A little confused on on'yomi readings

Hoping you all can enlighten me. I’m in level one…so far so good. But I am already a bit confused about how there are different kanji that can have the same on’yomi readings. Should I even be trying to understand this so early on?

For example, I’ve learned “mountain” and “three” and they both give me “san” as the on’yomi readings.

Same thing for “mouth” and “construction.” It gives me “kou” and “ku” for both as well as noticing that the “nine” kanji can also be read as “ku.”

Do these just all have to do with context later on? The only thing I can think of is that it would be something like the English “close” as in -close a door, or -close to, in which one is a verb and it depends on context.

Sorry if there is already thread for this but I went pretty far down and didn’t see one…I also haven’t figured out how to type in kana on my mac yet…need to do that for sure.


There are dozens of kanji that are pronounced こう, and the same goes for other common readings like しょう or かん.

Onyomi readings rarely stand alone though, so you won’t have to parse them for context. They are most often used in kanji compounds.

How to enable Japanese input on your Mac:

The system will become clear to you after the first few levels, don’t worry too much about it.

Also, Japanese has thousands of kanji and only fifty or so syllables, so you’ll see lots cases like that (looking at you, しよう…)



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Ok, sorry if this is a really dumb question, but then how in speaking does one know which word you are using?

ありがとう!That helps a lot!

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Like you mentioned in your original post, it’s based on context.

shakes fist at しょうぐん

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I got this one:
You’re asking about kanji readings. These aren’t words, they are more like letters on steroids. So how do you tell a soft C sound from an S sound in everyday speech? Well you don’t have to, because they are just parts of words, and you know the words.
You don’t know the Japanese words yet, but you’re headed in the right direction.


To be fair, as far as I know, there are many more homonyms in Japanese than, say, English. They can be differentiated in writing by different kanji but you have to figure it out by context in speaking. I’m not sure how much confusion they can cause in reality though, maybe someone who has spent some time speaking in Japan can illuminate us.

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I see! Thanks everyone! But…@bblum I have no idea what you said…yet.

Some advice:

When you’re talking to someone in English, do you ever mix up too and two, ate and eight, ad and add, rose (flower) and rose (past tense of rise)? You can tell from context. Also, as Leebo has mentioned, on’yomi are rarely seen by themselves, you’ll usually see them as part of words.

As I said before, don’t worry too much about it. You’ll soon notice this is not really an issue, and there will be plenty more that will twist your brain into a knot very soon.


Just because two kanji have the same reading doesn’t mean they’ll be the same in words.

You mentioned mountain and three both being さん, but mountain as a vocab word is やま, and さん is only used when the meaning of mountain appears in a compound. For example, 山頂 (さんちょう) means summit.


Just a little pun on the awfully common しょう reading :slight_smile: 「しょうがない」is an expression for “it can’t be helped”/“it’s inevitable”.

So, it is worth an explanation that the kanji reading (pink) is usually the one you will use when that kanji DOES NOT stand alone but with other kanjis or kana, and the vocab reading of that same kanji (purple) is how you usually will read it by itself/alone.
Also, about confunsing sounds: it all comes down to grammar and context. When using a book (I like Minna no Nihongo, but the majority of the forum seems to prefer Genki, which I don’t like at all, but go figure) you will learn or review your vocab from here and learn how to make phrases with it and thus you will know from context what that sound stands for and connect it mentally to the kanji you know.

And btw if you can/understand how it works, do install some scripts and test how they work for you (though I would try to use the bare minimum of the override script and to not cheat with it, for your own good), not to mention considering using both Houhou and Kaniwani plus maybe some Duendecat and other awesome such apps.

A lot of this is already covered, but to summarize:

Kanji are not words, they are parts of words. You’re learning the sounds for those word parts.

When a word actually is a single kanji it won’t typically use the “Chinese” reading anyway, it’s simply been adopted as the symbol for a Japanese word. These are the “Japanese readings”, actually just native Japanese words that have been attached to a Chinese symbol.

In speech, one of the things in addition to context, will be the pitch accent used. Don’t worry about that right now, though.

Japanese doesn’t have all the pronunciation options of Chinese, but they imported lots of words anyway. [Quite similar to the English words nowadays they can’t pronounce properly as well …]

In practice the problem is not so big because the “Chinese” words are mostly compounds that are different enough together and the meanings of homophones are not too close, but you can also see Japanese people drawing kanji in the air when the sound is ambiguous.

Oh, and the TV program is fully subtitled as well.

It finally took me to my first vocab lessons today, and I see why it is really a non-issue. Thanks everyone for the explanations :slight_smile:

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