I am trying to wrap my head around how the Japanese speak and how that differs from kanji. On and Kun makes a difference when reading kanji, depending usually how the sentence is made up of kanas and kanji. But when speaking, do they speak in On and Kun as well? Do they pay attention how they say it compared to how they would write it out and then read that outloud?

From my understanding, you can technically write all in kana if you really wanted to, regardless how practical that would actually be, but it can be done. So when speaking do they take into account, "well I am saying this, which if I wrote it with kanji (assuming you knew the kanji to begin with), and since this word would be next to this kanji or not next to any kanji, I would have to say it this way to make sense."?

I've read that Japanese school children in general for their age/level, learn to speak Japanese first, then learn the kanas and then the kanji. Which I guess makes sense, especially if what I wrote above is true of you can basically write anything with the kanas. I've taken a similar approach due to my confusion, but fact checking with dictionaries to make sure it is accurate for the sound.

What I am seeing so far is that in hira Love (I guess general love) is AI. I search for the kanji and find it, but it has both On and Kun with the Kun being the AI sound. Same with To Meet in hira. The sound AU is used and again that is Kun when looking at the kanji. The dictionaries I have show the different meanings of a kanji, but I am not sure how they represent themselves in the On or Kun, just that they exist and these are the sounds with some having a few different ones.

I probably just confused you as much as I confuse my self, but can anyone help me understand please? Thank you for your time and patience.

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    Do you have to consciously think about whether the words you use in English are of Latin, Greek, French, or Germanic origin when you use them in daily conversation?
    – Angelos
    Sep 12, 2019 at 7:23
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    What would it mean if they didn't "speak with on and kun"? There's not much left if you remove those. Also, I don't think the "sound symbolism" tag fits.
    – Leebo
    Sep 12, 2019 at 8:12
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    On and kun are, by definition, readings of a kanji. Kanji are, by definition, written. So, strictly speaking, nobody "speaks" with on and kun. :) Just like in English, we don't "speak" with a given spelling, we just "speak". When we say cough, do we think about the -ough being different from the -ough in slough (a kind of swampy inlet), or bough (a branch on a tree), or rough (not smooth)? Generally, no, we just say the words we mean. Sep 12, 2019 at 17:05
  • The OP is (probably without intending to do so) using on and kun to refer to 漢語 and 和語 with regard to speaking. That's what I was talking about in quoting it. In any case. I'm guessing this question is a duplicate of something.
    – Leebo
    Sep 12, 2019 at 22:22
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    And just food for thought, you say that English is not Japanese, but imagine a Japanese person thinking about English and going "how do I know what to say for 水? Do I need to say hydr- or aqua- or -unda- or some other water-related root?" That just sounds silly doesn't it? The words are what matter, and not the history of how the words came to be the way they are. In Japanese there are words, and then those words can be written with kanji. That's all there is to it. So there's a word for "blue" and you can write it with kanji or not, but it'll always be "aoi" not any of those other things.
    – Leebo
    Sep 16, 2019 at 9:11

2 Answers 2


I would say there is very little conscious thought of whether something is a kun reading or an on reading of a character when speaking normally. That said, if you were to ask someone if a given reading is on or kun, they’d likely be able to answer quickly (if educated). It’s more secondary/subconscious knowledge, but can sometimes come in explicit use if you’re trying to read a new compound word and guessing how each character should be read (e.g, it’s more likely to use on readings).

In the end, people think in terms of spoken words and their meanings, with writing systems adding an extra layer of nuance or connections between words. This means that something like characters and readings would not be in the primary mental thought process for most conversations.


Take a step back for a second.

Kanji do have meaning on their own, but they aren't always words on their own. Some kanji only make one sound corresponding to one word. In these cases, it's a simple matter of learning the Kanji, the word and the pronunciation.

However most Kanji make multiple sounds depending on the context and can be used to form various very different words. It might be useful to start off thinking of kanji as cool letters that have some meaning or meanings associated with them and have different sounds depending on context. Think about the letter 'G'. sometimes it makes a sound like at the start of "Go," and sometimes it makes a sound like at the start of "Giraffe." G on it's own isn't a word unless there's some context to read it in. Kanji also require context to become words.

Let's look at 4 words

生{い}きる : いきる : Ikiru : To live (Kun'yomi)

生{なま} : なま : Nama : Raw (Kun'yomi)

生{せい}徒{と} : せいと : Seito : Student (On'yomi)

一{いっ}生{しょう} : いっしょう : Isshou: A lifetime (On'yomi)

As you can see, the kanji 「生」 makes all kinds of different sounds depending on which word you've formed, and depending on your context.

To answer your original question, the labels On'yomi and Kun'yomi only refer to the origin of a particular pronunciation of a Kanji with On referring to a pronunciation of Chinese origin and Kun referring to a pronunciation of Japanese origin. Japanese people use both On'yomi and Kun'yomi when they speak depending on which words they use.

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    I would suggest that kanji are more like roots or morphemes in English, than they are like letters.
    – Leebo
    Sep 16, 2019 at 11:02
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    生きる : いきる : Ikiru ... (On'yomi) <- It's Kun-yomi. nama na seito (nama na -> nama no; [生]{なま} is a の-adjective in modern Japanese) [生]{なま}の[生徒]{せいと} would make no sense. "Raw student" is 青書生 in Japanese.
    – chocolate
    Sep 16, 2019 at 12:23
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    @Chocolate, 生【なま】の生徒【せいと】 makes perfect sense in the context of a cooking class -- where the student is on the menu! 😲 Sep 16, 2019 at 16:54
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    Downvoter here. I disagree that "kanji do not have meaning without context". While it its true that context is crucial to understand a sentence, most kanji do have meaning by themselves.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 17, 2019 at 19:58
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    -1 Teaching beginners that kanji are nothing more than letters without meaning does them a huge disservice. It leaves you with nothing but rote memory as a means of learning where taking meaning into consideration can allow you to advance much more quickly.
    – By137
    Sep 18, 2019 at 5:57

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