What is the universal standard used by Japanese natives to assign ordering to a group of kanji that might be as simple as:

As a non-native, my thinking is that I can use the index# of the Nelson Character Dictionary:

  • Every kanji has a kangxi radical or is the radical itself.
  • Kangxi radicals have an already decided ordering.
  • Within a group of kanji with the same kangxi radical, the tie-break is stroke count.
  • I don't know the final tie-breaker.

Nelson index# seems like a really good way to create an ordering, right?

But, there is zero chance that Nelson influences Japanese at all. It is just a view of the Japanese language intended for non-Japanese to use. So, for official Japanese bookkeeping, what is the universal standard for ordering kanji?

Basically, as the 3rd largest economy in the world, Japan cannot have chaotic record keeping. There must be a universally recognized way to order kanji. I'd like to know what it is. Maybe it is as simple as a look-up table.

  • 2
    What kind of order? You never specify. I could think of several right now.
    – istrasci
    Mar 16, 2015 at 17:46
  • Sounds like a good question. I can't help but wonder though -- if there's supposed to be a universal order -- there would need to be a somewhat universal need for such an order. I can't really think of many reasons other than kanji dictionaries/computer encoding/etc. For most practical applications, you want to order words/phrases, and that can be done via kana in Japanese and letters in English.
    – blutorange
    Mar 16, 2015 at 17:48
  • Are you sure there is a "universal standard"? Anyway, most character dictionaries give details on how they order characters in the section before the entries begin.
    – user1478
    Mar 16, 2015 at 17:59
  • English has an easy and obvious universal ordering system, so it rather blows our minds that other languages might not have one. However, I think that's probably the answer--Japanese doesn't have one, and each dictionary (or whatever) invents their own.
    – AHelps
    Mar 16, 2015 at 18:18
  • @snailboat Mustn't the Japanese Government have to have one official kanji ordering sequence used for official record keeping? For example, the "koseki" register (that goes back hundreds of years) can't just be pot-luck. To the very last tie-break, doesn't there have to be an official government approved ordering system? As the 3rd largest country in the world, Japan can't have a chaotic record keeping system, right? Of course, I could be wrong.
    – red shoe
    Mar 16, 2015 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


If you want an ordering of 漢字 by themselves, each 漢字 dictionary will tell you what ordering they use for 漢字, as pointed out in the comments. As far as I can tell, this is usually very close (if not identical) to the Nelson system (which of course comes from the Kangxi dictionary of the 18th century).

A total order on 漢字 would likely be unpractical, because there are many variant characters which should be considered. (Even other variant characters may be newly discovered in old documents.)

The 常用漢字 table has been revised several times, as has the 人名漢字 table. It would be unwise to attach much importance to the ordering there.

Lastly, Unicode has a total ordering, which will not change, although new characters may be added in the future. (Of course it is unlikely that newly added 漢字 characters will ever find their use in modern Japanese, although I'd kind of like if 変体仮名 make a comeback; at the moment there are very few Unicoded 変体仮名.)

In any case, Japanese words (including names) may be ordered by the あいうえお (the "dictionary" ordering), i.e. the kana table. (Every name in the 戸籍 has a registered kana reading, which doesn't change.) In daily life, therefore, it is not necessary to insist on a total order of 漢字, because 漢字 usually come with a reading. If you ask a computer to order 漢字 "alphabetically" it will give you the Unicode (or JIS) ordering.

  • That all makes total sense. The variants and 人名用 (and hyogaiji) all make the ordering that I was thinking about completely impractical. I'll give 2 thumbs-up if I could. thanks.
    – red shoe
    Mar 16, 2015 at 19:38

One way is to order by total stroke order, so in your example, the Kanji for "river" would come first.

  • 1
    Sounds good, but what do you do when several hundred (or several thousand) characters have the same stroke count?
    – user1478
    Nov 17, 2017 at 13:51
  • If you think about having a different stroke count for all common kanji, that means you would need kanji with 2000-3000 strokes...
    – Earthliŋ
    Nov 17, 2017 at 14:13

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