I have been studying Japanese for a little more than a year now,and I've been learning kanji for a few months.

I understand the basics about readings, but I don't really get the historic reason of why the Chinese readings were imported along with kanji.

If I understand correctly, back then Old Japanese was already a language by itself, only lacking a writing system which was imported from China.

Now, I understand that maybe they took some kanji which represented things for which they didn't have a Japanese word, and thus used the Chinese sounds they heard.

But seeing the huge amount of compound words which use onyomi, it's impossible to think that none of them were used before with their native pronunciation, especially since there are also a lot of words which having more that one kanji use kunyomi. For example, some vocabulary words I've learnt recently are: 大雨 ( おおあめ, kunyomi) and 小川 ( おがわ, kunyomi).But 火山 is かざん (onyomi).Maybe the concept "volcano" didn't have a word for itself in Japanese, but why create it imitating Chinese instead of joining their native words (ひ and やま)?

  • 1
    Why does English have so many borrowings from French, Greek, and Latin, even where it has its own native words (in such cases as anger vs rage)?
    – Angelos
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 14:18
  • But I feel this is a different case, not just borrowing new words or new ways to say them,"Japan" itself is read with onyomi (although I think I read that they were "forced" to do so by the Chinese) Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 17:52
  • How could the Chinese possibly force them to do that? The very choice of name 日本 is usually interpreted as a not-so-subtle jibe at the Chinese court - "greetings from the land of the rising sun to the land of the setting sun".
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 1:03
  • @Matt The theory that associates 日本 with that document is not widely supported (or almost considered a myth). And I believe being located in west didn't have derogative nuance back then, if any, it's description of 天子.
    – user4092
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 6:49
  • @Matt "Another 8th-century chronicle, True Meaning of Shiji (史記正義), however, states that the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian ordered a Japanese envoy to change the country's name to Nippon. " from Wikipedia,I'm not sure how reliable it is. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 7:52

1 Answer 1


People didn't import kanji to assign them to Japanese words but to study Buddhism or to communicate with Chinese diplomats, in short, to read Chinese. It's no wonder that Chinese reading was imported when they needed to read Chinese.

(As for volcano, Mt Aso or Mt Asama are a word that stands for volcano but they are simultaneously a proper noun. As for Japan, "Yamato" domestically more often meant a country in current Nara prefecture or "Yamatai" that is so called since Moto'ori Norinaga than the nation in the archipelago.)

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