Drawings proposal and confusion about kanji vs. vocab readings

Hi, I came here after studying Hiragana and Katakana on Tofugu (I have almost zero knowledge about the Japanese language itself, save for a couple of common places and trivia) and I immediately noticed that unlike that one, there are no drawings or sketches to go with the mnemonics. Why is that?
I think it should be useful for a lot of people like me who benefit a lot from visual memory and use it subconsciously to burn concepts into mind. It really helped me a lot with kana. Why not considering the idea?
Another thing I don’t quite understand is the kanji readings compared to the vocabulary ones. I know the general rules for discerning what reading is the right one depending on single kanji, numbers, more than one kanji and kanji with okurigana. But every time I do reviews on vocabulary words I find certain kun’yomi readings to be harder to remember than others and I usually end up giving wrong answers. Moreover, why is there a distinction between a kanji reading and a vocabulary one? Because for instance, I don’t get why I encounter single vocabulary kanji and I go: “ok, this is a single kanji, the right reading must be the kun’yomi”. And instead it turns out it’s not the case. It really is driving me nuts!
I think I’d have nothing to complain about the site if it weren’t for those two things, it’s proving really helpful at understanding and memorising kanji, which I genuinely thought was impossible. :smiley:


mnemonics don’t presume you need visuals, the description is visually evocative. That’s what makes it a mnemonic. But, to rather point you in a better direction for what you need, there have been various attempts to visualize kanji and vocab, on this forum as well. I suggest you check them out and see if they can help you on your way.



I forget the name of the user that did drawings themselves to represent the mnemonics! I wanted to link that, but didn’t find it on my first search. Check the forums for more examples, like that!

I can’t give you a rating on how good they are, as I never used them myself. I only use some of the mnemonics after all, and I don’t need additional visual aids to memorize things outside of my own brain thankfully.

I wish you good luck with your studies! ^>^



This is a basic question, that you need to wrap your head about: kanji are like our alphabet. They’re writing signs, not words in and of themselves.

Some words only take 1 kanji though. like moon. or ocean. But, the kanji that represents those meanings, can be used in various other words.

It’s also why you need to know when to use kun and on yomi, especially for single kanji words, since they either are a word on their own (with a specific reading), or they’re not (then just part of some word, but on its own, jibberish!


The more you learn about basic vocabularies in WaniKani, the more to realize that the spoken language comes first, and the Kanji is just anything that fits the meaning, not necessarily fixed to some vocabularies. Kanji to replace some or all Kana in a vocabulary.

As can easily be in seen in place names and such.

This is despite the order of teaching in WaniKani, Guru’ing Kanji first in to unlock vocabularies. So perhaps, think of learning Kanji as a stepping stone to learning vocabularies. Kanji reading can be anything, only to be thrown away after many vocabularies related to one Kanji, which may have varied readings, are learnt.


I’ll check those links, thank you!

Anyway I don’t think I expressed myself properly. I don’t think kanji are letters, from what I know they represent ideas, concepts. If Japanese had “letters” it’d have a proper alphabet and not a mixed kanji/kana writing system.

That’s not actually my point either. What I would like to know is why separating so much the kanji from its vocabulary “counterpart”. They should be one and the same. Why should the vocab reading differ from the kanji one? Sometimes it’s like WK makes you believe on’yomi is the “starter” reading, then you do vocabulary and it makes you learn mostly kun’yomi and makes you think “oh, on’ for kanji and kun’ for vocabs”. Then again, you do reviews and you end up bitterly mistaken. Why isn’t there a common pattern to be understood or at least why isn’t it not explained? Why not learning the vocabulary readings right away or kanji and vocab together? I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m at an early stage and I’m learning a lot of vocabulary entries based entirely upon kanji I already learned, but I really hate when I’m 100% sure about a reading but the quizzes prove me wrong. That’s what my point is, I just want to be sure what I learn and remember is the correct reading according to the circumstance.

