How are the five elements 木・火・土・金・水 pronounced in Japanese (when referring specifically to 五行, not just generally any water, fire etc.)?


I get


by googling that phrase and "発音"

  • which (using on'yomi) of course makes sense given the source. – virmaior Nov 13 '15 at 10:39
  • I think it also gets pronounced キン in some contexts. For example, the idea that "metal overcomes wood" is 金剋木, pronounced きんこくもく. – senshin Nov 13 '15 at 20:24
  • 1
    virmaior, @senshin It's interesting that the 陰陽五行思想 page virmaior linked to says ごん while the regular 五行思想 page says きん. Maybe an answer should address this. – snailplane Nov 19 '15 at 13:25
  • weird and completely valid ... and something I don't know the answer to. On a different week, I could ask one of the 国語 professors. – virmaior Nov 19 '15 at 13:36
  • @snailboat FWIW, I heard the pronunciation きんこくもく in an anime (this one) recently, which is why it came to mind. – senshin Nov 19 '15 at 22:53


is correct, as in @virmaior's answer. The reason why these readings are used rather than standard kan'on readings is historical -- the readings used here are actually all go'on (呉音) with the sole exception of 土 which now uses kanyō'on, customary readings from Japan. Below is a bit of history on why go'on are used, but not directly relevant to answering the ambiguity around 金 discussed in the comments.

Go'on are based on the readings of Chinese characters from Jiankang, then the capital of the Eastern Wu state, now Nanjing. Actually, go'on readings are older than kan'on readings in terms of when they were loaned to Japan, and they came to Japan as some of the first readings of Chinese characters through spiritual works via Buddhist and Confucianists who travelled to Japan.

Go'on have a historical relationship with Japanese of being used in religious and spiritual works, due to the majority of these ideologies coming from Wu (呉), and because of that are used in these religious texts, including in buddhist terms and the wuxing (五行{ごぎょう}, the 5 chinese elements).

More specifically though, on its own as an element of the wuxing, we use 金{ごん} (as supported by this, this, weblio, goo, yahoo, and more). But, in virtually all other contexts it's used as 金{きん}, notably when describing 相剋 and 相生, which is why the wikipedia picture in 五行思想 labels it as 金{きん}, because this is what it is referred to when saying, for instance, 金剋木{きんこくもく} (source one two three).

But there isn't total agreement on that. My IME (google) accepts 金{ごん} and 金{きん} for all xiangxing (相性{あいしょう}) relationships, and this website gives 金剋木{ごんこくもく} rather than 金{きん}. But it seems this is a minority, and an incorrect minority according to all the dictionaries cited above.

Alone, 金 is definitely 金{ごん} in the wuxing. This is a result of the go'on readings that are used for the wuxing elements when they're in isolation and in the 5 character compound 木火土金水{もくかどごんすい} (though ど is used rather than つ for 土 as a result of switching to kanyō'on for this character all the time when discussing it as an element). There seems to be confusion about which readings to use when amongst native Japanese, but overall the prevailing usage is:

  • 金{ごン} alone
  • 金{きん} when used in xiangxing (相性) (such as 金剋木)

None of the other elements have this problem, and all stay as they are listed at the top.


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