Do native Japanese speakers consciously categorize onyomi/kunyomi readings?

This is just something I’ve been curious about lately.

In other words, when Japanese learned kanji and vocabulary in elementary/middle/highschool, are the differences of “THESE are the on-yomi readings, and THESE over here are the kun-yomi readings” emphasized as heavily as learning materials that target us Japanese-as-a-second-language learners tend to do? Or is it treated more as the equivalent of one big lump-set of readings for each kanji (perhaps with the “linguistic-science” specifics of kanji and words being more of a footnote)?

(I ask because I think I was wondering to myself: if I make Anki cards to once-and-for-all deal with my worst Wanikani/Heisig/Kodansha/etc leeches, if just lumping ALL readings for any given kanji into one set might hurt more than help, or if it maybe won’t matter one way or the other. I prefer to simplify my study materials, but I also consider that it might bite me in the keister in the future too and force me into some kind of a “I have to un-learn all this” situation which is always difficult to do properly)

1 Like

They learn about onyomi and kunyomi in 3rd or 4th grade. After they already learned hundreds of kanji and their readings.

So, they don’t naturally categorize them initially.

But once they learn about it, they obviously are aware and would be able to tell you most of the time which is which.


That’s good to know. I’ll play it safe and keep the card readings in their separate categories, then.

I’d consider knowing the difference pretty important. If you have an all Kanji word, then you usually need onyomi reading. So, you need to know which is which.

Are there patterns/rules that make it easier to tell which is which? It seems to me like it would be hard after already learning a bunch of readings to know unless there are readings far more common as either one or the other.

A rule of thumb is… the reading that’s used in 熟語 (i.e. when paired with other Kanji, and no kana) is often the on’yomi. The reading that is used when paired with only Kana, is often the kun’yomi. Even though this is the most reliable rule-of-thumb, there’s a LOT of exceptions.

1 Like

Certain things can’t be an onyomi, and certain things can’t be a kunyomi, so you know right off the bat if it’s in one category or the other.

Other things could be either one, but are generally more likely to be one or the other. (I realize that’s pretty vague)

One of the most rock solid ones is that an onyomi can’t be more than 2 mora long.


And one of the exception are names. Even if theyare written in kana’s, you should use kunyomi :wink:

If you just memorize the kanji and all its readings in isolation, you’d have a hard time differentiating between on’yomi and kun’yomi. Learning vocab is the way.

For example you have the kanji 小. If you just try to memorize all readings for all the kanji in isolation, your head will explode because it’s just unrelated sounds. But if you learn the vocab associated with it, you’ll notice patterns.
小さい = ちいさい, so we have a reading “ちい”. This is a single kanji word (and it has trailing hiragana) so it’s most likely a kun’yomi.
少数 = しょうすう, so we have a reading “しょう”. This is a multiple kanji word, so it’s probably on’yomi.
(That’s just one way of deducing what kind of reading it is, but there are plenty of exceptions, so you’ll have to hone your intuition by learning lots of words).

The idea is to learn words by pronunciation, and then learn how to write it using the kanji. But that’s just my approach. In my opinion it’s easier that way, and just by learning new words, you can learn new ways to read a particular kanji.

What WaniKani teaches you is how to associate a kanji character with a meaning, and a reading, so you can easily recognize them in the wild, but that’s not enough for reading comprehension. For that you need to learn vocab, and lots of it. Luckily WK will also teach you the most common words that use that kanji, so it’s a win win. Sometimes it’ll be kun’yomi, sometimes it will be a on’yomi, but TBH that’s not what’s important. What’s important is memorizing the word itself, not the type of reading.


This topic was automatically closed 365 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.