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Here are kanji variants:

  • 海 (as an image: enter image description here)

In case it does not display correctly for you, the first kanji is unicode U+FA45.

Is considered a variant of the much more common ? Or, are and just considered mutual variants of each other?

More broadly, do you say that the most frequently used version of a kanji with a variant is "the" kanji? And that the kanji that is much less frequently used is the variant?

Also: What about rare cases such as and , both of which are very frequently used?

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    In Japanese, 海 (with two dots) is considered an old variant, whereas 海 is the (current) standard. – Zhen Lin Dec 6 '14 at 16:14
  • I think that's mostly opinion-based, like the situation with dialects: Is there a Standard (Japanese/English/German/...) and dialects of it; or are they all just dialects? Fact is that 海 is a lot more common, and that it would look funny if you used the variant form without a reason. For that reason, you might consider it "the" (proper) kanji (form), but imo that is non-objective. – blutorange Dec 6 '14 at 17:36
  • I think for most of them they are simplified Chinese versus non-simplified. Current standards in Japanese are the simplified ones. Take that w/ a grain of salt, but also feel free to post a counter example. ;) – kiss-o-matic Dec 6 '14 at 17:57
  • @kiss-o-matic No, Japanese is closer to traditional than simplified Chinese, but it has its own set of simplifications, so that's a bit of a red herring. @blutorange That's a false dichotomy. Standard dialects are still dialects. – snailcar Dec 6 '14 at 19:19
  • Regarding 才 and 歳, you might also refer to this question Which is the “official” kanji for さい, 歳 or 才?. – user3169 Dec 7 '14 at 1:09
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The Japanese Ministry of Education has published a list of kanji. I think this is the official document: http://www.bunka.go.jp/kokugo_nihongo/pdf/jouyoukanjihyou_h22.pdf

The "proper" form is whatever form is in that document. So the answer is basically that the government determines the "proper" form.

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