Is the reading of a kanji how it's pronounced or how it's spelled?

For example, ‘刀’ is read as ‘とう’ which has the same pronunciation as ‘とお’ (the reading of ‘十’, incidentally). Does this mean a reading is more like a hiragana spelling of a kanji than a pronunciation? Like if Japanese were to change its pronunciation of ‘とう’ to be “ou” instead of “oo” would the pronunciation of ‘刀’ change as well?

I’ve only been studying for a couple weeks, sorry if I’m mistaken about something!

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It’s both, I guess.

十日 is spelled とおか and 短刀 is spelled たんとう, because of etymology, but the とお in とおか and the とう in たんとう sound the same.

I’m not really sure I follow you with the idea of changing the pronunciation. If they changed it, it would change, but I don’t see how that is related.

EDIT: But the long and short of it is, yes, the word “reading” here means the kana characters that represent the correct spelling. So you can’t swap them around even if other kana would sound identical. Of course, they still do represent the pronunciation. It’s just that some pronunciations can be represented multiple ways.


It’s as Leebo said, but I’ll add that if the language were to change its pronunciation of とう, it would likely continue to be spelled that way until some reform changes the orthography. For that matter, it has happened once already; before the last reform, the reading of 刀 was たう but it was already pronounced /too/ for quite some time before the reform finally aligned the spelling to match (more or less) the modern pronunciation. So yeah, your intuition on that one is pretty on point, I’d say!


The hiragana reading of kanji reflects the pronunciation rather than the spelling, and spelling has changed historically to reflect pronunciation. In addition to the one that @Carvs above has stated, 十 used to be prounounced as とを a long time ago, but as the spoken language lost the initial /w/ sound in all syllables (other than /wa/), it became pronounced (and then spelled) as とお. Luckily, these changes are extremely regular, unlike historical phonological changes in English, and are well-documented. They also affected both Kun’yomi and On’yomi identically.

Here’s a good introductory resource:

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some words when spoken retain their phonological influence from middle chinese. that is, i believe that sometimes homonyms are pronounced differently even when their on’yomi readings are the same. it’s similar to how some words in english tend to be articulated in a specific manner when pronounced in a way that is not encoded by their spelling.

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