人 and 人. I'm so confused

Hi all, one thing (of many) which regularly trips me up is remebering which words use 人 (じん) vs words which use 人 (にん). It seems completely random, unless I’ve hopefully missed some really obvious iron clad rule.

Any tips? I feel at the moment when one of these comes up in a review unless I’ve come across the word recently it’s basically a 50/50 chance if I get it right.


When 人 is a suffix (meaning when it attaches to something that is, on its own, a full word), then there are rules.

When attaching to place names, it’s read as じん (e.g. 日本人)
When attaching to actions that a person does to make a doer of that thing, it’s read as にん (e.g. 料理人)
When attaching to numbers from 3 and beyond, it’s にん (e.g. 五人)

When it’s not a suffix, which includes times when it comes first or last in a compound, the reading depends on when the compound was imported into Japanese originally. This probably contributes heavily to the sense of randomness. にん is an older reading than じん. (e.g. 人形, にんぎょう ・ 他人, たにん ・ 人工, じんこう ・ 個人, こじん)

Long story short, yes, there is a good deal of randomness to it. But many of these words are super common, and you’ll just get used to them over time. You’ll feel that one reading or the other is right, because you’ll know the word itself, and not be trying to cobble together two readings.


Thanks for that, it’s too bad it is indeed rather random. I was really hoping I had missed something obvious. Some of the recent ones which have been tormenting me -

囚人 - this one uses じん
邦人 - another one with じん
仙人 - but this one is にん

It’s funny as when I started learning kanji I was seeing rules and patterns (such as around intransitive vs transitive verbs) and I was thinking how good it was that for such a complex writing system it was at least free from the utter randomness of English. Sadly my hopes and dreams now lie in tatters, kanji full of random stuff. Oh well, I shall memorise it all someday.

Thanks for thr tips though, good at least to have some rules even if they just cover a sub-set.


There is always the option of learning mandarin! Much more consistent from what I hear


Can we also talk about 人参? :laughing:

More seriously, it was also my nemesis for a long time, but now getting used the words.
Somehow in my head I also get a feel that an actual physical person is more ひと like in 人込み, 人々、一人、女の人、人里, while にん、じん is more a concept.

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人参 is clearly the result of excessive amounts of sake. At least it’s so crazy it sticks in the memory!

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First, it’s worth noting that it was originally 人蔘, and the second kanji was swapped out for 参 for easier writing I guess.

人参 originally referred not to carrots, but ginseng, which has off-shooting roots, which look like human limbs (if you are a 19th century horror author maybe). Thus the use of 人.


When carrots first came to Japan, they got bundled under the same label.

Ginseng is called 御種人蔘 (オタネニンジン) or 朝鮮人蔘 (チョウセンニンジン) in Japanese now.


Thank you! I’m am truly happy we talked about 人参 :smiley:


It’s also a common complaint from Chinese speakers learning Japanese that kanji readings are inconsistent :sweat_smile: .

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True, in Mandarin there’s only one pronunciation per hanzi/ kanji. If not those pesky tones it would be a breeze.

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There are a bunch of those (the daiyouji, 代用字). I discovered that when I couldn’t understand why 干 (dry) was used in words that seemed unrelated like 干渉 (interference).

It turns out that it’s because 干 itself originally comes from a pictogram of a shield (hence the blocking/interference meaning), but it was also used as phonetic component in 旱 which does mean “dry” but in order to simplify things the Japanese decided that 干 was used to write all meanings and 旱 got obsoleted.


This has no basis in actual meaning, but I came up with my own mnemonic to remember the cases, namely, if the reading is にん, I imagine it’s a lot of people or a group, and if the reading is じん I imagine a solitary hero type figure.

Of course you have to be careful, because the actual words have nothing to do with plurals, but until I get used to specific words, that’s how I remember. So for example, for 料理人 there’s a huge number of chefs in the kitchen, you can’t even work. For 主人 there can only be one head of household, if you want the role you have to fight to the death, etc.

Anyway, because Japanese doesn’t use plural forms that much, I find this doesn’t really confuse me in terms of actual plural meaning, but it helps me remember which is which.


As a heuristic , not a rule, it is にん, when it is a temporary (extrinsic) property of a person like an occupation eg kanrinin, manager.

If it is a more permanent (intrinsic) property of a person, it is じん, eg bijin, beautiful person.

This works best at the end of words, at the beginning it is anyone’s guess.

For extra credit, it is worth remembering that some “occupations” were caste related (samauri, merchant etc) in history, and so they are pronounced as if they were permanent, because it was historically very hard to change between them.

This works better than chance, but is not failproof.

Yeah that temporary / permanent rule of thumb also helped me a lot. I also found here in another topic. Its not the first confusion topic about にん and じん