I've come across a lot compunds of kanji where the kanjis mean the same thing. For example, 状態=state, 態=state, 状=state 表面=surface, 表=surface, 面=surface,mask Can someone explain how these two kanji compounds work and how do the meanings of the kanjis interact?

  • Hi, welcome to JLSE! Could you consider editing your question to add more context/to narrow its scope? It is quite a broad question presently, and it's hard to know exactly what you are struggling with. e.g. why wouldn't 状態=state? I think it's also important to consider that characters do have nuance to their meaning(s), and the premise of the question feels a bit flawed in how categorically your are assigning meaning. e.g. saying 状=state and 態=state loses something in translation; 状 often has a sense of 'the status quo', while 態 has a sense of the 'appearance' or 'condition' of something.
    – henreetee
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 14:12
  • That's how it was translated and thanks for the feedback! I was wondering how the meanings of the individual kanjis interact with one other. For instance, the meaning of the compound is the common meaning among the kanjis or the common meaning that the kanjis share?
    – user397811
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 14:18
  • I think the bottom line is that there is no hard and fast rule, and you have to remember the specific meanings/usages of the compound. Fwiw, I don't treat these sorts of kanji compounds differently to any other sort of kanji compound, as I try to treat all characters as having different meanings, especially when characters have similar meanings like the ones you mention. If you view all characters as having different (if similar) meanings, I think that solves the question, as you must be comfortable trying to derive meanings in kanji compounds where the characters' meanings are different? :)
    – henreetee
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 14:39

1 Answer 1


Compound words are made of kanji, but each kanji is not necessarily "words" that can be used on its own. Consider, in English, telepathy is made of tele- and -pathy, both of which have some meanings. But that does not mean you can use "tele" or "pathy" as a standalone word in a sentence. On the other hand, network is made of net and work, and both can be used also as standalone words.

Likewise, in Japanese, many kanji do not make much sense if used on their own. Each time you see a new kanji, you have to remember whether it is a true word or "just a character with some meaning".

  • : It's not usable as a word. It's used only as part of compounds (性状, 状況, 異状, etc).
  • : It's rarely used as a word. It means "voice" as in "passive voice" in linguistic contexts, but it's rare.
  • : It means "chart/table/spreadsheet", but not "surface", as a standalone word.
  • : It has many meanings as a standalone word (see your dictionary). Note that 表面 means "outside surface" but 面 as a word is more generic and can also refer to 裏面 and 内面.

Sometimes, very similar two kanji are compounded just to make the word longer. This is necessary because the on-reading of each kanji is short and there are many kanji with the same on-reading (for example, there are dozens of kanji that is read じょう; 情, 上, 城, 錠, 条, ...). See: If 校 is the kanji for school, why do I need 学 to actually say school?, What's the difference between 重責 and 責任? and Contribution of 気 to the meaning, for example, 勇気 and 勇.

See also: Can kanji compounds be formed arbitrarily?

  • Amazing answer! Thanks a lot. So, some of the kanjis in compounds are actually bound morphemes. Can you recommend me a good dictionary?
    – user397811
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 17:27
  • @user397811 Sorry but I'm not good at leaning resources. But at least jisho.org distinguishes them. Add #kanji to see the meaning as a character (example).
    – naruto
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 17:33
  • Thanks a lot for this!
    – user397811
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 17:46

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