NATO phonetic alphabet is used for precise dictation of English letters:

  • "A" is pronounced as "Alfa"
  • "B" as "Bravo"
  • "C" as "Charlie", etc.

There are similar alphabets for other languages.

There are only 26 letters in English, and still it's worth to have an unambiguous way to explain a spelling using voice only. In Japanese, there's so much homophonic words containing kanji (especially in names), I'd imagine there is a standard for dictating kanji, but I can't find it. There is the 和文通話表 for kana, numbers, and punctuation, but that's not what I'm looking for.

Is there any similar method and/or standard (maybe historical, experimental, or not originated in Japan) for vocal dictation of the kanji? I assume it may use a different method, e.g. explaining by components/radicals instead of explaining the character as a whole.

I'm aware of a "normal" way of doings this, i.e. mentioning some common words using particular kanji. But, to be honest, it sucks so much balls... I can't imagine Japanese military forces or police doing that "SATO as 'help' and 'light purple'" over the radio.

More than that, such list may be useful for learning kanji. The closest thing I could find is a list of unique keywords from the famous RTK, which does a lot of trickery:

  • 暗 = "darkness"
  • 蒙 = "darken"
  • 闇 = "pitch dark"

This is confusing, but still not as confusing as trying to remember all the darkness-related meanings from the dictionary definitions of those kanji.

Since chances are the answer is "No, there is no such thing. Deal with it!", I have a somewhat related question:

Is there a (standard) list of those common words to explain which kanji is meant? In other words, is there a list which suggests the words which I should use to explain the 佐藤 surname on the phone to my friend, who is not Japanese and just studying kanji?


2 Answers 2


I doubt there is an official method or list of words used to explain kanji.

If there were an official method that were a lot more efficient, then regular people would probably be using it and nobody would be having problems explaining how things are spelled. Having an official list would mean one would have to memorize thousands of words, one for each kanji- not to mention that the whole thing would become useless if you ran into a kanji outside the list.

The best method depends on the kanji, and knowing the best way will become easier as you know more Japanese. If the kanji is part of a common but unique compound, mention that. If it has a well-known 訓読み, which are usually unique, that could easily narrow it down. Even explaining radicals and components could work, at least as a last resort, especially for simpler kanji. Generally, people will have a good sense of what will work and what won't, so having an official list wouldn't really be needed, since people can come up with one on the fly in their heads.

  • I don't think such list would be useless just because there are kanji which are not included. It's like saying that 常用漢字 or JIS lists are useless because there are more kanji. Your other points are good, but I still hope that there is at least a good kanji-to-(japanese) word mapping.
    – scriptin
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 17:38
  • @scriptin I said it would be useless if you did run into a kanji that was outside the list. You wouldn't be able to use the list if that happened, so you'd be back to using the old methods.
    – Blavius
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 20:52

I couldn't find anything closer to what I look for other than Heisig's keywords, and there seems to be no standard list of reference Japanese words as well. Obviously there are dictionaries which list words using each kanji, and it is as "standard" as it can be.

I believe the reason for this is the way Japanese people study their own language.

When Japanese kids start studying kanji at school (see 教育漢字), they start with kanji used in simplest words (no matter how complex shapes of characters are), and as they expand their individual vocabulary, they learn more kanji with more complex meanings. During this process, they always have a reliable way to explain any learnt kanji because they already know corresponding words, so there is no need to learn any additional "meanings" or "keywords".

Since there is no 1-to-1 correspondence between kanji and words, each Japanese person can refer to any word (s)he finds "common enough" to use as a reference. When there is no such word, component (radicals) decomposition may be used as an explanation.

The important consequence of this: one cannot fully learn kanji separately from vocabulary.

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