Kanji etimology?

I don’t know if “etimology” is the right word for it, but I was looking for resources on the origin of certain kanji + kanji words. Some combinations are straightforward (think of numbers; 四百 = 400), others paint a pretty clear picture ([花火; fireworks are lit up with fire, they kinda look like flowers when they explode, it makes sense), but many other look…just kind of random. But I’m sure that there’s a reason why they mean what they mean!

Does anybody know a site or a book that explains the origin of certain vocabulary words the same way that you can find the etimology of greek or latin words on dictionaries?


Dictionaries sometimes explain why a word is constructed a certain way.

For English resources, Wiktionary usually has a rudimentary explanation of how a word is constructed.

For words that have particularly interesting stories attached to them, you can try searching [word]+由来 or [word]+語源.

Do you have any particular examples in mind?

One thing to consider is that the meanings you learn might not be telling the whole story. WaniKani is trying to make mnemonics, not necessarily teach the true etymology of a word. Some kanji have many meanings beyond the 1 or 2 words that typically get associated with them in English.

So, often, rather than it being an interesting etymology, you might just be unaware of the real meaning of the kanji as it’s used in that particular word.


The 語源ごげん由来ゆらい辞典じてん is an excellent resource for researching the etymology of various words and expressions..

(Man! Cut-n-paste on my phone did me no favors!)

I’m learning this more and more almost daily.

Often when we have many seemingly unrelated words associated with a character, it seems like there is a single underlying concept that is just difficult to express concisely in English.

I can’t think of a good example, but learning lots of 熟語 that use a single character sometimes helps tease out the unifying concept.


Haven’t tried a any dictionaries with dedicated etymology yet.

But what I have been using repeatedly has been Jisho.org, which is an English-based dictionary/resource of Japanese words, but also kanji, radicals, and even sentences.

The strength of Jisho, IMHO, is the many-featured search that it uses. It actually is more of a search engine built on top of other Japanese-to-English resources and databases. In particular, a word/phrase dictionary called JMdict, and a kanji dictionary called Kanjidic2. These databases are loaded with info, but by themselves are hard to use. Jisho gives them a quite powerful, somewhat integrated, but also much more user-friendly search interface.

For example, when I want to more-fully understand a kanji, I will search for it on Jisho, then go to the kanji details, sometimes read through the details, or often I will just do a search for “Words containing [the kanji]”, which will bring up all the words/phrases in the database containing the kanji, and ordered generally by usage frequency. This is often enough to get a kind of ‘survey’ of where the kanji is used in different words, and in this way you can often get a much more general ‘gist’ of what the kanji means, by kind of ‘blending’ or ‘combining’ the meanings of the various words/phrases to try to find a common seed or thread of meaning.

As a concrete example, when @Rrwrex used the word 熟語, I didn’t know what it mean, so I copied and pasted into Jisho, which yielded this search: 熟語 - Jisho.org

Okay, so now I know from JMdict that it basically means:

  1. kanji compound​
  2. idiom; idiomatic phrase​

And I’m familiar with 語, but what is 熟?

Well, if you look on the right of that page, there’s a listing for the specific, individual kanji from your search, and the first one lists 熟. This is a brief summary of info from Kanjidic2. The meanings listed are: mellow, ripen, mature, acquire skill.

Not quite sure how that relates to ‘kanji compound’ or ‘idiom’ – maybe something related to ‘acquire skill’ or ‘mature’, as you have to have some practice/experience with a language to pick up its idioms. But if I want to explore further, you can click on the small “Details” link below each kanji summary on the right. [Alternatively, you can click on the ‘Links’ menu under the 熟語 word listing on the left, and click on “Kanji details for 熟 and 語”, which will bring you to the same kanji details page, but it will have details for both of the kanji, not just one.] So, clicking on the little “Details” link under 熟 on the right, leads me to 熟 #kanji - Jisho.org.

Now, first of all, you get a pretty decent breakdown of the kanji into its (traditional) radicals/parts. This is incredibly useful in conjunction with Jisho’s “Radicals” input panel, which allows you to find kanji by visual recognition of radicals within it. (This can be useful for discovering the ‘etymology’ of common radicals, too. But that’s another story! Play around with the “Radicals” button to the left of the search text input box at the top of any Jisho page to see what I mean.)

