How do you know when to read on'yomi or kun'yomi?

Is there some sort of special trick to it, or does it just vary? I know that people have said that with higher levels and practice you can get a feel for it, but I was just wondering if there was a quicker way to learn and distinguish.

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Read the Textfugu explanation of onyomi / kunyomi

Following is my explanation:

Pink kanji for 女 is じょ. Pink kanji items only have a single character. When you learn a pink kanji, WaniKani usually (but not always) gives the on yomi reading (see below). The authors are trying to pick the most commonly used reading.

Purple vocab for 女 is おんな. Purple vocab items contain one or more kanji characters. They may also include hiragana characters. When it is used with other kanji characters, it is usually (but not always) the on yomi reading. When it is used alone or with hiragana, it is (usually?) the kun yomi reading. Sometimes there are two kun yomi readings in a purple vocab item (usually for body parts).

Japanese has multiple readings (spelling and pronunciation) for the same kanji character. It is frustrating but we all have to deal with it.

The readings are grouped into two groups: on yomi and kun yomi.

On yomi means it is the same reading used by the Chinese. Before you say that your Chinese friend has never used these on yomi readings, it’s OLD Chinese. The on yomi reading is often (but not always) used in combination with other kanji characters. 女 → じょ is an on yomi reading.

Kun yomi means it originated in Japan. 女 → おんな is a kun yomi reading. 女の人 (おんなのひと) uses the kun yomi (おんな, ひと) readings because there is hiragana in the phrase. 女王 (queen) uses the on yomi (じょ) reading because it is linked with another kanji.

Remember these are not hard and fast rules. Japanese is full of exceptions.


Usually it’s kun if the word consists of a single kanji or there’s hiragana grouped together with the kanji, and on if the word only consists of multiple kanji. However there’s a lot of exceptions where you’ll just have to remember the reading.

General rule of thumb I use is:

  1. Kanji by itself like 月 = kun reading
  2. Kanji with hirgana (okurigana) like 長い or 着く = kun reading
  3. Kanji with other kanji like 漢字 = on reading

There’s exceptions but a rule of thumb is better than randomly guessing.

edit: fixed


Furigana is small hiragana that are above or to the side of a word to aid in reading. You’re thinking of okurigana.


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