I need a basic yet plausible and correct Japanese sentence to give an idea of what the on-yomi/kun-yomi difference is to French psychoanalysts who do not know anything about Japanese.

I have drafted this sentence which has the 山 kanji twice, pronounced "san" the first time in "Fujisan", and "yama" the second time in "yama desu". But still, I am unsure about how a relevant example this sentence is, or if I am missing something else, and I would need to be 100% sure, since I am new to Japanese.

  • Mount Fuji is a famous mountain.
  • Fujisan wa yūmeina yamadesu. (rōmanji)
  • 富士山は有名な山です。
  • 富士 Fuji 山 mount は (the) 有名な a famous 山 mountain です is。

Here is the text of Jacques Lacan I would like to illustrate for my French colleagues. I guess Lacan is showing a Japanese sentence on the board, but it has been omitted in the book, so I have to make examples by myself to try and show what he is saying here about the Japanese tongue.

What is called the moneme, here, in the middle, is something you can change. You give it a Chinese pronunciation, quite different to a Japanese pronunciation, so that, when you are in the presence of a Chinese character, you have, if you are initiated, but naturally only the naturals know it, when you pronounce it oniomi or kuniomi depending on the case, which are always very precise, and for the chap who arrives there, like me, there is no question of knowing which of the two must be chosen; furthermore, you can have two Chinese characters. If you pronounce them kuniomi, namely, the Japanese way, you are absolutely incapable of saying to which of these Chinese characters the first syllable of what you are saying belongs, and to which the second belongs, the one in the middle, of course, still less. It is the totality of the two Chinese characters that dictates to you the Japanese pronunciation in several syllables, that can be perfectly well understood, a pronunciation that corresponds to the two characters at once, because you must not imagine, on the pretext that a Chinese character corresponds in principle to a syllable, that when you pronounce it in the Chinese way, oniomi, if you read it in the Japanese way, one does not see in effect why one should be obliged to decompose this representation of words into syllables. Anyway, that teaches you a lot. That teaches you a lot about the fact that the Japanese tongue is nourished by its writing. How is it nourished by it? In a linguistic way of course, namely, at the point at which linguistics affects the tongue, namely, always in writing.

(18th seminar of Jacques Lacan, 5th lesson, 1971, march 10th)

  • 1
    What do you mean by relevant? If you're trying to contrast on- vs kun-yomi, then you've achieved that in this particular case.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Jul 5 at 16:48
  • But, I would like to add that quite a few kanji just have multiple readings. Consider 生, which has multiple kun-yomi. I think for a beginner it would be better to stress that kanji can have multiple readings, whether kun- or on-yomi. And, I would add that knowing whether a particular reading is kun- or on-yomi can be helpful when trying to read unfamiliar words. Honestly, I didn't find it a problem when learning Japanese. Nor did any number of others I know who learned Japanese as a second language really struggle with this at all. It's just a fact of life when it comes to Japanese.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Jul 5 at 16:54
  • Thank you for your answer, your 生 suggestion for multiple kun-yomi, and your feedback on the learning process. Commented Jul 5 at 17:07
  • Rereading what I wrote there, I almost make it sound like learning to read kanji wasn't a problem. Ha!!! That's not the case. What I meant was that understanding and learning which readings are on- and which are kun-yomi readings was not in and of itself a challenge. Anyhow, I'm not posting this as an answer because all that I'm saying is really just my opinion and experience on the matter.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Jul 5 at 17:13
  • Maybe I should have given even more context: this example is meant to illustrate the on/kun-yomi difference as it was mentioned in the 18th seminar of Jacques Lacan, 5th lesson (1971, march 10th). I need such an example for writing an article which would explain what Lacan most likely meant by bringing up this linguistic difference (traditional japanese vs adapted chinese pronouciation). This example should be so clear that my French colleagues would get it. Commented Jul 5 at 17:15

1 Answer 1


In the matter of reading kanji, what one quickly learns is that kanji often have two readings: an on-yomi and a kun-yomi. I would not call the on-yomi the Chinese reading, rather it would be better to call it a reading that is derived from the Chinese pronunciation of a particular place and time. The kun-yomi is the so-call native Japanese pronunciation of the kanji.

But, the world of kanji isn't really that straight forward. There are kanji with no kun-yomi: eg 員 (in). There are kanji without any on-yomi: e.g.[込]{こ}む (komu) and [畑]{はたけ} (hatake; field). There are kanji with multiple readings whether on-yomi or kun-yomi: two famous examples are 行 and 生.

When to use which reading is something that must be learned on a kanji-by-kanji basis. With a large enough vocabulary and reasonable familiarity with the language, an intuition develops allowing one to know which reading to use.

There are also often clues.

  • Common pairs of kanji are almost invariably read the same way: [本棚]{ほんだな} (hondana; bookshelf) where ほん is the on-yomi of 本 and だな is the kun-yomi for 棚; [漢字]{かんじ} (kanji; Chinese character) where かん and じ are respective on-yomi for 漢 and 字.  [寿司]{すし} (sushi), [風邪]{かぜ} (kaze; a cold), and [煙草]{たばこ} (tabako; tobacco/cigarette) are examples of ateji in which the meaning or reading, or both, of the underlying kanji is ignored (feel free to search this site for more information about ateji). Then there are combinations like [今日]{きょう} (kyou; today) which is probably along the lines of what Lacan was thinking of when he wrote "you are absolutely incapable of saying to which of these Chinese characters the first syllable of what you are saying belongs".

  • What follows a kanji is also instructive: with [行]{おこな}われる and [行]{い}きました, 行 is read respectively as okona and i. Both okonawareru and ikimashita are native Japanese readings. It is the trailing われる and き (called okurigana) which clue the reader into how the kanji is meant to be read.

As always with Japanese, context is important. If you're talking about books or it seems obvious that you're talking about books, then you'll probably reading 本 as ほん. But, it is also possible to read it as もと meaning origin.

It's quite possible to use the same character with multiple readings even in the same sentence (as you were doing in your sample sentence).


gyouji-de nani-ga okonawareru ka mini ikimashita

I went to see what was happening at the event.

This is almost completely unremarkable to someone comfortable reading Japanese.

  • To the native speakers, I realized in writing this that I am not entirely sure to what extent something is considered okurigana. So, I would love any feedback on what I wrote, but in particular about okurigana. For example, is われる truly the okurigana of 行われる or is it only わ since れる is the inflected ending?
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Jul 5 at 18:56

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