Yes, you are right. As was the answer that came just before. A kanji, in and of itself (the kanji character), has a meaning (or meanings) which may be something concrete or something abstract or both. But they are not a word (vocabulary). But many vocabulary do consist of a single kanji character and as a vocabulary word, it is specifically that word, which will be pronounced a specific way. Here on WK, you are first taught the kanji character and they choose the most commonly used/seen reading (which may be kunyomi or onyomi, or one of those as there are often multiple of each). Later (usually pretty much directly but not always) you are taught some words (vocabulary) that use that kanji to reinforce the learning of the kanji. During your reviews you will notice that the background colour is different depending on whether the thing you are being asked about is a radical, kanji or vocabulary. When looking at a review item that is a single character, if you are not sure, the colour will let you know what is being expected. Pretty soon you should find that you just automatically process that without having to think about it. If I am not mistaken, in most cases if your answers is correct but for the wrong “type” (radical vs. kanji vs. vocab) it will not be marked as a miss, you will be prompted that you are being asked about a different type.


You can find tons of articles online giving you detailed explanations but the short of it is:

  • Kanji were (overwhelmingly) created in China, for writing the Chinese language. In a given Chinese dialect usually a single character has only one single pronunciation (to my knowledge, I never studied Chinese).

  • Japanese borrowed the kanji to write Japanese, a language that functions very differently from Chinese. Similar to how English, a Germanic language, borrowed the Latin alphabet instead of coming up with its own.

  • Japanese also borrowed a lot of Chinese vocabulary, similar to how English borrowed a ton of French and Latin vocabulary.

  • Shenanigans ensue.

So imagine if English went through the same process, deciding to borrow its writing system from Chinese instead of Latin. How do you write “mountain”? 山. How do you pronounce it? Well, you still pronounce it “mountain”, because that’s the English word that already exists in the spoken language and we’re not going to change that.

How about fire? Well we write it 火 but we still pronounce it “fire”. We write “there is a 火 on the 山” and you pronounce it “there is a fire on the mountain”. easy. You would also have Chinese characters for the other words but you see my point.

But now you discover that volcanoes exist, and you don’t have a word for it. Our real world English borrowed “vulcanus” from Latin (through Italian), but our alternative timeline English decides to borrow from Chinese instead. How do you say volcano in mandarin? Huǒshān. Maybe you make it a bit easier to pronounce in English and you make it “wosha” or something like that. Now how do you write it? Well you may as well borrow the Chinese spelling which is… 火山.

So you end up with 火 and 山 having a different pronunciation depending on whether it’s used to spell a native Japanese word, (ひ[fire], やま[mountain]) or if it’s used to spell a chinese word (かざん[volcano]).

That’s a bit of an oversimplification but that’s the general idea of how we ended up with those various readings. The onyomi is (usually) based on the original Chinese pronunciation, the kunyomi is the “vocabulary reading” that (usually) comes from Japonic roots.


Let’s look at as an example. There are 12 vocab words covered by WaniKani that use さん, and 7 that use やま. Since さん is more common, WaniKani teaches さん as “the kanji reading” - in theory, it’s the reading that is most likely to be correct if you come across a new compound word that includes 山. The other reading, やま, is then taught solely through vocab.

There are other examples, like , where the kanji and vocab readings match, because that reading is relatively more common than the others.


I already figured that out fyi. What I really wanted to know is why distinguishing between kanji and vocab entries. Take 大した for example. Since kanji with okurigana are supposed to use the kun’ reading it should be pronounced おおした, instead it uses the on’ たい. There’s clearly some grammar exception/device going on here, but I can’t know it for sure since I want to do kanji before grammar, anyway WK doesn’t even mention why it occurs in the slightest. Same thing for 三人. What’s the explanation why it’s pronounced さんにん and not さんじん? I haven’t found it in the lessons sadly.

Hope you figure out my messy way of quoting posts, it was I who asked “what do you mean by that?” and didn’t mean to edit your quote, unfortunately I don’t know how to multi quote.

