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If I want to say only 日本 in a sentence then each character is pronounced in its onyomi version isn't it? If this is an exception and one (or all) of the characters is not pronounced in onyomi version then ok i'll remember the exception, but 日 isn't pronounced "ni" anyway. So how can I understand this situation?

6

There are no strict rules for how a word written in kanji translates to reading. There are rule of thumbs, but they do not give a strict indication. At best, they will give you a 40% chance to correctly guess a word's reading from its kanji. Which isn't trivial, but far from reliable.

Most of the stuff you've learned about onyomi or kunyomi is basically useless in practice, as words that actually follow those rules in a predictable way are actually in the minority. If you try to look at words that "don't follow the rules", or where the rules are ambiguous, as exceptions, you'll find that most of the Japanese language is made of exceptions.

Words like 今日, 昨日, 相応しい, or 大人しい, are great examples for having no clear relation between the kanji and reading. Even when a single kanji is used, you have examples like 全う, 全て, and 全く, all having completely different readings.

Even when a kanji has the same reading in multiple words, it can still have multiple options. For instance, in 男性, 可能性, 性質, 事件性, and 個性, 性 would be read as "sei". While in 本性, 性分, 相性, and 性根, 性 would be read as "shou". So even when it seems to "follow the rules", you're still getting a 50:50 guess on the reading.

日本 is actually closer to the latter case. 本 is quite often read as "hon" (while occasionally also being "moto"). 日 is most often "hi", "jitsu", or "nichi". The latter lends itself to both the reading "nippon", as in "nichi" with "chi" shortened to a small "tsu", followed by "hon" with "ho" upgraded to "po", similar to in 一本. "nihon" can be seen as farther shortening "nichi", or as doing something that is between "nichi" and "hi".

But really, if you're hoping to read any given word, you should learn the reading of the whole word, not try to divide it into kanji. After learning enough words, you will sometimes be able to spot kanji which are read the same in multiple words, and be able to use that to guess the reading of new words. But even then, it's anywhere between a 50:50 to 1 in 5 guess, and if you don't know the word, you'll have to look up its correct reading anyway. Kanji reading will serve, at best, as a hint or mnemonic.

  • Downvoted because 1. I find OP's approach legitimate and think it should be encouraged by pointing out where his reasoning flaw was, rather than advising him to give up trying and just learning rotely instead. "Kanji are hard", yes, but there are rules (numerous, with exceptions, but clear and helpful rules nonetheless). Ateji, nanori, juubako etc only make up a minor part of the whole kanji reading, no? 2. "ni" from "nihon" a shorter form of "nichi" (feels dubious), and being between "nichi" (on-yomi) and "hi" (kun-yomi) (seems just wrong): would be better with some backing sources. Thx – desseim Aug 23 at 3:38
  • I didn't say "Kanji are hard", I said that the relation between kanji and reading is highly inconsistent. To answer your question "Ateji, nanori, juubako etc only make up a minor part of the whole kanji reading, no?", the answer is "Absolutely not". Even the words that don't fall into those categories are, as I've demonstrated, pure guesswork when it comes to the correct reading. Since the OP said "i'll remember the exception", I interpreted that to mean they are looking for practical advice, and not etymology. And the practical advice is that such "exceptions" are most of the language. – SlugFiller Aug 23 at 19:43
  • I'd like to make clear I wanted to leave you feedback about why I downvoted as I think it's nicer. I hoped it to be constructive and hope you didn't take it as a personal attack. Incidentally, within a short timespan after my previous comment for example, I got 3 of my answers (including very old ones) downvoted, but since the voter left no comment I have no idea what he perceived as wrong or dangerous with them. I wish I knew so I could possibly improve them, thought you would too. Additionally, your answer was accepted so your interpretation, not mine, matched OP's expectations eventually. – desseim Aug 24 at 23:42
  • As for the content of your answer, I'm genuinely curious about how many irregular readings make up of the whole language reading set. Do you have any data about it? I couldn't find anything concrete myself :/ Then, what you've shown is that one can't be 100% sure of the reading of a word he has never encountered. That's true, that doesn't mean though the only way to learn readings is to rote learn every one of them. I maintain there is a great deal of strong, consistent logic behind the vast majority of readings, and it makes learning far easier than if they were plain random. – desseim Aug 24 at 23:53
  • While it may count as "personal research", and not be something I'd directly use in writing an answer, for the past year I've kept a record of every distinct word or phrase I met while reading Japanese. That total comes out to 7619 words/phrases. I then used an algorithm to group them by kanji and its reading. Suffice to say, while readings DO repeat, much consistency wasn't there. We're talking 5+ readings per kanji, with no rhyme or reason to why one is used instead of the other. No fancy usable rules like "Here it's a composite, here it's a verb" or something like that – SlugFiller Aug 26 at 0:27
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There are three readings for 日本: にほん, にっぽん, and やまと. The last reading is non-standard as far as general use. The first two are still used often, but にほん is by far the de rigueur reading currently.

