I was reading this article on Japanese numerals and I first encountered the whole On reading/Kun reading thing, with an additional column on "Preferred reading," which was almost always the On reading.

Do native Japanese speakers know both readings for every Kanji? What influence does this have on the language? What is the use and application of this knowledge? Should I bother learning the non-preferred reading?

  • Side comment 5 years later: my personal recommendation is to not bother trying to memorize on/kun readings. Memorize the general meaning of characters and how to write/recognize them, and then just learn vocabulary and what characters are used to write the words. That way you learn the on/kun readings organically by seeing how the character is pronounced in different words, and you haven't spent a ton of time memorizing things you're not using yet. Apr 10 '17 at 21:55

Do native Japanese know both readings for every Kanji?

As much has every Roman knew latin. Some kanji have a

  • large number of on-readings (consider 行: AN, GYOU, KOU, which are comonly known),
  • plus a large number of kun-readings (行: i(ku), okona(u), yu(ku), i(keru), kudari)
  • plus several "Nanori" - readings that are used in first names (行: nami, michi,...).

What influence does this have on the language?

Consider the characters 大,人, and 気:

  • 大 (KUN:) oo(i), (ON:) DAI, TAI = big
  • 人 (KUN:) hito, (ON:) NIN, JIN = person
  • 気 (ON:) ki, ke

now combine those:

  • 大人 (KUN:) otona = adult
  • 人気 (KUN:) hitoke = trace of human life, (also ON: NINKI)
  • 大人気 (ON:) DAININKI = very popular

you see, context-sensitive choice of readings.

Should I bother learning the non-preferred reading?

Should you encounter the character in an unfamiliar combination with another character, you'll have to exhaust every possible reading in a Japanese dictionary to either find it, find that the dictionary is insufficient or that you lack another reading, in which case you must consult a separate character dictionary.

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    And just to throw more into the mix, you forgot 「おとなげ」. Jul 20 '12 at 15:38
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    What are some readings in capital letters, and parts of them placed in parentheses? Also, I still don't fully grasp this. How did you get otona out of a combination of those two characters? I don't see "to" or "na" as components of any of the readings, so I can't see how it added up to that. I can see how you got daininki... Jul 20 '12 at 16:21
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    @Aerovistae. (1) The parenthesis are okurigana. (2) Capitalisation to indicate onyomi.
    – Flaw
    Jul 20 '12 at 16:38
  • @Aerovistae: Some sequences have other readings whose origin is caused by or lost to history(e.g. 「[今日]{けふ}」-> 「[今日]{きょう}」), and some are 義訓. Jul 20 '12 at 17:34
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    @Aerovistae I know I'm late to the party, so you've probably learned this by now, but the different readings don't correspond to different meanings. There's no 100% reliable way to predict which reading will be used in which compound. It's all just a matter of memorization. Oct 16 '13 at 19:47

Everyone has answered this really well, but I'd like to add some points that I wish someone had told me when I began learning.

The On-yomi is taken from the original Chinese reading of the kanji, and the Kun-yomi is the Japanese reading that has "adopted" the kanji, so to speak. As a general rule, if the kanji is by itself, (as in, it is not attached to other kanji, just hiragana) it generally takes on the Kun-yomi; if the kanji is part of a compound, it (and the other half of the compound) takes on its On-yomi.

Should I bother learning the non-preferred reading?

The answer is "yes". It's the difference between guessing the meaning of a word and being able to read it out loud. That may not sound like much, but it's absolutely essential.

For example: 食べる is pronounced with its Kun-yomi, たべる. on its own is generally pronounced こと, which is the Kun-yomi. If if you combine them 食事, they're both read with their On-yomi: しょくじ

Again, that's very generalized and not always the case, but it's the rule rather than the exception.

  • 3
    And note that there can be multiple 音読み readings based on the period when the character was "reimported" to Japan (呉音, 漢音, 唐宋音, etc.). Jul 20 '12 at 17:43
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    I prefer not directly learning any kanji readings at all. Rather learn words with both reading and writing, learning the readings indirectly. Oct 23 '14 at 15:13

Regarding on'yomi, English has a very similar counterpart. You mentioned numbers, so consider the following:

  1. uni-, mono-
  2. bi-, di-, duo-
  3. tri-, ter-
  4. quadri-, tetra-
  5. quinque-, penta-
  6. sexa-, hexa-
  7. septua-, hepta-
  8. octo-
  9. nona-
  10. dec-

Just like in English, the more of these roots (on) that know in Japanese, the easier it will be for you to understand and create new words. Often multiple on readings are generally grouped with other on readings to create a word. In this sense, they are similar to roots.

