Making sense of pronunciations and meanings

So, I just hit level three, and I feel like I’m doing decently so far. I feel like a lot of my learning so far has just been memorizing rather than really understanding though. Does everything start falling into place if I just keep doing the reviews and lessons? I don’t really understand the reasoning behind the on’yomi and kun’yomi pronunciations and why there can be multiple for each.

I seem to get the pronunciations down for the kanji but then it gets combined with another kanji where sometimes it’s just the on’yomi pronounced together and others it seems completely different and doesn’t use either pronunciation. An example off the top of my head is “seven days”. Seven is normally “nana” and day is “ka”, but the pronunciation is “nanoka”. I know the “rendaku” phenomenon has been mentioned a couple of times like with “hitobito”, which from what I understand is a way to make words flow easier in speech similar to the words “want to” in English becoming “wanna”. I thought this may be the case here, but it’s not made clear.

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Welcome to wanikani!
After a bit, the puzzle pieces will start to fall into place, but if you are hoping for a magical moment, when suddenly you will able to know by looking at a word, how it will be pronounced for sure… well, it probably won’t happen.

Bit of a history, kanji came from china, that’s usually known. The reading depended on when it came to japan and how the Japanese decided to transcribe the word. Some kanji (a lot of them) came over multiple times, at different times and they got different readings. The words that also came over used the pronounciation of that reading, therefore multiple onyomi readings.

Kunyomi readings are actual japanese-made words. Imagine having a language, then letters come over and you try to shoehorn that writing system into your language. So most words like that got a kanji(or a few kanji) that represented their names. Mountain (やま) for example got 山 because that’s the kanji for mountain.

General rule of thumb, most of the time, if it has hiragana, you will have to learn the kunyomi reading (usually this is when you roll your eyes and suck it up), otherwise if it has no hiragana attached, it will probably be the (or rather one of the) onyomi readings combined together. This is not a perfect rule, stuff like bodyparts often turn the whole word into kunyomi readings, but it works most of the time.

Rendaku happens usually because your mouth isn’t fast enough to pronounce certain sounds in a row. This happens a ton in a lot of languages, english too, one of the reasons, why ng is not just an n and a g. But nanoka is not rendaku, not sure about that actually.


Hey, that’s a great question!

Onyomi is the Chinese reading of the kanji, or the reading that is based on the Chinese pronunciation. Kunyomi is the Japanese reading of the kanji. Usually (but not always), when a kanji is written alone or with hiragana attached to it, you will read it using its kunyomi. When you have two or more kanji written side by side as one word, they will usually be read with the onyomi. There are various onyomi (Chinese) readings to a kanji due to the way Japanese developed as a language - written and spoken - over the centuries.
In some cases, like you mentioned, the reading will be completely different than what you learn as onyomi/kunyomi. There’s not a set-in-stone method to know what reading to use where. You just have to memorize the words.

As for actually understanding how to use the vocabulary you learn, and not just memorize it - that’s something you do through learning grammar. I’ve studied beginners grammar with Genki I & II, personally, and these days I am reading texts to develop fluency. Wanikani is great in teaching vocabulary, and I find that I rarely need to go to look a word up in a dictionary, but it (wanikani) won’t teach you on its own how to understand sentences in Japanese.


That’s because back in the day Japanese did not have a writing system. Chinese traders at different ports (if I remember correctly from what I read a while ago) had their own dialects and so different readings started to get adapted for the same kanji. This is akin to how in the USA— for example— pop means soda in the certain regions, icecream with jimmies instead of sprinkles in New England, and so on.

There are so many rules in the Japanese language that makes me so upset but when I think about it, I am glad this is the case. If Japanese were easier to learn, then chances are it would be as popular as English and Spanish for instance. I would lose motivation since so many people would speak it and I would not feel special anymore lol.

In all seriousness though, I enjoy how tough learning Japanese is. The following is a cliche but it is so true:

If it is easy it is not worth doing

Not to be taken too literal of course but I do get bored if I am not challenged with any type of activity; be it sports, a videogame, language acquisition, etc :slight_smile:

Unfortunately numbers and days in particular get a lot of fun exceptions that you’re just going to have to memorize. 七日 is a good example.

The rules around onyomi, kunyomi and rendaku are helpful to know but not applicable in every case. Plenty of words just get weird, obscure or irregular readings, and some even mix onyomi and kunyomi readings.

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Yes, it does get a lot easier, and a lot of this will start falling into place if you keep studying! I definitely experienced that myself.

I would recommend installing a couple userscripts that might help your understanding. The first is the Rendaku Information script, which adds a section to the lesson information for every vocab word and explains why it does and doesn’t rendaku. The second is the Keisei Semantic-Phonetic Composition script, which adds information about the composition of the kanji that can be really, really useful when trying to figure out the on’yomi reading for new kanji.

If you install the scripts, it’ll probably be a little overwhelming at first and you won’t know quite what to do with all of the information, but over time, you’ll start to notice patterns. Both of those scripts have really helped me understand the difference between on’yomi and kun’yomi readings and how rendaku works.

If you want to do a little deeper reading, Tofugu has an article on rendaku and an article on on’yomi and kun’yomi readings. If you’re like me, you will probably read these and quickly forget a lot of the information :sweat_smile:. But the good news is that WaniKani provides countless hours of practice for both, and even if you find this really confusing at first, the more exposure you get, the easier it will be to slot the information into place and make sense of it finally.

People are saying true things about kanji, but how does なな > なの in 七日 have something to do with kanji being from Chinese, or rendaku? The change in the seven part would exist regardless of the kanji.

The question was less about “why do kunyomi and onyomi exist” and more like “why is there more than one of each kind.”

To me anyway.

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The Tofugu article on on’yomi and kun’yomi address this! Far better than I could explain it, at least. If this is the core question, then I highly recommend reading that article.

another thing is that very common words tend to change fast, and that many common words get overloaded with lots of possible meanings. this happens in most languages. so when you’re learning a language, you tend to learn the things with the most exceptions first.

so a very common kanji like 生 has an overwhelming number of readings, which are used in a wide variety of ways. but most kanji will have just two readings, and will follow a very regular pattern of when to use which reading.

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Thanks for all the answers everyone. I’ve really been getting frustrated with the reviews because something will stick in my mind a bit, I’ll make it to apprentice IV and than my mind will often draw a blank the next time. I get really irritated to see the answer and know I should’ve remembered. Most of them do stick eventually, but there are some I keep failing multiple times even when I JUST saw them. Some of the mnemonics just don’t plant a good enough memory for me, and it’s very easy to confuse when to use what reading.

Keep in mind also that from the first few levels, you would think that Japanese seems to have no rules at all and give up. But there are disproportionately more weirdo ones there (like the aforementioned generic counting words), AND you haven’t seen enough “regular” ones yet to get a feel for it. Hang in there, it gets easier.

(But yes, you have to just cross your fingers and memorize things until they start making sense, and eventually your guesses are right more often than not. Which then makes the oddballs more memorable.)

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i mean, i’ve got a level 1 item which just dropped back to apprentice… :sweat_smile:


hola! welcome to WK forums.

people have already answered well but basically, you’ll be amazed at how you’ll gradually guess readings correctly. i just reset but i remember things really clicking around level 20 or just before.

certainly the rendaku and semantic scripts help a lot.

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