I have been using jisho.org and aedict (android) to look at the definition, kanji and reading of words. Sometimes though, they list words that have multiple kanji in use and they are all indicated as "common" kanji.

For example: aedict says that, for the word のぼる、the common kanji in use are: 上る、昇る and 登る. Another example is かたい when searched on jisho.org, which lists the same exact list of meanings for 固い and 堅い and lists both as common kanji. There are also alternative kanji listed, which are not labeled common but are also not labeled as "outdated kanji" as some of the others are. For example, 言葉 has alternative kanji 詞 and 辞.

My question: Is it okay to freely use any of them?

  • 1
    Related: Do people respect the nuance between 探す and 捜す?
    – blutorange
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 7:48
  • And take a look at questions with the homophonic-kanji tag, you can find questions about which spelling to use for some words there.
    – blutorange
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 8:02
  • I'm I wrong in thinking Japanese/Chinese are unique in (or at least much more prone to) having this problem than other languages? That & homophones.
    – jastako
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 20:01
  • @jastako, from what I've studied, Chinese has words that sound the same but are spelled differently due to being completely different words that developed later to sound the same -- this is more true of Mandarin, which has lost almost all coda consonants (consonants closing a syllable), while Cantonese still has more coda consonants, which help differentiate various words. Japanese, meanwhile, uses kanji for sometimes-subtle distinctions of meaning of the same underlying word -- 上【のぼ】る ("to go up"), 昇【のぼ】る ("to rise"), 登【のぼ】る ("to climb"), but all basically just noboru. Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 0:08

1 Answer 1


Better use kana instead of some weird or wrong kanji if you're not certain

In natural languages, the meaning of words are often extended, changed and modified to fit the speakers needs. Just look up some basic verbs in an English dictionary.

When two of these meanings are far enough apart, we can call it two separate words, and it makes sense to use a different spelling for these. For example, 話す and 放す.

However, often it happens that two of these meanings are rather close and related to each other. In English, we would spell it the same way, and it looks like the same word to us. In Japanese, there are kanji in addition to the phonetic-based kana, and different kanji get assigned to these closely related meanings as well.

Note that dictionaries often list them as the same word. Also note that the boundary between just a different spelling and two different words is a grey zone. Further note that using different kanji for different meanings is done with on-reading-compounds related to the kanji's significance, so it would seem perfectly natural to do this for native words as well.

And sometimes it happens that there are multiple spellings for meanings that are virtually identical and hard to separate.

Until recently (~pre-war), kanji had been more common even for spelling particles etc, and there are some alternate spellings for some words hardly used anymore if ever.

My kanji dictionary 新撰漢和辞典・第六版・小学館 has got an appendix of alternative spellings:

  • はしる:走、奔、趨、赶、彍
  • つね:常、恒、庸、毎、経、彝、雅、願
  • いう:言、謂、曰、云、道

As I said, you won't come across many of the above.

For many words, there is a default kanji that can be used in most or all of its senses. And it may be acceptable to spell without any kanji in the first place.

  • 分かる
  • 歌う
  • かける
  • 待つ
  • ただ
  • かたい
  • 言葉
  • のぼる(上る)

Some alternate spellings are used for the effect in literature etc. For example, I've seen 嗤【わら】う in a novel a few times.

As for your question, no it is not okay to use just any kanji for a certain word just because it has got that reading. If in doubt, check with a dictionary or default to kana.

The Microsoft IME includes some explanations on how to use different kanji for a word that pop up while converting a word.

Personally, I can recommend the dictionary 明鏡国語辞典 published by 大修館書店; it includes clear notes on different spellings, and sometimes even lists the possible kanji for each sense.

Here's an online resource I found: nihonjiten.com

You must log in to answer this question.