I'm vaguely aware that the usage of furigana is based on the intended target audience. The younger or less likely literate the target audience the more furigana are employed. But is there a system to decide which words receive furigana and which don't? In intermediate novels I find it not unusual to find furigana on words that were printed without just a few pages earlier. Is this done because somebody decided that that word/reading is less likely to be known in that context, or is it pretty "tekitō"?

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    This is an intriguing question, but to me it seems closer to the subject of typesetting rather than language... Jun 16, 2011 at 13:36
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    I know in my Japanese Bible, any lesser-known words/常用外/less-known-readings of words usually show the furigana on the first occurrence of the word per page. Obviously the content of the Bible affords the use of pretty niche words/readings (i.e., lots of spiritual words) that will probably rarely/never be encountered elsewhere, so this is quite necessary. For example, if the word 御霊 (みたま - Spirit of God) is one page 1 five times, and on page 2 three times, the furigana would appear on each page, but only on the first occurrence in that page.
    – istrasci
    Jun 16, 2011 at 14:41
  • @Derek: I share that feeling. Jun 16, 2011 at 16:30
  • @derek: on second thought, this question would indeed be better suited for meta. But personally I think we should let it fly, on account of being a really nice question (if bordering on the off-scope) and the low volume of questions on the site at the moment.
    – Dave
    Jun 16, 2011 at 17:16
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    I don't think this is a meta question at all. It's an important question about the usage of written Japanese. It should be the author and editor who make decisions about furigana, not the person operating the typesetting machine. Jun 17, 2011 at 0:23

2 Answers 2


I can't answer on the particular case of a word that would receive furigana after not receiving it earlier (the opposite, however, is naturally quite common): assuming the words are rigorously identical and identically read both times, this sounds more like an oversight than anything.

As for the general rules of adding furigana, they are pretty straightforward, depending on what kanji level can be expected from the reader.

One should probably separate:

  • Readings targeting children and young adults (about anybody at High School age or under) have very fluid rules, as far as I can tell. Overall, they will try and follow the regular Japanese school curriculum, which is very specific about which kanji must be mastered by when. But since their target demographic itself might not be all that exact, they will probably err on the side of caution and annotate all non-kyouiku kanji.

  • Regular readings: newspapers, novels, manga for adults (adult-age, not adult-themed) etc. will generally put furigana only for highly irregular readings and kanji that are outside of the jouyou set. I believe adding furigana to non-jouyou kanji is even a requirement by law for newspapers (but I cannot find a source for this just now). Of course, the socio-professional status of the intended audience will probably play a role in how generous with extraneous furigana they are (e.g. cheap weekly magazines etc.), but I noticed such materials just tend to skip the kanji and go straight to kana when needed...

It must be said that the strictness in kanji requirement (compensated by the use of furigana) has dramatically decreased over the past 30-40 years: to convince yourself, just compare a copy of any 70s-era manga (e.g. Tezuka Osamu's Black Jack) with modern day mangas targeting the same demographic ("shounen" - young adult): the latter have furigana all over (anything beyond Jr High School level, essentially), while the former barely bothers putting furigana on even the most obscure proper noun kanji (let alone anywhere else).

Edit: there's been much debate in the answer below, regarding the existence of clearly-defined official guidelines (as opposed to obscure in-house rules). At least for newspapers, I stand my ground and reiterate: Jouyou kanji is the officially agreed base set of kanji to be used in Japanese publications, with some modifications clearly defined and agreed upon by the association of Japanese newspaper editors (source: Wikipedia Jp). One could argue that there is yet another small decision-making step from "kanji that people aren't expected to know" to "kanji that need to be furiganised", but frankly, I'm not going there.

  • -1 for the original answer being compleley unsupported with evidence. And also for the edit, because the question isn't about Joyo kanji. It's about the use of furigana. There is no debate that there is such a thing as an official Joyo list. But that is not what the question is asking. The question is clear: is there a system fo the use of Furigana. Respectfully, this answer only provides what the answerer thinks, it should not be taken to be representative of any agreed system in wide use.
    – Questioner
    Jun 18, 2011 at 2:28
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    @Dave: as I do mention in my edit, I really can't see how the connection between "sets of kanji that readers are expected to know" and "kanji that get furigana" could be any clearer... Furigana are a direct consequence of a kanji being outside of the recommended set for a specific readership (for instance Jouyou+mods for newspapers). As I have now pointed out multiple times (and sourced above) the official Association of Japanese Newspapers has clearly-defined guidelines for kanji use. If you can't see the direct connection between those and furigana use, I don't know what to say.
    – Dave
    Jun 18, 2011 at 2:57

Short answer:


Longer answer:

The thing that makes this a difficult question to answer with authority is that no one can provide evidence of something not existing. I can't prove a negative, so if someone can find any evidence of a system (with universal application, not just someone's in-house policies), then please do so.

Otherwise, until then, I am just about 100% sure that there is absolutely no system at all. It's entirely done, as you suggest in your question, based on the creator's (including all production levels of authors, editors, publishers, etc...) assessment of whether or not the reader can read the kanji.

Further, not only is there no system or agreed standards for when furigana should be employed, there is equally no system for when words that have kanji are written entirely in hiragana.

I am currently reading the adventures of Tintin in Japanese, and they make all sorts of seemingly random (to my non-native language level) choices about which words have furigana, which words are offered in hiragana, which words are never given furigana, and which words are given furigana once but not again. The people who translated it went case by case for each sentence assessing the reader's ability to read what was offered.

And that's pretty much how it's always done. The only "system" you might find would be within some publisher or company and applied to all their own materials, but that would be just as arbitrarily decided as any other publisher's choices.

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    That's somewhat true, but I'd say there is a standard - it's just not strictly adhered to. You'll find words that are statistically more likely to appear with furigana. It doesn't mean they always do, or that sometimes, in a single publication, you wouldn't find a less likely word furiganized while more likely word would remain without any furigana. But there is a system. It's just not strictly followed.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 16, 2011 at 16:26
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    That said, I would be very surprised if the large Japanese publishers aren't giving their editors a thick guidelines booklet with very strict rules, which is followed religiously. In fact, thinking about it, given the relative simplicity of this task given good rules and the amount of text Japanese publishers handle regularly, I would be surprised if first pass furiganizing isn't done by computers these days.
    – Oren Ronen
    Jun 16, 2011 at 17:02
  • @Dave, re. "there is absolutely no system at all": as I pointed in my answer above, this is not entirely true. While novels and comics might have arbitrary/in-house rules, I am pretty certain at least newspapers have to conform to strict rules (if not laws) regarding out-of-jouyou kanji use (and addition of furigana).
    – Dave
    Jun 16, 2011 at 17:06
  • Guys, while I respect that you have as much reason to believe there might be a standard as much as I am pretty convinced there definitely is no standard, it's all just a bunch of talk until you provide an actual example. I think the best you might do is some in-house thing, which I think is not quite in the spirit of the question. One company's internal rules doesn't represent much more than the whims of whoever wrote them. I think the question is trying to find a more generally applicable guide. Either way, though, I stand by what I said until there's something real to talk about.
    – Questioner
    Jun 17, 2011 at 4:30
  • @Dave: I reiterate. While I agree that without sources, it isn't very productive to throw hypotheses around on house style and private guidelines. There are clear, universal, and possibly legally-backed guidelines for newspapers and magazines. It would take somebody much more versed in Japanese law than me to find an acceptable reference, but Jp Wikipedia on 常用漢字 or this page sound like good places to start.
    – Dave
    Jun 17, 2011 at 4:57

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