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kana are PROPER writing. what went back there as it seemed I was hitting random buttomms

ジン and ニン are both onyomi (Chinese/kanji readings) for 人, the (main) kunyomi/vocabulary reading being ひと.

That’s another layer to it, sometimes Japanese borrowed several readings from Chinese coming from different dialects at different periods.

If it sounds confusing it’s because it is, and while there are some heuristics you can use to guess which reading to use, there are many exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions.

The somewhat good news is that the most irregular kanji are also the more common ones (because even Japanese people wouldn’t remember 20 readings for some obscure kanji). So while 生 (life) has a trillion readings for instance, 泊 (overnight stay) only has one onyomi and one kunyomi.

Unfortunately for us learners that means that we get the common, irregular kanji first and it adds to the feeling that it’s all overcomplicated and overwhelming.

Imagine a learner of English having to wrangle with the many ultra-common irregular English verbs like to be, to eat, to read, to have, to go… Those are the verbs you learn first, and they all have tricky conjugation rules.


Unfortunately this is just a general guideline, not a rule. 大した isn’t different because of a grammar rule that you’re unaware of - it’s just an exception, and these exceptions can’t be explained without knowing the etymology of each individual word.


That’s just a general rule, but you’re right, there are exceptions. If a single kanji is followed by す, する, or じる (or a few other variants, or in this case, the past form of する, した), they’re often on’yomi since they’re derived from an on’yomi word + する. (But of course, there are kun’yomi verbs that simply end with す, too.) But WK doesn’t teach grammar—they’re a kanji + vocab-learning site. So they teach you what is a vocab word in its own right and let you pick up the pattern on your own and/or learn it when you learn grammar. WK was never meant to be a one-stop shop, and in fact, they recommend to absolute beginners to hold off on starting to learn grammar until they’ve got their feet under them with WK to avoid getting overwhelmed and burning out. The extent that WK ever intended to teach grammar is part of speech and a bit of transitive vs intransitive.


The answer often turns out to be “random accident of history”, so for a lot of these exceptions it’s more mildly interesting than actually useful. (Compare “why is ‘island’ spelt with a silent ‘s’ in English?”.) As it happens 大した is originally 大 + the past tense of the verb する, so the kana are not okurigana in the strict sense.

I get the impression that WK likes to teach exceptions exactly because they are exceptions, so you’ll get them earlier than you might with a different kanji learning method.

PS: I would personally recommend doing kanji alongside grammar – you’ll get to a point of being able to usefully work with the language and have the different things you’re learning reinforce each other much faster that way than if you try to do a lot of up front kanji study before everything else.


You will find that the “rules” are of the “almost always” or *generally" sort, but there are exceptions. Not at all unlike my native language (English). 大した is one of those exceptions.

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To further complicate things, some kanji have multiple kunyomi readings. So even though a vocabulary word follows the rule, there is still the matter of which reading. Generally one is more common that the rest, and when in doubt go with that one (highest odds of being correct). But some seem to be quite evenly split. 大 たい/だい (onyomi readings) is one that always trips me up. I seem to have the uncanny ability to always choose/guess the wrong one for any given vocab. Another that is common to struggle with is人 じん/にん.


Kanjis can have multiple readings, it’s not just one or two. It would simply not be efficient to teach you to recognize a kanji and let you learn all the multiple redings at the same time, it would perhaps work for a few people but it sounds like it would be overwhelming for the majority of people, and then everyone would complain about why are they being taught 3/4 readings at the same time without context (vocabulary).

WaniKani teaches the most common reading with the kanji item (whether they make the right choices or not, is a different story) and uses the vocabulary to reinforce that one and teach the rest of the readings with the vocabulary.

