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Just something as simple as the character for "one" has the On readings "ichi" and "itsu." So how would I know which one to use if I saw this as part of a compound?

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And on top of that, most sources seem to say in Japanese you count using the On readings. So what are the Kun readings used for with numbers, if not to pronounce them when they appear by themselves? –  Aerovistae Jul 22 '12 at 19:57
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What are "simple" things? Why is "ichi" regarded a simple thing? –  Chris Harris Jul 22 '12 at 20:16
    
Basic concepts, old as human thought, like the number one. –  Aerovistae Jul 22 '12 at 20:38
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You might want to provide more examples than just the number "one". The concept of "one thing" happens to be used so frequently, I hardly believe that it is "simple". –  Chris Harris Jul 22 '12 at 20:56
    
Well, right off the bat there's "two" which has both NI and JI. Person is both "NIN" and "JIN." "Sun" is both "NICHI" and "JITSU." And these are all just On readings. –  Aerovistae Jul 22 '12 at 21:05
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3 Answers

Just to add color, there are some kanji, where the reading depends on the semantics. However, I doubt this is common enough to really be useful for learning to read kanji.

Otherwise, I agree with @silvermaple that the best way probably is to memorize the most common on'yomi, and then memorize the most common exceptions. There are also kanji like 重 (ちょう and じゅう), where both readings are common, so you pretty much have to memorize all the common combinations.

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Originally, the two readings of ちょう and じゅう are different meanings in Chinese. Wikipedia says, "「貴重」の「重(チョウ)」も「重量」の「重(ジュウ)」も、現代中国語では同じ「zhòng」という発音になるが、「重奏」の「重(ジュウ)」や、「重複」の「重(チ‌​ョウ、あるいはジュウ)」は、「chóng」という発音になる。ただし、意味の上では、「zhòng」の音は、「重い」という意味、「chóng」の音は「重ねる」の意味に‌​あたる。" –  Gradius Jul 24 '12 at 4:27
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There really is no trick to learning how to read the ON reading, it just comes down to practice. The best way is to start at the beginning with 1 nensei workbooks and work your way through to college.

Practice and stay positive, and get into as many real conversations as you can. You will catch on a lot quicker in actual use than from a book. You will hear "baka" a number of times a day, and then when you read 馬鹿 you will remember that it is not pronounced "uma-shika".

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Unless someone knows something that I don't, you just have to learn it for each word. Sometimes a word's pronunciation has evolved so that 9 times out of 10 it's pronounced one way, and that 10th time its the other. For example, it's a pretty safe bet that the On-yomi for in a compound is いち or いっ (depending on the sound following it), but every now and then you'll find it read いつ (as in 単{たん}一{いつ} which is so hard for me to remember).

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