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When I look at a kanji word I see one, or multiple Hiragana pronunciations (or should I call it translation?) - sometimes the pronunciations are for different kanjis, but that's not the question.

I've been reading this article on tofugu, but there are still some issues I'd like to ask about.

Sometimes I see more than 10 different katakana readings for a single kanji. Why is this?

Also, why are there some readings given as katakana, even though (if I understand correctly) katakana is used for non-Japanese (Chinese?) words?

  • I think that you mean "readings" rather than "translations". – GoBusto May 14 '15 at 11:50
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    Thanks @GoBusto, wrong choice of words, updated the question (but would not delete the word, otherwise the comments seem void) – Danielson May 14 '15 at 11:56
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I don't exactly know what you mean by "translations", but kanji have different readings, on'yomi readings (which are adapted from the original Chinese) and kun'yomi readings (which have nothing to do with the Chinese reading, but map a native Japanese word to a kanji).

To distinguish the "type" (on'yomi vs. kun'yomi) of these readings, the on'yomi is usually given in katakana and the kun'yomi in hiragana. The idea is loosely that katakana is also used for everything foreign, in this case the (Japanified) Chinese reading.

The same kanji may have multiple on'yomi as kanji, together with their Chinese reading, have been imported throughout the history of the Japanese language, from different areas of China. (Then they are called kan'on, go'on, t­ōsōon. See more about this here.)

Note that the readings only give a guide of reading this particular kanji in a given context. They give the pronunciation of the kanji and are not "translations".

  • I got the impression "translation" was not a correct word, hence in quotes (English is not my native language). Mapping would be a better word, I guess. Apparently the key, here, was in "on Yomi" (from Chinese) and "Kun Yomi" (Japanese reading)... Would this imply that the Kun Yomi listings are the pronunciations for when this Kanji appears? – Danielson May 14 '15 at 11:53
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    The answer is that it varies by context of the word. Sometimes people read either of them depending on what the word is. じゅくご, kanji compounds with 2 or more kanji, tend to be with on'yomi (there are exceptions), while when a character is used alone it's often kun'yomi. This is a vast generalization (and some kanji don't actually even have kun'yomi at all) but it's an easy way to think about it at the start of learning kanji. Also, basic level Japanese is mostly kun'yomi. – sqrtbottle May 14 '15 at 15:20
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Hiragana are used for native Japanese words, but also very commonly for kanji, even for onyomi.

Readings of kanji can be split up into 3 broad types:

On'yomi

These are readings taken from the Chinese mainland when kanji were imported to Japan. The reason why there are so many is that kanji sometimes took readings of chinese characters from different regions of China (where different dialects exist), and at different time periods. 走, pronounced "zou" in Chinese, was loaned to Japanese as そう, and also as しゅ. There aren't any words with the しゅ reading that I can actually think of. It exists, but it's very uncommon, if it's even still used.

I have more info on seemingly "irregular" readings of on'yomi here [Apparently unrelated 音読み? ] if you want some more reading about this.

Kun'yomi

These are Japanese readings of kanji. They were meant to match the meanings of the chinese characters when they were loaned to Japan. For instance, 走 in classical chinese means to walk or run. The japanese word for "to run" was attached to this character when people started writing with kanji in Japan, so 走{はし}る, meaning "to run" is written with this character.

The reason why there are sometimes many kun'yomi is that there are many Japanese words which are similar in meaning, so take the same kanji, but different in pronunciations. 降る is one example. It can mean "to fall", or to alight / get-off.

雨{あめ}が降る{ふる} (It's) raining [literally "rain is falling"]

バスを降{お}りる Get off a bus

Because of this, lots of kanji have many kun'yomi too.

Other readings

Some kanji are given new readings when in words together. 下手{へた} is one example of this, or even 上手{うま}い meaning "unskilled / bad" and "good / skilled" respectively. Neither of the kanji normally take either of the pronunciations given here, but when you put the two characters together, it makes this reading.

Another example is たばこ (a loanword "tobacco"). Even though it's a loanword, it's often written in hiragana, or even Kanji as 煙草{たばこ}. Here, the loanword was given kanji that match its meaning, even though again, neither of them naturally are pronounced like any part of the word "たばこ".

More recently too, you'll see that Chinese names of places will be accompanied by neither on'yomi nor kun'yomi readings. 馬英九, current leader of Taiwan, will have his name written in furigana above these kanji as マー・インチウ, even though they could (and still can) also be read as ば えいきゅう, and the name is even Chinese, from which kanji were taken.

Other side points

You were talking about other alphabets, and while you're not wrong, that's not the whole story. Katakana is used mostly for loanwords, though not even all of them, as we saw with tobacco, and sometimes hiragana will be used stylistically by some people or companies. While kanji readings can be written in hiragana, I've seen some people use katakana for words like 綺麗{きれい}. It's also used for names of animals and plants in science, such as イチゴ (strawberry). But, kanji are also used for names of living things too, and in some cases, so are hiragana. Katakana is used scientifically though.

Knowing which to use is usually down to context, but really needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. Not even Japanese people know all the time how to read somebody's name without being told (and the opposite way round -- knowing how to say it, but not how to write it without being told).

Still, I don't want to discourage you from Kanji. They are my favorite part about Japanese, and they're more helpful than hateful in my experience; really good for figuring out new words, and for memorizing them. Plus, they're a beautiful part of the language. They take patience, but they're the aspect that makes Japanese most enjoyable for me, and their irregularities aren't that bad most of the time (usually one reading is used for ~95% of all words with that character).

  • I'd like to upvote your answer - but don't have the reputation. Nonetheless, great answer (I'll, probably, read it again, and again). I know Japanese is (together with Chinese) one of the hardest languages to learn - which is why Korean and Vietnamese switched to other writings (as Japanese and Chinese tried, yet failed). I'm inspired by the other way of thinking, not in letters, or phonetics but (as far as I've seen) in representable images. I will not be discouraged :p, thanks though – Danielson May 15 '15 at 6:23

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