Difference single kanji and single kanji vocab

I very recently finished the first level and one thing that still confuses me a bit it the difference between single kanji (which require the on’yomi reading) and single kanji vocabulary (which require kun’yomi).

If I encounter a single kanji “out it the wild” it is going to be a vocabulary so should be read kun’yomi, I guess, right? So in which instances do I come across single kanji to read in on’yomi? I don’t quite understand how a kanji is different from a single kanji vocabulary.


So, a quick rule is that if you have something like 車, it’s くるま, but if you have 自転車, it becomes じてんしゃ, since it’s with other kanji.

If you mean kanji by themselves that use the on’yomi reading, kanji like 秒 びょう don’t have kun’yomi.

I haven’t really thought about it that much. :sweat_smile:

The kanji lessons here just teach you one reading initially. It’s often onyomi, but not always. If they taught the kunyomi for the kanji lesson and then again for the vocab lesson, that would often feel redundant. But the kunyomi is also an acceptable reading… It’s just not what they taught in the kanji lesson.

BTW, many single kanji words are read with the onyomi as well.

To name a few off the top of my head.


Haha okay thanks, I still find everything a bit confusing as I don’t quite understand what the conceptual difference is between a (single) kanji and a single kanji vocabulary :sweat_smile: But I’m just gonna plod along for now and I imagine things will make more sense as I progress. Thanks for the answers!

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A single kanji has all the potential meanings and readings that that kanji could ever have, because usually it can appear in many different words.

A single kanji vocab is just a word that happens to be written with one kanji.

It usually has one reading and one meaning.

I’m not sure if that will help at all.


As far as I understand it… In compound words you mostly use onyomi readings and kunyomi is mostly used when the character stands alone.
Hope this helps
But I think you will gradually understand better :wink:
Good luck!

A kanji is a character. They are used either alone or together with other kanji to form words. Which reading is used is not always easy to know, even though there are some general rules that often apply.

A kanji has at least two readings. In Wanikani they have just chosen one which they teach in the kanji lesson.
If a single kanji is used as a word, it only has one reading, which is often kun’yomi, but not always.

I hope this made some sense.

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Well, at least one. Though the ones that have only one are in the minority.


I think you’re on the right track, but you’re justmaking it more complicated than it needs to be.

If you see a single kanji outside of WK, it’s best to read it using the reading you learned from the vocabulary lesson and reviews. Although knowing the readings are important, thinking in terms of “which reading should be used?” only complicates things because vocabulary usually only have one reading.

In the beginning it’s a bit confusing, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.

It’s kind of like the difference between the letter “I” and the word “I”.

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I think this trips up a lot of people, and is also part of a common misconception about Japanese among people who don’t study it. A lot of people have mentioned to me that “their words can sound so many different ways” etc.

It’s important to understand that a word is a word, and that kanji are not words. Kanji are how you write words. A word is simply pronounced how it is pronounced, and written how it is written.

Now, there are guidelines. As had been said, kanji by themselves often use kunyomi readings, jukugo often use onyomi readings, words with okurigana often use kunyomi readings, body parts often use kunyomi readings even in jukugo, etc.

But those are just helpful ways to guess if you don’t know. There are exceptions to everything, and ultimately a word is just a word, and it is read and written as it is. Can you guess how to read the word “weird” in English just by looking at it? Maybe. “Record”? Which syllable has the stress accent? There are some useful guidelines to help you guess. But ultimately, the word is what it is and you just need to know it. You need to think about Japanese the same way.


Okay, I think I’m starting to understand a little bit how it works. And I’m pretty sure things will seem less weird as I progress. I think I’m “thinking wrong” about this at the moment because it’s so different from the languages I’m used to.

So basically a kanji is just a symbol but a word is a word that uses a kanji?

Thanks for your answers, everyone, I really appreciate it.

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Pretty much exactly this. You’re right at the start now. As you start reading things and get used to it, you’ll find yourself having less and less trouble with it.

Yes, exactly.

It may seem like more than that, because the existence of kanji has greatly influenced how the Japanese language creates new words, but at the end of the day you have to take each word as it is. It can seem confusing because in addition to being symbols used to write things, the kanji do have inherent meaning. But think of it a little like how English treats Latin and Greek ‘root’ words. We use those roots to create a lot of our words, like Japanese uses kanji to create a lot of new words. Try not to invest too much more meaning into it beyond that.

Thanks guys, super useful thread for beginners.
Particular thanks to huckleterryfin for finding ways to clearly express the confusion, Leebo and Oneup for concisely explaining the difference, QuackingShoe for the in-depth explanation, and TCMercury for the encouragement :slight_smile:

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