These three kanji「労、 働、 努」are taught close together in grade 4. I've struggled a bit in separating them conceptually, and haven't found anything online in English that explains this distinction.

I've had a native speaker explain it to me in Japanese and I interpreted the distinction as the following:

働: It's your work, your job, i.e. what society pays you for, as in 働く

努: Applies to a level of effort in any manner of applying yourself, as in 努力 and 努める, which can be applied to outside of what one would consider a traditional job. Similar conceptually to 頑張る.

労: Also applies to your job, but more with regard to an outcome/effort level related to you applying yourself to it as in ご苦労様 and 労う.

Am I understanding this correctly?

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure if I understand that native speaker's explanation, but a very simple summary is this:

  • : work to make money; job
  • : effort; endeavor; striving
  • : labor; workload; burden

努 is a relatively positive word that is associated with something you actively do/make. 労 is a relatively negative word that is associated with something you are burdened with.

Just in case you've missed it, note that a single kanji is not necessarily a standalone word (see this discussion), and the meaning of a single kanji is not always preserved when it's used as part of a compound. 働 and 努 are never used as an independent word, and 労 works as an independent word almost exclusively as part of the set phrase 労をねぎらう.

  • Thank you for taking the time to answer me. The open source dictionaries I've been using had these concepts defined in such a way that they could've been interchangeable. I've actually noticed a lot of poor definitions, and what seems to be errors in dictionaries that use open source resources.
    – MochiJump
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:03
  • your explanation of 労 did help :)
    – MochiJump
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:07

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