I knew of 混{こ}む to mean "to be crowded," but recently came upon a different kanji (込) being used to convey the exact same meaning, and with the exact same reading.

Looking it up on jisho.org, 込{こ}む seems to have some other different meanings in addition to "to be crowded," whereas 混む appears to have that single meaning. That suggests 込む may be a more versatile word, but I want to know if the two spellings can be used interchangeably when meaning "to be crowded; to be packed; to be congested; to be thronged (with)​," or if there are specific occasions for using one over the other, or specific nuances one has that the other doesn't.


2 Answers 2


Here's an excerpt from 明鏡国語辞典 第三版:




So this suggests that these こむ are basically the same word, but the kanji 混 is now the default choice when the verb means "(for a place) to be crowded".

Personally, I always prefer using 混雑する in writing to avoid any arguments. If I have to choose between 混む and 込む to express "crowded", 混む is much more common and safer in contemporary Japanese. 込む might be perceived as old-fashioned, or in worse cases, it could be taken for a typo.

EDIT: In BCCWJ, there are 1,670 examples of 込んでいる. I checked the first 200 of them, and found that only one of them meant "crowded" (the remaining 199 were false positives like 読み込んでいる and 考え込んでいる). On the other hand, there are 112 examples of 混んでいる, all of which mean "crowded". These objective results suggest that 混んでいる is several dozen times more common than 込んでいる in modern Japanese, and this perfectly aligns with my personal experience, too. It's safe to say 混んでいる has now become the norm regardless of its history. We shouldn't fall into the etymological fallacy.

EDIT 2: The 1981 jōyō kanji list and dictionaries from the early Showa period do not include the kun-reading 混む, but this reading was added in the 2010 revision of the jōyō kanji list, along with other super-common readings like かなめ (要) and わたし (私). As evident from the real usage examples in the BCCWJ, 混む has been overwhelmingly more common than 込む since the postwar period. Thus, the standard appears to have recognized the actual changes in the language.

EDIT 3: I also checked the results from 青空文庫全文検索 that mainly contains prewar novels. Since Japanese was not as standardized back then, there are some examples that seem unnatural from today's perspective, but the overall trend is almost the same as that of BCCWJ. The vast majority of authors, including 宮沢賢治, 谷崎潤一郎 and 太宰治, use 混んでいる for the meaning of "crowded". This suggests that 混む is not a "recent misuse" but a perfectly valid kun-reading that has been around at least since the era of the genbun-itchi but was omitted from the jōyō kanji list for some reason. We know of a similar example.

  • The other answer suggests 混む is likely a typo, and that "Technically 込む is the only correct spelling" — you say somewhat the opposite. Can you speak to the discrepancy?
    – JNat
    Mar 5 at 11:00
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    @JNat the other answer suggests that 混む originated as a mistake. It is widely attested in all modern dictionaries and is more commonly used now, so it doesn't make sense to consider it a mistake now.
    – YKa
    Mar 5 at 14:02
  • @JNat 込んでいる looks fairly unfamiliar and eye-catching to me if used in the sense of "crowded". See the edit.
    – naruto
    Mar 5 at 17:04
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    I am very skeptical of the view that 混む is a "訓読み originated as a mistake". Here, the kango (混雑) and its corresponding wago (こむ) happen to start with the same kana, which lends some plausibility to the idea that 混む is a "mistake". However, it's highly unlikely that people confuse the two. IMO 混む is as a simple 訓読み (or maybe 義訓) that emerged naturally around 1900. Search results from 青空文庫 clearly suggest the 混む/込む distinction was established in literature before WWII, though dictionaries didn't recognize it until around 1970.
    – naruto
    Mar 6 at 5:57

Practically, if you mean crowded, the two are totally interchangeable. Note 込む as in 手が込んでいる (intricate often in a positive sense) cannot be replaced by 混む.

That said, several web q&a (1, 2) suggest that 混む is an error.

  • 混 has the radical 昆, which is read only こ.
  • A few kanji dictionary I own do not list こ(む) as a reading for 混 (though this online one does)

So the spelling 混む seems to be introduced somehow by wrongly associating 混雑 and 込む(込んでいる) due to both starting with こ(ん). Technically 込む is the only correct spelling.

  • The other answer suggests 込む is old-fashioned, and can be taken as an error, and that 混むis much more common — you say the opposite. Can you speak to the discrepancy?
    – JNat
    Mar 5 at 10:59
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    @JNat I agree that 混む is more common today, but some errors become common in language (in English, a rolling stone gathers no moss is understood in the opposite ways, one of them should have been originally an error.) The other answer says (as I understand it), people are used to 混む so much that the correct 込む can be (wrongly) taken for an error. I don't agree with the '込む is old-fashioned, and can be taken as an error,' part though. I don't think people pay attention to whichever is used. My opinion on that is 'practically you can use both and it is just passable'.
    – sundowner
    Mar 5 at 11:39
  • I'm not a kanji expert, but reading 混 as こ looks irregular and the opinions in the links in the answer looks convincing to me. The 明鏡 definition talks about accepted practice, not about legitimacy, as far as I can guess.
    – sundowner
    Mar 5 at 11:42
  • FWIW, I exclusively see it as 込む if I web search e.g. for とびこむ. But maybe some compounds are special? Mar 5 at 17:18
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    @KarlKnechtel We always use 込む in 飛び込む, 考え込む, 飲み込む, 使い込む, 走り込む and so on and on, and there is no room for debate on this. The current issue is how to spell こむ in the sense of "crowded".
    – naruto
    Mar 5 at 17:21

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