Mega noob question: kanji vs. vocab

Hi WaniKani friends, hope we’re all well in the world :pray:

So I appreciate I should probably change my username to “Mega noob”, but I’mma throw this question out there anyway.

Would I be correct in believing we’d be using the vocab readings “in the wild” (as in, in real-life conversations etc.), as opposed to the kanji readings? And if so, what is the real-world value — aside from an academic perspective — of learning kanji?

This is in no way a diss of WaniKani or committing oneself to doing so — I personally LOVE WK and the endeavour for the sake of the endeavour — but I feel like I’m missing some understanding on this point.

Any insight/wisdom/correction/direction would be sincerely appreciated by this mega noob :joy:


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It’s important to know that there’s no such thing as “kanji readings” the way I think you’re imagining them. Kanji-only readings, that is.

Let me explain.

That is to say, all kanji have a variety of readings. None of those readings is “the” one reading for that kanji. Any of them can appear in vocab words.

When you see “kanji reading” as a prompt in WK, it is just a way to say “this is a kanji item, please input the reading you learned in the lesson.”

It’s not meant to imply that this is a dedicated “kanji-only reading” that is somehow different from what can appear in a vocab word.

Sometimes the reading you learn in a kanji lesson is the same as how it appears in a word, one-to-one. Sometimes you just learn readings that only appear when combined with other kanji, so they appear as parts of words.

Hope that makes sense.

Learning readings for kanji first, then vocab, is a way to build up slowly, so that when you see a new word with two kanji in a combo you’ve never seen before, you can probably try to guess its reading. You never learned the word before this, but you might be able to read it.


I think what you mean by “Kanji reading” is " On’yomi", right?

You will see new vocab that you don’t know once in a while in the combination of kanjis you already know. So you can make an educated guess for their reading and meaning by their On’yomi and meanings. In my personal experience, I tend to get it right for 70-80% (Sometimes it’s not exactly right but it’s good enough. So I can get the basic idea). So it’s more than useful.

The “kanji reading” learned in the kanji lesson isn’t always on’yomi or kun’yomi.


Oh when I answer I didn’t think he talk about the way Wanikani teach us. The first thing come to my mind is he’s talking about On’yomi. But my point still stand.

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WK Kanji and WK Vocab readings are both valid for use in sentences “in the wild”. It’s all a matter of context.

The WK Kanji reading is often, but not always, the on’yomi reading, which is typically used in compound kanji words. Something like 友人 being read ゆうじん.

On the other hand, 大人 has the 人 kanji but is read おとな in a special way.
人々 is read ひとびと (double kun’yomi with a rendaku) even though its running the person kanji together twice.

You’ll need all the readings you learn at some point.


basically, you need to learn all the readings:

in english, we say water, but we also use the latin and greek aqua and hydro for a whole bunch of words involving water.

in japanese, we say みず to say water, but we also use the chinese すい* in a lot of words involving water.

the difference is that in english we write water, aqua, and hydro, in japanese we just write 水, and then have to know or guess which way it is read in which word.

*old chinese. just like latin has changed a lot over time, and become several different languages, chinese has changed a lot over time too.


Thanks @Leebo, that helps immensely. I think I am approaching it in this way (i.e. there being “kanji-only readings”) and hence the feeling of disconnect. But it sounds like we learn various kanji readings to equip ourselves with metaphorical keys we can later unlock vocab with.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but Japanese can be a real mind-melt for an English speaker, haha!



Thank you, @Tenugui. It reminds me a bit of high school chemistry…
Teacher: “This is the rule.”
Me: “Hooray! How straightforward!”
Teacher: “And here are the 18 exceptions.”
Me: :see_no_evil:


This is really helpful, thank you @Mrs_Diss :pray: It seems I need to clarify my understanding of on’yomi and kun’yomi readings and when/where each of them are used. ありがとう!

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I know others have answered, but I figured I’d throw my own explanation into the ring.

When you’re studying “kanji,” the reviews that are in pink, it is more like studying etymology than studying a word.

In English, the word “biology” comes from Greek. “Bios” means “life.” “Logos” means “study.” Put them together and you get the word “biology” meaning “the study of life.” “Psykhe” means “soul.” Put psykhe together with logos and you get “Psychology.” “Anti” is a Greek word meaning “against,” use it as a prefix to “bios” and you can make “antibiotic.” “Etumon” is a greek word meaning “true sense,” combine that with “logos” and you get “etymology,” the study of the “true sense” or origin of words.

The difference between Japanese and English here is that for English, it isn’t really necessary to know the etymology of words (you might not have even have heard of the term “etymology” before) however in kanji it is kind of necessary to understand at least part of the etymology in order to read (or at the very least it helps significantly.)

When you do a kanji lesson and learn that “勉” means “exertion” and can be read as “べん,” you aren’t really learning a word. It’s more like learning that “logos” comes from Greek and means “study of.” What you are learning are building blocks that you can then use to later learn actual vocabulary words.


The on’yomi (“chinese”) readings are typically used in nouns made from compound kanji. For example 中古 is ちゅうこ, and uses the CHU reading of 中 instead of kun’yomi reading NAKA. Kun’yomi is generally used with singular kanji or when a kanji is attached to kana, like verb conjugation.

On’yomi is a lot like Greek and Latin roots in English. There are so many on’yomi pronunciations that are exactly the same in Japanese, so to make sense when spoken, they have to form ‘compound words’ to clarify a specific meaning.

My example above for ‘second hand’ makes some sense in English, but later you learn kanji that essentially mean the same thing, and then find out the word for the concept is compound word of the two kanji. Or two kanji that might not seem as closely related are used to emphasize the meaning of a specific kanji.

On level five you learn 社 means ‘company’ (as in business). But the actual word for company is 会社, a compound of ‘meet’ and ‘company’. It uses the on’yomi readings of the two kanji.

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that’s almost exactly the way I’ve been viewing kanji as well – learning the individual components that make up a word to better understand that word’s meaning. An example of this for me would be 大体 (だいたい) the wanikani meaning that I have memorized for this word is “gist” but the etomology of the word is “big body” and so for me this has created the association of the “big picture”. Maybe it’s not 100% accurate, but by using the etymological makeup of the vocab words I try to form a more complete picture of the word’s actual meaning rather than just its rough English translation

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Ah, wow! This is such an interesting (and helpful) way of thinking about it. Thanks @MichaelCharles :pray: I’ve definitely been approaching learning kanji as learning “words” which is probably where some of the misunderstanding stems from.

In this sense, would it kinda be accurate to approach kanji as almost to vocab what radicals are to kanji? i.e. More like components that are mixed-and-matched rather than the “final product”?

Thanks so much again for your time and insight. The WK community is the best.

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I think that’s not a bad way of looking at it, especially since WK eventually starts using kanji as radicals.

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I think that all of the answers above me have answered your questions. I’m just here to add this helpful article I read when I had questions about Onyomi vs Kunyomi. The article is kinda long but, thorough, and has pics and charts. Plus, there’s a link to a Tofugu podcast episode on the subject too but, it’s 90 mins.


Really appreciate you sharing this, @DC79. Thanks for passing it on :pray:

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