Native speakers and Kanji

As I’m learning multiple meanings for each Kanji, I have been wondering if native speakers have to learn these various meanings as well.

The alternative being that native speakers understand the Kanji as a single meaning that doesn’t translate well into English.

For example 後 which means “behind” or “after” - if I think about it it is the same “concept” - that something behind would also come after - although in English I have the two meanings completely separate in my brain.

However the more complex kanji - e.g. 本 - which means real, original, main, or book - I can’t see this as a possible single concept in my brain. I was wondering if native speakers consider all these separate meanings in English as a single meaning in Japanese that just doesn’t translate well.


I’d suggest looking at an example of the Japanese Wikitionary for Kanji.


I’m interested in this too. Because so many kanji have multiple meanings listed on resources intended for native Japanese speakers, my gut reaction is to assume that the concepts are different in their perception too. Also, the sound vs meaning of each kanji is differentiated. That’s how you get internet slang, where a kanji with the same reading but a different meaning is swapped out as a pun/joke.


Ooh, yes, this is an interesting question! If you find out more, let us know, haha.

I think a good example of what you’re getting at is 力 (ちから). If you look at, there’s a large variety of definitions, but I believe most, if not all, of them are the same concept in different contexts. For example, “power” applied in favor of another person becomes “support.”

I definitely think it’s helpful to consider this when you’re learning Japanese, because it can help you get a stronger grasp of the nuances and so forth. (Though of course, as in English, some things become so idiomatic they lose their nuance.)


Native speakers learn the meaning of each Kanji, and its associated onyomi and kunyomi readings.

As someone who knows about just over 3 years, I can assure you that there are some onyomi readings that are almost never or hardly used. The best way to learn the readings(particularly onyomi) is to learn the words they are used. When a kanji has multiple onyomi readings, pay attention to the onyomi reading it takes on MOST of the words its used in, because that will be the reading to memorize.

I hope this helps!


When natives first start learning kanji in grade school, they follow a set curriculum established by the Japanese Ministry of Education – for grades 1-6, this is referred to as the 教育漢字, and consists of 1,006 kanji with associated readings and meaning to be taught already established – if you’re interested in checking out the list, you can find it here. Then by the end of grade 9, they’ll know all the 常用漢字 (2,136 kanji in total, full list here). Of course, they can pick up plenty of other kanji outside of formal education and will likely know more, but the 常用漢字 is the established list for their curriculum through grade 9

Basically, they don’t learn all the possible meanings for all the kanji right away, they’ll learn how to write the kanji and practice it many times with plenty of workbooks and quizzes (though the workbooks/quizzes dwindle as they approach junior high, then they’re expected to be responsible for them on their own), and will then learn the meanings and assigned onyomi and kunyomi readings put forth by the Japanese Ministry of Education

They’ll also learn the context in which the kanji commonly appear – ex: if they’re learning the
kanji 学, they’ll also learn 学校 and 学生, that sort of thing

But native kids are already fluent and will know a majority (if not all) of these words already from conversation, so it’s more of putting a “face” of the kanji to the words they already know. So later on, they probably have a general concept/idea in their minds associated with each kanji because they already know the words and will know the contexts in which the kanji appear, so it’s probably a little different in their minds that just wouldn’t translate over well to what we know as non-native speakers since we’re not as immersed as a native growing up surrounded by Japanese and kanji would be :thinking:


That’s another good example.

And then there are vocab words that have the same translation into English but different kanji.

地中 and 地下 - they both mean underground - but are they separate ideas in Japanese? Are they different kinds of underground… Does the choice of one or the other make a real difference to a native speaker or are they truly synonyms…

I find it fascinating which is why I felt the need to share :slight_smile:


It seems I do not know enough kanji to read the article on kanji :slight_smile:

1 Like

These are clearly two different words, but the idea of synonyms is not unique to Japanese. You are forgetting one main thing here, the language is built upon words, not upon Kanji. A native speaker learning the Kanji 学 or 習 already knows the meaning of the words 学ぶ and 習う. By the time a child starts learning Kanji, they already have a vocabulary of thousands of words and a native understanding of the language.


I have nothing to base this on, but I’m assuming that Japanese (like most other languages) has very few ‘true’ synonyms. There are almost always differences in nuances, which you’ll gradually pick up on as you become more proficient in the language.

To provide an analogue in English: “below ground”, “underground”, “subterranean” all have roughly the same meaning, but that doesn’t mean you can always freely substitute them. And even when you technically can, in some contexts a word may just be a better fit than any of its synonyms. Sometimes a word may have certain connotations that you’re looking for, or perhaps it has connotations that you’d like to avoid.


Regarding your example: 地中 vs 地下

地中 stands for underground as in literally under the ground, i.e., surrounded by dirt. If you read the meaning explanation,

If you’re in the middle of the ground, then you’re most likely underground. Are you a moleperson? That’s pretty cool.

you’ll realize it’s from that.

地下, on the other hand, stands for underground as in the basement of an American-like house. It’s somewhere below ground level that you have access to. You’ll learn in the next levels the word 地下鉄【ち・か・てつ】, which means subway (or underground if you’re British).

1 Like

I like Kanjipedia for checking these kinds of things. For , you’ll see のち, あと for one meaning, and うしろのほう for the other. So, yes, they do distinguish the same two concepts that we have in the English meanings in this case, though it’s not always that evenly lined up.

As it’s been pointed out by a few people, kanji come after the words. They’re just a tool to write the language. You can very well speak Japanese without learning any kanji, so it’s important to differenciate the “meaning” of kanji and the meaning of what they’re used to represent.

I think a somewhat flawed (but it’s hard to find a good equivalent in English) example would be the use of Latin or Greek roots. Someone mentioned the word “subterranean” so let’s use that. What feeling do you get when you hear “sub”? “Under”, “below”? Do you feel a faint connection with the idea of behing under in words like “substitute”, “subscribe”, “subliminal”? You most likely do. Now whether this feeling is true to the actual etymology of the word is irrelevant as you don’t need to know that to use it properly. But I would guess that these kinds of faint connections between different “meanings” of kanji are kind of how a native speaker would feel about it.


If the Kanji come after the words have been learnt, why do they repeat themselves in all the different parts of the vocabulary (e.g. ryoku showing up everywhere the strength/power kanji is used). I always thought the words were made from the Kanji O.o

Difference between on’yomi and kun’yomi. The kun’yomi are the native Japanese pronunciations which existed originally - when kanji were brought over, they were attached to words that already existed. The kanji also came with Chinese readings already attached, these became the on’yomi.

For the character 力, the kun’yomi - the original Japanese word - is ちから, while the on’yomi - the reading that came with the kanji - is りょく.

I’ve typically found that words and concepts that are more nature-based and concrete will use kun’yomi - for example, 川口 (river mouth) uses kun’yomi for both kanji, かわぐち - while words that are more esoteric or scholarly use on’yomi - for example, 文化 (culture) uses on’yomi for both kanji, ぶんか (which tends to be the norm for multi-kanji words).

Okay, so the first time it was imported from China the kanji came first. Then for every generation after that the kids learned the meaning of that suffix/element before they learned its kanji…

When he says “words come first” he’s talking about how native individuals learn Japanese. Everything in its current state exists as a spoken language first and foremost, then writing is applied over that. The fact that some things had to come from written loanwords to be first introduced is a separate story.


This topic was automatically closed 365 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.