these many cases? And more important, which one should I use? I knew 会う, and when I read 逢う I thought it was a completely different verb.

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4  
In case you haven't noticed, there are lots of these... like 見る、観る、視る and 診る、看る or 聞く、聴く、訊く and 効く、利く. – Earthliŋ Jan 26 at 13:25
up vote 16 down vote accepted

The very answer to your question is why I like Japanese so much. As you noticed a same word can be written with different kanji: that is not limited to verbs. If kanji changes meaning changes too (that is especially true concerning verbs, nouns are more subject to stylistic preferences: eg. かっこいい(casual form)・恰好良い(old form)・格好いい(normal form)). In order to grasp the different meanings the best is to learn kanji nuances and meanings.

You can find a (short) list of 異字同訓{いじどうくん} here and there but the best place is a 国語辞典 or a 漢和辞典.

Here are some examples:

  • 会う (meet - no nuance)
  • 合う (fit - no nuance)
  • 遭う (meet - meet something bad). 彼はえらい目に遭った。(He ran into troubles).
  • 逢う (meet - fate encounter) 彼は恋人に逢った。(He met his girlfriend)
  • 遇う (meet - coincidence) 彼はAさんに遇った。(He met A by chance)
  • 會う (ancient form of 会う)

  • 見る・視る (see - no nuance)

  • 観る (see - more like watch)
  • 看る (look after) often 面倒を看る
  • 診る (examination by the doctor)
  • 覧る (see - more like to inspect 観覧・観察)
  • 監る (see - look upon, look out) (my IME does not have it ...)

  • 聞く (ask or listen)

  • 聴く (listen (carefully))
  • 訊く (ask)
  • and countless more.

Summary, choosing the right kanji is not only up to stylistic preferences there are rules but to often those rules are overlooked in traditionnal second language acquisition because nobody cares!

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Japanese didn't have any original letters in ancient times. Kanji was brought into Japan from China in the 3rd or 4th century.

When old Japanese people adopted kanji, they called each letter as Chinese people pronounced it. While, kanji often had the meaning which matched some Japanese words, so they came to read ''山'' as やま, ''空'' as そら, ''人'' as ひと, for example. It was a kind of translation at first.

In Japanese, the meaning of these kanjis, 会, 逢, 遭, 遇, are all あう, but each letter of kanji has difference in meaning.

There is often the most popular and general kanji in the same word in Japanese, it is often indicated in dictionaries. For example, there are several kanjis for あう, ''会'' is the most general, doesn't have a nuance, and the others have specific meanings.

The kanji of 逢 conveys that a man and a woman who are in love meet.

遭 conveys that someone meets with an accident or a bad happening.

遇 conveys that someone meets someone or meets with something unexpectedly.

You are able to express more details with choosing kanji according to the situation, but it is not general to use 逢, 遇, and 遭 in daily communication like E-mail.

Native Japanese speakers, including me, don't care which kanji should be assigned when they say or hear ''あう'' in conversation, because あう is just one word.

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The other answers address the differences between the kanji choices. I would like to point out that this information for disambiguation is contained in any good monolingual dictionary, e.g. 大辞林, which is freely accessible via https://kotobank.jp/.

大辞林 has two entries for あう, because there are two main meanings, which in English one could describe as "to meet" (会う、逢う、遭う) and "to match/fit" (合う), even though it is also noted that both meanings share the same etymology (同源).

The entry for the first sense, copied below, gives the preferred kanji in double angled brackets, e.g. 《遭う》.

With the triangle is indicated that 逢 is not a jōyō kanji (常用漢字).

あう【会う・逢う・遭う】〔「合う」と同源〕

[一](動ワ五[ハ四])

①ある場所で顔を合わせ、互いに相手を見てそれと認識する。対面する。《会・逢》「彼は先輩に—うため、自宅を訪問した」「五時半にいつもの喫茶店で—おう」

②偶然に出会う。出くわす。行きあう。遭遇する。《遭》「同級生と駅でばったり—う」「いやな奴と—ってしまった」

③(「…にあう」の形で)好ましくない出来事が身に及ぶ。遭遇する。《遭》「盗難に—う」「交通事故に—う」「ひどい目に—う」

④その場に来合わせる。そこへやって来る。「宇津の山に至りて、…修行者—ひたり/伊勢物語9」

⑤相手に向かう。
㋐面と向かう。対する。「明らけき鏡に—へば、過ぎにしも今行く末の事も見えけり/大鏡後一条
㋑敵に立ち向かう。戦う。あらそう。「香具山と耳梨山と—ひし時/万葉集14」

⑥男女が関係を結ぶ。結婚する。「この世の人は男は女に—ふ事をす、女は男に—ふことをす/竹取物語」 [可能]あえる

[二](動ハ下二)

①重ね合わせる。「鶺鴒尾行き—へ/古事記

②合わせて一つにする。「みづらの中に—へ巻かまくも/万葉集4377」

The above are general guidelines and correspond more or less to those outlined by 永劫回帰 and by Toshihiko.

No kanji choice is as superficial as simply following these guidelines, though: Coming across あう as 逢う, for example, many readers associate this use of the kanji 逢 with other words using this kanji, like 逢瀬 "rendezvous". Even if 逢う is not restricted to romantic situations, it carries the sense of a close relationship. On the other hand, 会 is used in words like 会議 "meeting/conference/assembly" and has a much more neutral association, whereas 遭 is used in words like 遭難 "disaster/accident".

When choosing a particular kanji, I think it is a good idea to look at other words using the same kanji, because whether you like it or not, these words, or at least the associated nuances, might pop up in your readers' heads.

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