There are general guidelines to understand when one reading could be used over another one, but these are more observations than what the writing/reading system was built upon. I don’t believe this is an issue with WaniKani, I went through the same frustration when I started learning kanji (without WK) and I saw my classmates struggle with the same thing as well, some more than others. It’s hard to understand that some things just are, especially because people like to think languages are logical structures when they are not. With time it might come intuitive but I don’t think getting surprised about the way a kanji is read will stop happening as long as you stick with Japanese. I saw my japanese colleages from university (20-30 year olds, native speakers) being puzzled by the way a certain kanji combination was read because it was not a common word :woman_shrugging:t4:

The sooner you come to terms with this, the easier it will be for you to learn kanji. It is completely possible though that there are better tools out there for you than WaniKani, so while I do like it and recommend it, I’d also recommend trying different things and finding what works best for you. I would not be surprised if after trying multiple things you came back to WK.


I get you and this frustration is why when I use wanikani (for me it’s an add-on, not my main method), I use it in a different way than intended to achieve what you’re saying. There’s no right or wrong, but like you, I’m only interested in memorizing a reading in connection with vocabulary, preferably vocab I already know so I’m only learning one new thing at a time. WK generally teaches just one thing at a time, just not in the order I want it.

Therefore, I do the following. But be aware this method only works if you’re doing grammar and vocab at a good pace slightly ahead of kanji learning. The method below sounds tedious but if you already know 1-2000 words before starting wk it’s trivial. And until you know way more words (and grammar) than that, everything you can read has furigana anyway. So for you to use this method you need to get basic grammar and vocab under your belt as the top priority. Otherwise it’s too much new info at once.

My use case is fringe but works for me, ymmv:

I skip all radicals unless they match the same kanji meaning. I give them synonym x and move on. I do mnemonics elsewhere.

When I learn a “kanji” on wk, I look up two things that wk generally provides in the last learning tab. Is there a meaning and reading in a single kanji vocab form? Is that identical to what wk wants me to learn? Then I stop there and just memorize that. But if wk wants a different one, I take note of the single kanji vocab and also review that to myself each time this kanji comes up (these are so common, with basic vocab you probably will already know most of them). Then I look at the reading wk wants me to memorize. Is there a compound kanji vocabulary that I already know or would find most relevant to me? I take note of that. Each time the kanji comes up for review I remember the vocab I know and then write in the related reading wk wants.

Now, given all that trouble, you might be wondering why I'm using wk at all?

Because it’s automated in one place and gets the job done. When I’m at home with my books I use those because it’s more enjoyable and efficient for me. When I travel (a lot) I do one month wk and can get through 3 levels with two sessions per day, 10-15 lessons per day. Taking breaks means a pile of reviews at the start but I didn’t take a break from Japanese, so I can just do a bunch in one batch and count on decent accuracy and mostly longer term level ups. if I have time to kill waiting for a late flight it’s a welcome distraction.

This strategy won’t work indefinitely, but as it’s not my primary kanji learning method, that’s ok. I don’t have level 60 ambitions because I want to avoid the other wk pitfall which is poor leech management. I’ll go as long as it’s useful for me, but I expect my exit around max levels 25-42.

Anyway, this doesn’t help you now, but perhaps like me you’ll come back in 2 years and find wk useful in your own way despite the initial frustrations. I wanted to subscribe because I find the community a great service and wanted to give back, so you could say I was actively looking for a way to make wk useful for me.


The reading of the kanji entries represents the most usefull reading, as determined by wanikani. This is often a bit subjective, but usually follows word frequency in common use. The idea here is that you assume the kanji is pronounced this way, and learn the exceptions by heart later trough vocab. Certain kanji sadly have more readings than anyone should find reasonable, so no matter which one you pick as the main one there will always be many exceptions.

The readings for the vocab entries represent the reading for a particular word, which can consist of just one kanji. This one is not subjective, and usually is the only correct way to pronounce a given word.

The reason they are often different, even for one kanji words, is that the reading used by such words is often only used by that word itself. Most compound words use a different reading. So then if there are many compound words, it makes sense to learn that reading as the default, and the single kanji word version as an exception.


Sorry if I keep at this again, but I really want to know what you mean by it. It seems like an interesting topic to elaborate. Because I think you most probably mean “word” not in the same way as me…