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Is there an authoritative source that explains where the different kanji come from and what the radicals mean? I think it's hard to tell from most of the textbooks/other sources whether a shown kanji's origin is correct or if it's made up. Does it even make sense to talk about the origins of some kanji in terms of its constituent radicals if that kanji is a simplified version of a traditional kanji?

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"I think it's hard to tell from most of the textbooks/other sources whether a shown kanji's origin is correct or if it's made up." What do you mean by this? It's hard to tell if the textbook is reliable, or it's hard to tell if the explanation of a kanji is a mnemonic or actual etymology? – Amanda S Jun 9 '11 at 8:03
Yeah, if it's just a convenient mnemonic posing as actual etymology. – Sam Jun 9 '11 at 8:04
FWIW, the first hit for "kanji etymology" in Google looks promising. – Amanda S Jun 9 '11 at 8:07
I don't know if there is such an objective source but it's an excellent question because there is an overabundance of folk etymologies and mnemonics for characters presented as etymologies, some of them seem to be quite old and venerated, which is fine, but doesn't make them etymologies. – hippietrail Jun 9 '11 at 8:10
Well my question is not just motivated by curiosity. I've been thinking I should learn how to tell the difference between those tricky similar kanji and for that I am probably thinking I should go with mnemonics. However I'd like to refrain from learning those arbitrary mnemonics because it gets confusing if two sources are in conflict with each other. – Sam Jun 9 '11 at 9:40
up vote 18 down vote accepted

The short answer is: No. There isn't a single authoritative source that can tell you where each and every Kanji comes from, since the complete etymology of some Kanji remains in controversy. This is actually not at all different than the state of the etymology (= study of origin) of English words.

The longer answer is more hopeful, though: there are some sources that are more reliable than others. Just like the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary is considered quite authoritative when it comes to English etymology, there are Japanese Etymological dictionaries that are considered better and worse.

I know Daikanwajiten used to be the most highly regarded Kanji Dictionary, but it's quite old, so it probably doesn't contain a lot of recent research.


After reading your comments, I think I understand better what you're trying to do, but unless you really want to learn the etymology for its own sake, you better refrain from wasting your time on it. Why? Consider the following case:

The mnemonic most often offered for 東 is that the you view the sun behind a tree as it rises from the east. It's a very cool and useful mnemonic (though the sun could just as well be viewed behind a tree when setting in the west, but that's besides the point :)).

Now you want to check whether this mnemonic is reliable so you open your etymological kanji dictionary and this is what you get:


(For reference: I got this particular one from a dictionary called Kanjigen)

So now it turns out that the kanji for East has absolutely nothing to do with trees and suns. From looking at its form on old tortoise shells scholars realized that it's some sort of bag wrapped around a stick (I admit I'm not quite sure what it was used for) which probably came to represent the meaning "east" because the word for it had a similar sound.

Now, I hope you agree with that's an awful lot harder to remember than the simple explanation of "Tree + Sun". Plus, knowing that 東 used to look like a candy, doesn't really help you to know how it's written today.

Please note that the example I gave here is not an exceptional case or anything - in fact, most of the time you'll either encounter an explanation like that (in which the modern radical components of the characters are an afterthought) or the character would just be a Sound+Meaning composition where the main radical (the one which is used for dictionary look-up) represents the general field of meaning the kanji relates to (body parts, plants, birds, etc.) and the rest of it is based off another kanji with a similar reading.

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Awesome example! +1 – Lukman Jun 9 '11 at 16:46
Nice answer, however I seem to remember some source claiming that the 月 in body parts was a simplification of 肉 which would make sense. – Sam Jun 10 '11 at 6:04
@Sam: that's true, as far as I know. – Boaz Yaniv Jun 10 '11 at 6:43
This is very weird advice. "You shouldn't bother learning things that are true, because the truth is messy and complicated; better to stick with a bunch of convenient falsehoods"? I won't downvote this because the actual info is good and correct but I think the conclusions drawn are bizarre. – Matt Aug 16 '11 at 19:36
The purpose of mnemonics is to make things easier to remember by creating vivid connections in memory. Convenient falsehoods are often better than the truth for that purpose. – Darcinon Dec 5 '15 at 1:27

Probably get this book called 新漢和大辞典(shin kanwa daijiten), 20k kanjis there.

Which also include 漢字の成り立ち(How kanji formed)

enter image description here


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If you forgive the shameless self-promotion, I’ve put together this simple tool to compare a few different kanji etymology websites. You quickly find out that there are lots of disagreement. http://namakajiri.net/kanjigen

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I suggest A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, by Kenneth Henshall. It gives both the true etymology (if known) and a mnemonic explanation that is more useful to memory. It seems to be exactly what you were looking for.

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Thank you, I have a copy of this in storage, but I was trying to find its name so I could buy another copy. – j.i.h. Mar 1 at 20:28

Not sure if it's useful to you (because it's a chinese dictionary) but since the origin of Kanji in in China...

http://www.chazidian.com/r_zi_zd5c71 (first tab is basic info)

http://www.chazidian.com/zizy5C71 (last tab is character origin)

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My friend showed me a pretty satisfying one. It has all the 常用漢字 and also the Kanji are divided into groups 小学1-6 to 中学. It shows what original pictographs today's Kanji had, and each radical is described. Give it a shot.


It's completely in Japanese though.

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http://www.kanjinetworks.com/ is probably the most reliable and thorough online kanji etymology resource.

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