Help disambiguating "capture" verbs 「捕・捉」

I just want to lay out my current understanding of these verbs…

捕 = Physical Capture (Take a one’s possession or control by force (i.e. grasp or seize))
捕える:To capture something [Transitive]
捕まえる:To capture something [???]
捕まる:To be captured [Intransitive]

捉 = Mental Capture (To become aware or conscious of something (i.e. perceive or grasp))
捉える:To mentally catch something [Transitive]
捉まえる:To mentally catch something [???]
捉まる:To be mentally caught [Intransitive]

Hoping and assuming the the above is correct my question is, what does 捕まえる and 捉まえる, express differently?

Also if it helps, I discovered this this vocab in a bunpro example sentence…

Ah! The thief escaped! Seize him!

捕 has a large number of jouyou readings for verbs (readings that Japanese people learn in school).


捉 has only one.


So 捕える, 捉まる, 捉まえる, etc… are all non-standard readings. If you’re reading a proper novel and someone uses those, I suppose then you can consider what nuance they have, but for now, it’s not worth being too concerned over.

So, let’s address the only word that has any overlap in the standard readings.


To understand the essence of something. To fully draw something close to you.

意味を捉える (understanding meaning)
要点を捉える (understanding meaning)
心を捉える (draw close meaning)
チャンスを捉える (draw close meaning)

To securely capture an escaping person or creature.


There’s less to think about with that one.

Let me know if you still have other questions.

EDIT: I realized I kind of ignored this part

Because 捉まえる is not a jouyou reading, but you did go out of your way to ask about that specificially. つかまえる always means physically grasping something, and 捕 has the “capture an escapee” nuance, and 捉 has a nuance of grasping something with your hand, not something escaping. There’s no mental aspect to つかまえる.


@Leebo Thank you so much for the very thorough explanation! This has eleviated much confusion and stopped me learning unnecessary verb readings.

I do have a follow up question if you would have the time. You mentioned 捕 having multiple jouyou readings. Why is this the case? Do they express and differences in meaning and nuance? Is this common for alot of verbs? I only ask because I feel the insight might come in handy in the future.

It’s not unusual. Are you familiar with how kanji were borrowed into Chinese and came to be read with Japanese words in addition to their borrowed Chinese readings? There were no “rules” to begin with, and people just chose kanji they felt expressed the concept they wanted to express. Much much later on, the government decided which readings they were going to teach in school.


I wasn’t aware there was a time when kanji usage was so fluid and flexible. Though I guess that makes sense, I guess it takes time for something to be established as common place in terms of usage.

Thank you, thank you again @Leebo, you have been very very helpful! \(^o^)/

So this means that the explanation to 捕まる is misleading, right?

“Because the hiragana ends with an う sound, you know this word is a verb. The kanji itself means catch so the intransitive verb vocab version is to be caught. This is a literal, physical catch. So, for example, you can catch a criminal using this verb but not catch the drift of an idea, which would be 捕える, coming up in level 27.”

To catch the drift of an idea is 捉える, not 捕える (which is not standard, but taught by Wanikani) or 捕らえる. Do I understand it right?

I’m not sure what you are referring to as misleading. I don’t recall WK having the wrong meanings listed on 捕まる or 捉える.

Edit: ah, I see, you mean they should have written maybe とらえる in hiragana in that description. Yeah, I mean, go ahead and email them.

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