Possibly you are reading something old, where 日本 is written as につぽん. While today, a repeating consonant is written with a small tsu (っ), in the past it was often written with a regular-sized tsu (つ), and some elderly people still write it this way. What looks to you like Nitsuhon is actually Nippon.

日 has several readings, but the reading of に in にほん is a special case and shouldn't be applied outside of this circumstance.

  • 4
    Do you have a source for 日本 having the reading 「やまと」? Obviously it makes sense, but I've only ever seen 「やまと」 as 大和 or 倭. – istrasci Aug 20 at 15:41
  • I'd seen it before (don't recall where) and a Q&A page mentioned it, which reinforced my decision to list that reading. It's listed in the Wikipedia entry for 大和, but I don't have a more authoritative source (at this time). – BJCUAI Aug 20 at 16:06
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    @istrasci "Yamato Takeru" is written as 日本武尊 in the Nihon Shoki – setobot5000 Aug 21 at 0:17
  • @istrasci Source of Yamato Wiki link – Roger Sanghee Gold Aug 21 at 5:16
  • @RogerSangheeGold: Interesting. Thank you. – istrasci Aug 21 at 15:41
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(First, 日本 is pronounced like nippon or nihon, but not nitsuhon.)

Unfortunately, there are tons of irregularities and exceptions regarding the readings of words, and you have to master them individually, word by word. Pronunciations change over time, but spellings tend not to change. In the case of Japanese, there are even kanji words that completely ignore the original pronunciation of each kanji (known as jukujikun). For example 一日 is read ついたち.

Uncommon words tend to exhibit less exceptions, so you don't need to suffer forever. English is one of the worst European languages in terms of spelling-phonetic consistency, so if you can speak English, you can master Japanese :)

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You're right, 日本 pronunciation is based on the on-yomi of each kanji.

has only one on-yomi : "hon", so no problem here. has two though : "nichi" (go-on) and "jistu" (kan-on).

You can "understand the situation" of 日本 being nowadays read "nihon" or "nippon" through its history :

  1. it is thought to have evolved from the go-on reading "nichihon" (ホン) to "nippon" (ポン) through phonetic change (called gemination or 促音便)
  2. and then from "nippon" to "nihon" for pronunciation softening.

Nowadays both "nippon" and "nihon" readings have been retained and are commonly used.

Incidentally, the kan-on reading of 日本, ジツホン (jitsuhon), is thought to be at the origin of its translations in a bunch of foreign languages (Marco Polo's "Cipangu", "Jipang", "Japan", etc).

Source: 大辞泉


About your question and initial thought process:
I think your kanji app shouldn't have listed "nitsu" as an on-yomi for : is sometimes read ニッ but as a gemination from ニチ so really that's the same one on-yomi.
Building on expecting 日本 to be read with the on-yomi of its kanji, and gemination being omnipresent in modern Japanese, you should have expected it to be possibly read "nippon" or "jippon".
Only remains "nihon", which indeed is an oddity and warrants a question here.

  • As asked in the comment on the OP, when can it ever be につ? – Leebo Aug 21 at 15:46
  • @Leebo I added a couple links referencing the various 音読み for 日, which include ニツ/ニッ. It's a 呉音, so basically it was the 音読み for around the 5th to 6th century. Since then it's mostly (I guess even fully) disappeared from modern Japanese (it's a 常用外 reading BTW), but I surmise it may have survived in Buddhist texts (some mantra readings maybe ?) if anything -- it's in 日光 at least. – desseim Aug 21 at 16:08
  • you're suggesting that 日光 can be read につこう? To me, saying it "has" (present tense) a reading of につ means some word can be read that way now. The page you linked to for 日 doesn't list につ as a reading for it. It does list にっ. – Leebo Aug 21 at 21:25
  • @Leebo Sorry for the confusion, I'll try to clarify. This other link I posted lists ニツ explicitly and separately from ニッ as a 呉音 for . I personally consider them the same yomi as ニッ is to me simply the ニツ yomi placed in a context where 促音便 applies. So I meant : has ニツ as one of its 音読み, but I don't know of any 熟語 where it is retained in this form without 促音便 (i.e. original ニツ becoming ニッ). Which, I think, means we agree. – desseim Aug 22 at 0:05
  • All the above being said, I'd rather leave all this discussion points in the comments as I think it's off-topic wrt @xceeded 's question. From what I understood, he found "nitsu" as one of on-yomi, but not "ni". He could then have made sense of 日本 being read "nippon", but not "nihon", hence his question. I said he was right because his reasoning is logical and legitimate. The ニホン reading isn't the direct compound of any of and on-yomi as should be the case for a typical 熟語. Hope it's clearer (?). – desseim Aug 22 at 0:13

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