Do native Japanese know both readings for every Kanji?

Japanese is a citizenship. It can be obtained or lost. There is no correlation between citizenship and linguistic ability. If I am guessing your intent, then you likely mean "native speakers of Japanese".

And to answer the question: a native speaker of Japanese does not know all on and kun readings for every kanji. However, they will know most of all common ones and likely know a few uncommon ones as well.

What influence does this have on the language?

For the most part, loanwords.

What is the use and application of this knowledge?

A wider vocabulary.

Should I bother learning the non-preferred reading?

Absolutely. But why do you say "non-preferred"?

  • "But why do you say "non-preferred"?" The Wikipedia article talked about there being a "preferred reading" - wouldn't the other reading be a "non-preferred" reading? Jul 20 '12 at 23:30
  • The Wikipedia article should probably say something more like "contextually appropriate", or something. For example, 経緯 can be read as けいい or いきさつ, but it depends on where you're reading it. If I were looking at an older novel I would go for いきさつ, if I were reading a modern text I would use けいい. Feb 26 '13 at 11:13
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    Coming back and re-reading these answers years later as I re-embark on Japanese learning, with much more background knowledge this time around-- I was so new when I posted this question. Your analogy with uni/mono etc is a really, really great one, though. 10 points to gryffindor for that. Also, I chuckled at your point about citizenship...edited my wording. I had meant to write "native speakers," of course. Jan 26 '17 at 7:12

With Japanese numbers, yes, you must know both/all readings; it is important to be able to tell 「[九人]{きゅうにん}」 from 「[九時]{くじ}」 from 「[九]{ここの}つ」.


That highly depends if you learn only Kanji or if you learn Japanese (so Kanji + Vocabulary)

For Example nearly every kun-reading of most Kanji will be covered in Vocabulary anyway,

So you may learn the Kanji 食 with its kun-reading 食べる, but when you learn Vocabulary you will learn for sure the word 食べる anyway.

I personally learn only kun-readings when learning kanji if the kun-reading is not going to be learned in my vocabulary learning anyway.

You can do the same for on-reading and then not much is left anyway because nearly every on-reading is used in a word

I would say knowing the Readings of a Kanji is important, but its more important to do proper vocabulary learning as you will learn the readings of the Kanji too.

Best example for me was 飛行機, i can only remember the on-readings of those Kanji because i know the word 「ひこうき」 and it was one of the first words i learned.

When i was learning the On-Readings of those Kanji seperatly it was hard for me to remember them, my brain just dont allow me to remember every on-reading of every Kanji (even if i try hard), but thanks to the vocabulary that uses the Kanji i can remember them.

To actually know if the used reading is on- or kun-reading is more important!

So if you see a word for example 飛行機 (ひこうき) it is important to know if the readings used in this word are on- or kun-reading.

And Kun-Readings are "Vocabulary" anyway so i dont bother learning them when learning Kanji.

So my Answer to your question:

Dont bother learning all readings perfectly. If you learn Vocabulary afterwards you can drop the kun-reading completely as they are covered there.

You should try to learn as much on-readings as possible but i tell you something.

If you see a word you never seen before, its even for japanese nearly impossible to guess which reading to use as it depends on so incredible many things.

If you know the Word (written with Kanji), you know how to read it. If you dont know the word, you can just "guess" the readings and meanings, but that doesnt help you really. In the end you have to lookup unkown words in dictionary and you will see the reading then.

For me personally when learning Kanji the "meaning" of the Kanji and the way to write it (writing is veeery important to remember the Kanji correctly), i try to drop as many readings as possible as they are covered in vocabulary anyway.

If you want to become an Kanji Master knowing all readings, i recommend you to wait for that until you learned Japanese, if you are able to read/speak Japanese you know already most of kun-readings and on-readings so you only have to learn a very little then.


I'm in total agreement with 白川's answer. It's difficult memorizing all the readings especially the onyomi ones because much of them are the same. At times it might get confusing. I feel it better to learn the meaning, and one of the kun/on reading. If it is a verb, I give priority to that reading. As I am still a beginner, I have barely read any Japanese yet. But like 白川 says, I'll count on the vocabulary that I come across while reading to learn the readings.

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    Welcome to SE! Check out the chat by the way (there's people in there all the time, at least on JLU.SE, and a lot of people don't notice it.) I reached the same conclusion as you did regarding the kanji readings, I'm doing the same thing. Oct 22 '14 at 22:56

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