Do Japanese People ‘decode’ Kanji Like We Do With Words?

I was just going through my reviews and thinking how much quicker it would be to read something in Japanese, because you can just look at one character rather than reading like… a long word. Compare a single kanji to a word like “extrapolate” - you need to actively read that full word to know what it’s going to say (you can’t ‘guess’ as the start of it could be the start of many words).

Then I thought, do Japanese people break down/decode kanji like we do with words? Like we do when learning the kanji? For example, I see 村 and think “a tree and measure… measuring for a… village!” to get the meaning. Do Japanese people do that with kanji? Or do they purely sight read?

Sorry if I’m not making sense. I am a teacher and I’m just wondering how it affects children learning to read, must be such a different way to learn!

~ Elle :heart:


I’m not sure I agree that you can’t just look at a long word like “extrapolate” as a whole. You don’t need to identify it letter by letter and like a computer program eliminating all the other possible words that begin the same way. Maybe I’m not quite understanding what you were trying to say.

When Japanese people learn kanji they of course are taught the elements that make up the kanji. When they learn 村 they would be told that the left side is きへん if they hadn’t already been taught that before. But they wouldn’t make a mnemonic like you’re describing, or the way we do on WaniKani. At least they typically don’t, from what I’ve seen of kanji lessons at Japanese schools.

They might be told that the on’yomi for 村, which is そん, is etymologically related to the on’yomi for 寸, which is すん, since that’s how the kanji was created. But since this kanji is learned early, like 2nd grade IIRC, they might not learn that right away, since it’s a bit more advanced of a concept.

When reading, after learning words, they just take them in as a whole the same way we read, they won’t be thinking about the elements as they read a word.


My humble guess is that Japanese people have seen most of the usual words printed so many times that the pronunciation just comes to them intuitively. Not only that, but they probably recognise the related meaning as well, just like we would do with our script.

By this I mean, we don’t usually have to read every single letter of a word first, we just see the general shape of the word, and know how it’s pronounced, and we also know its meaning directly, as we don’t need to derive the meaning by looking at the root of the word plus whatever sufix or prefix it has. Of course this is for words that we’ve already seen many times.

So my guess is that it’s the same for Japanese people. Let’s say they see 小学生, they won’t stop analysing what every radical of each kanji means, nor they won’t have any problem recalling the individual kanji. I bet they just see it as a whole, automatically remember it’s spelled しょうがくせい, and automatically remember that it’s an Elementary school student.


I’m juist speaking from my imagination here.

For regular, often used kanji in regular context it seems unnatural and inefficient to dissect everything. It’s probably internalized to the point that they don’t need to exert any effort whatsoever.

I do think it’s different when someone encounters a new kanji, or maybe a new combination of kanji. I’d like to think of it as having to read an exotic name you’ve never heard of. Based on the letters you see, you might have an idea of where the name comes from and based on that make a guess on likely pronunciation, with sometimes hilarious consequences. I can imagine the same being the case for kanji.
Applying this to a Japanese person encoutering a new kanji, he/she might try to infer a reading based on the radicals and their associated readings.

In terms of meaning it’s hard to say. To learn the meaning of a word in my native language, I don’t use the letters of the word for a mnemonic. I’d expect it to be the same for a Japanese person.


Yeah I think this might be the case for most of them. I’m sure as English natives, we have all seen the posts of paragraphs where the letters in a word are jumbled up, but the first and the last letter stays intact. Yet, the paragraphs are perfectly readable.

Occasionally I like to test my Kanji Knowledge to my Japanese friend by video recording the Kanji that I’ve learnt and trying to say their onyomi readings. Now that I’m deep into N2 territory, he actually says that he can’t instantly recognize most of the N2 Kanji individually, and he has to recall which word uses that Kanji in order to know their onyomi readings


I have a similar impression. I’m not sure how it’s for Japanese natives, but the more I’m familiar with kanji, the more I just ingest words as a whole and recognize them, rather than actually reading them. It’s a little different with kana which kind of has to be read.


Yes, for me personally, and i guess that it’s the same for everyone, once a word has been internalized enough, I simply “know” the pronunciation of the whole word. Whereas if I encountered the kanji individually, i may have a harder time recalling them.


Fully literate people read familiar words as single objects that are recognized by their shape and composition. In that sense, every English word is basically kanji; they’re made of radicals (letters) with no inherent meaning, and sometimes words are made of multiple kanji (compound words, Greek/Latin roots like “telescope”, etc).


Chinese speaker here. I think it’s the same as in English, honestly: familiar words or kanji get read almost instantly. (I’m definitely not as fast as Japanese speakers are though, if the speed at which kanji and kana flash across screens in anime is any indication. Probably has something to do with English being my main language and Chinese being my auxiliary language between the two languages I learnt first.) Unfamiliar words or kanji get broken down or looked up in a dictionary. That’s about it. If you ask me how a particular word is written using kanji, I’ll need a little time to bring the kanji up in my head because I have a tendency to write kanji mentally, or at least to go component by component for complex kanji. Kanji recognition, on the other hand, is a bit faster because I don’t need to write the characters out, and readings in Mandarin pop into my head almost instantly. Readings in Japanese take some time, partly because I sometimes have to convert Mandarin into on’yomi first. However, overall, I think ‘sight reading’ is the norm provided you’re familiar enough with any language.


Just from my own experience, I can both sight-read familiar english and japanese words in context.
I don’t think that your brain reads every letter of a common word like “example” one by one.
Isolated, especially complicated or unfamiliar kanji take a while to decode for me. But that’s the same with english words like your “extrapolate” example.


I was thinking about this today, I feel like Kanji is something between a word and something else. Not sure how to put it into words. Do they represent meanings and sounds?

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The linguistics term is “morpheme,” it’s the smallest unit of meaning in a language. Morpheme - Wikipedia


If it’s a word you already know you don’t need to read it letter by letter in English. There was even this pretty weidely known meme that you can scramble the letters in a word but keep the first and the last letters and most people will still understanding it. Moreover, sometimes you don’t even notice the wrong spelling at all!

In Japanese it’s similar. You instantly recognise words that you’re familiar with just by looking at the kanji and surrounding kana.


I dn’t thnk ur brans prcss th entrty of a wrd t ndrstnd ts mnng. Wht d y thnk?


I get the same sense and I think it’s because the morphmes are more compact so your eye doesn’t have to move as far.

Yeah I’ve seen argument for them being logographs and stuff like that. Them being morohemes makes more sense to me.

I don’t see how it is beneficial to be able to recall just the onyomi readings from kanji in isolation.
You read kanji as words (or as vocab), so as your Japanese friend pointed out, he is thinking of a word that has that kanji in it to pull out the on’ reading. I’ve never heard of a Japanese person trying to just recall onyomi readings of kanji in their daily lives.

I don’t quite agree that you can’t guess what a word means in English. Prefixes and suffixes aid in this: even the words prefix and suffix themselves are examples. Both are related words, and by knowing what the differences in the prefixes are, we can get a guess on what the meanings can be.



Even reading a phonetic script is predominantly a feat of matching complete words and even complete phrases to the most expected preexisting reference. The widespread success of phonetic scripts which completely ignore spoken vowels is a testament to this.


This is just a matter of exposure. After all the hours of time I’ve spent watching Hololive I definitely no longer read かわいい as individual Kana.