How do people tell apart the different kanjis' on'yomi readings?

As I’m going through the different reading of kanji, I am noticing that there are a lot of similar on’yomi readings. For example, こう is used frequently, such as for 口,交 ,工,行, etc. I have not learned any grammar yet, but I’m curious how people tell apart these different kanji in a conversational setting? I get context is likely a heavy influence, but I’m wondering if there’s any other ways that japanese tell them apart. One instance that I was very confused with in particular is 人口 and 人工. Both have the same pronunciation, but different meanings.


You already answered your own question. :slight_smile:

Basically every language has homonyms, and it rarely causes big problems. For students of a language: sure, it can be tricky if you don’t get the full nuance and context of the whole sentence or conversation, but natives tend to be just fine.

“I’m trying to read this book.”
“I need a new reed for my instrument.”

No auditory difference, but no ambiguity either.

There is of course pitch accent in Japanese as well that can differentiate certain words from each other.

The difference in meaning of 人口 and 人工 is quite stark. No one would guess you’re saying “This strawberry jam is population.” Nor would they assume you’re saying “The man-made of my town is over a million people.” :slight_smile:


This is an interesting point. I went to and listened to all of the pronunciations of 人口 vs 人工. I was unable to tell the difference.

I assume this is because people pronouncing something for a dictionary sounds different from people pronouncing the same word in a real conversation.

I wonder if there is some resource that helps with studying pitch accents.


I meant to point out the meaning of those words is different, not the reading. ^^

Not all homonyms have pitch accent differences.

Check out the user scripts! There are additions for visualising pitch accent - very useful!

@waldrumpus This is the script I was thinking about.


Yeah, that all makes sense to me. I guess I just needed some examples like that to help reinforce my thinking around it. Thanks for the clarification!


@Omun Thanks!

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As a great man once said:
“It just works”


It depends on what you mean. If you’re talking about words, you just use them as you naturally would and it should be obvious from the context which one you mean (usually). If you hear something like “The じんこう of this town is 100,000 people” you won’t register this as “artificial”, because it makes no sense. Context helps with these a lot.

Now, if you want to talk about individual kanji in Japanese, you have a few options. The most obvious one is when the kanji can be used for a word by itself. You know the word , right? It means “character (i.e. kanji)”. For example, you want to talk about the kanji 口. You can say “「くち」の字” (“the character for mouth”) and everyone will understand that you’re referring to te kanji for 口. For a kanji like 工 it’s harder, because it doesn’t have any jouyou kun’yomi, but it’s used in a lot of common words, so you can refer to it that way. Something like “工事こうじの「こう」の字” (“the character for the こう in 工事” basically) .

Tips and tricks that I use for vocab

The trick I figured out to prevent myself from being distracted by kanji is: when I learn, I focus on the reading, and less on the kanji. I associate a meaning with a reading, and then when the quiz comes in reviews I use the kanji as a hint to try to get to a reading that I remember. Sometimes there are exceptions, but they are usually memorable enough that I don’t have trouble with it. That way, when I see something like 会話 I don’t go like “ok, so we have meet + talk, what could it mean?”, it’s more like “ok, so let’s see if we can read this… hmmm, do I know any words that have the reading かいわ? yeah I do, it’s “conversation”! sweet!”. It works for me, and it feels better than focusing on meaning and reading mnemonics or rote memorization.


I do the same thing. Although have to be careful with reviews that I don’t input one’s reading withthis other kanji.

To not forget to look at the kanji.


I’ve just started doing this. I didn’t do it deliberately. I think my brainmeats were just trying to give me a helping hand with my leeches. I’ve drastically reduced my leech numbers since I began using this method. Circling back to the OP, it doesn’t always help with the homonyms, obviously

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For homonyms, I find that the context sentences help a lot. If I understand how to use the word in context obviously it’ll help remember it better. It just takes a bit longer for the lesson, though.

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I will give this a go when I do my lessons tomorrow

I’ve recently discovered Dogen and his course about the Japanese pitch accents. To use it, you need to support him on Patreon, but I think it’s worth it.


Please place your chopsticks on the edge of this bridge.

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How do you tell the following apart in a conversation in English?


It’s all in context. Certain words make no sense of use in a particular context. The same is true for Japanese.

If I say “Let’s meet up tomorrow” to you in English, you’ll clearly know I’m referring to meet not meat as the latter would make no sense.

If you’re at a Japanese restaurant and someone offered you はし would you think they are offering a bridge?

This isn’t to say that ambiguity can never exist, it certainly does and will happen, but I think people overplay this when it comes to Japanese. If that does happen, just ask for clarification just like you would in English or any other language when someone is being vague or ambiguous.

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Please don’t.


This made me laugh for ages :laughing:


I’m just imagining hearing this in london… :sweat_smile:

This jam is proper population bruv.


But how do you know if they mean
traffic or…
a banging tuuuune