For etymology purposes for a particular whole kanji, what I usually do is:

  1. Scan the sections of examples of “On reading compounds” and “Kun reading compounds”. But these are a bit limited (though useful in their own right).
  2. Click on the “Words containing [the kanji]” link. This tends to be more fruitful, in my experience.

Example, in the kanji details page for 熟 , if you click on “Words containing 熟”, it will bring you to this search (note the presence of ‘*’ characters, which are part of the advanced search features I hinted at earlier): *熟*

This search result lists 106 words (at the time of this post) containing 熟, and just by scanning down the page of them, you can quickly get a sense that this kanji is more about maturity, proficiency, and mastery, than it is about ‘compound’.

So ‘kanji compound’ as a definition for 熟語 is very likely to be a more modern, specialized meaning – and perhaps it may also be tainted by English translation, as it would likely come up for Japanese-language learners, when trying to understand how kanji can be combined together. But its more accurate meaning is probably closer to ‘idiom’. And a more-literal kind of translation might be something like ‘mastery-level word’, something only expected of those very proficient in the language. (But that’s just my guess, based on this not-really-etymology ‘etymology’ investigation.)

And also, we learn that even the ‘skilled’ and ‘proficient’ meaning of 熟 is probably secondary to the ‘maturity’ meaning, particularly because 熟 is also used to describe ‘ripeness’, which if you think about it is probably why the primary meaning of the actual kanji 熟 is listed as ‘mellow’. In other words, an unripe fruit will be bitter, but it will be made ‘mellow’ over time as it ripens into maturity.

Anyway, sorry for the wall o’ text, but that’s basically my typical method for getting at the etymology of various kanji, without actually using a proper etymological dictionary. (But now that Rrwrex has linked to one, I might just start using that!) In any case, hopefully this info will help you in your quest. And introduce to some of the very useful search capabilities of Jisho (there’s even more usefulness there, but that’s another post).


Jisho is great.

But I don’t know how anyone attempting to learn Japanese survives without Yomichan.

With yomichan, cutting and pasting is relegated to deeper research. Simple dictionary lookups just require mousing over a Japanese word while holding down the shift key. Doesn’t sound like a huge improvement, but, trust me, it is.

And it’s easy to add other dictionaries if you can find them (including monolingual Japanese dictionaries and better J-E dictionaries than jmdict).

Seriously, cutting and pasting is for barbarians. :smile:

Sample usage

This is what I see when I hold down the shift key then move my mouse over the characters 熟語:

I configured yomichan to permit recursive searches, too, so I can also shift-hover over any words in a definition that I don’t know (e.g. 慣用句 below).


One of these days… But for now I keep plugins on my browser to a minimum. Too complicated to explain why (basically psychological overload), but anyway, thanks for the example usage. It does inspire me to check it out later when I’m a bit further along in reading Japanese and actually browsing Japanese sites.

I can absolutely understand and appreciate “psychological overload”!

One suggestion, though:

Try installing it in an alternate browser.

Installing Yomichan is pretty trivial in Chrome or Firefox: basically, just click the link in the instructions then click the “add to browser” button. Then add the jmdict and kanjidic dictionaries following the instructions. No further configuration is really required — the defaults work great.

I suggest you install it in a different browser than the one you normally use. If you use Chrome without any extensions/plugins/etc. as your primary browser, then install Firefox with Yomichan as a secondary browser, leaving Chrome alone. (Or vice versa, or Safari/Chrome, or Safari/Firefox).

That way you can play with it in a “safe” sandbox without affecting anything else.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t push a tool this hard. Certainly not any scripts or plugins (not even ones I’ve written myself).

But Yomichan was literally life-changing for me. I’ve been able to consume much, much more content that would have been inaccessible to me otherwise (including communication with my own family).

The only downside is that it’s so much easier than cutting and pasting into a different window that it can become a bit of a crutch. You find yourself hovering over words that you’d actually be able to recall with a bit of effort.

Honestly though: if I could only have one “desert island” Japanese language tool, it would be Yomichan (oh: and the Internet :wink: ).

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‘The Keys to Chinese Character’ Shizuka Shirijawa, translated by Christoph Schmitz’
For historical origins, quite interesting, and just makes me doubly glad wanikani exists.

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