On’yomi and Kun’yomi help and 山

I am here at level 2 for the second time. I remember the first time when radicals and kanji popped back for a review after a long time and I went ahead answering with the Vocab answers, many of which were different. The background colour was the way to understand, but still difficult.

I am loving WK but finding this a weak point: its difficult to distinguish between the On’yomi and Kun’yomi with the reading mnemonic’s.

Take 山:
Think about mountains talking to each other, calling each other by their names and adding the Japanese name-ender san (さん) to each of their names. “Hello, Everest-san.” "Oh hi, Fuji-san."
What are you doing going up into the mountains? You’re hunting for yams (やま). Go ahead, imagine yourself doing just that, climbing up the mountain (it’s hard work!) and then digging in the ground with your hands, then pulling up that sweet, delicious yam! Mmm!
Both entirely plausible in themselves, but which is which?

Does anyone have a good way to distinguish them generally for the road ahead?

About 山 - I also just want to share this: https://youtu.be/Vou_KYfiCCY
In case the Yam mnemonic wasn’t enough for you…
Its from the film 茶の味 (the Taste of Tea), a little bit strange but highly recommended.

It’s not necessary to discern that from anything in particular. They list it on the item page if you want to see.


Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s good to focus on it too much if you are a beginner. Being able to guess which is which will come from time and experience.


It’s really not something that’s necessary to know, but you’ll pick up on the patterns the more you learn.

If you’re dying for an answer… words in Japanese, excluding 外来語 and such, are either Sino-Japanese (originally from Chinese) or Yamato kotoba (natively Japanese) (or some rare combination, but don’t worry about those).

Yamato kotoba are almost always comprised of short, 1-mora syllables, or simply, syllables represented by just one kana, potentially stacked together (e.g. 戸 ・と、母 ・はは、心 ・こころ). Because of the natural way languages evolve, some words went through processes that changed them and made them 2- morae syllables; syllables with 2 or more kana. Words like these include 今日 ・きょう、弟 ・おとうと、十 ・とお. If you ever study historical Japanese, you learn these words were once read けふ、おとひと、and とを, which look much more like stacked 1-mora syllables.
When written, Yamato kotoba can be just kanji, or kanji with okurigana.

Sino-Japanese words however, are always just one syllable, since they come from Chinese, where characters are always one syllable. They can be 1-mora or 2-morae syllables, and can end in a long vowel, diphthong, or ん. These three features are unusual in Yamato kotoba, but very common in Sino-Japanese words.
These words also almost never have okurigana attached to them when written.

In the example of 山, you can tell quite immediately that やま is the kun’yomi , the native Japanese reading, because it is two syllables. さん is the on’yomi, the Chinese reading. Because it is one syllable ending in ん, it’s very unlikely to be a kun’yomi.

Often, words including these can indicate which reading you need even if you don’t know the words beforehand. There are two words for mountain climbing: 山登り and 登山. Which is which? The one with okurigana will be read in kun’yomi (やまのぼり). The other one is ambiguous, but by contrasting it with the other form, you can guess it’s in on’yomi (とざん).

Note that there is a slight difference in nuance, which can usually be boiled down to this: Sino-Japanese words are more considered more sophisticated than Yamato kotoba. For a comparison, in English, a word originally from Latin is usually considered more literary or professional than a word from English, like, the difference between the words “coin-collecting” and “numismatism.”

I look like a dork.



Are you counting せき、まつ、せつ and so on as 1 syllable?

Whoa! Who are you?! [Keanu look of awe and amazement]
You’ve just cleared up something massive for me; you’re no dork, your a knowledge legend.
I never knew this and I am very happy to know.
I am deeply grateful. ありがとうございました!

With English though, Latin is used “as is” in (granted) dorky but highly respectable high level academia (e.g. biology), and otherwise I understood it as the French origin words more commonly having the air of sophistication, over the Germanic origin words that are generally short and simple (which is odd considering German in its current form e.g. Donau­dampf­schifffahrts­elektrizitäten­haupt­betriebs­werk­bau­unter­beamten­gesellschaft.) But I guess it is the same thing: French comes from Latin, and German… does not.

You are right, and @Leebo-san: I shouldn’t concern myself with this much, I’ll see the patterns soon enough. I feel it really does help having this historical basis understanding for On’yomi and Kun’yomi though, so thank you again.

Hello @Shannon_Shark,

Is this a hard and fast rule? I understand there will always be exceptions but if what you said can be applied to a good majority…

If so the information you just provided would really help in my vocab reviews! :exploding_head:

Thank you very much! the inspectatoro :nerd_face: thank you!

The golden rule in Japanese: All Rules Have Exceptions. Including this one.

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Ah, those funny ones… I forgot to mention them. In everyday Japanese, they’re most often pronounced fully as two syllables, but it’s also possible to pronounce them as one, and that adds to the foreign flair of Sino-Japanese words.

The second mora can also potentially be き、く、ち、or つ. If you are familiar with linguistics, you’d notice that these are all close vowel kana, and the reason is that, like です or ~ます verb forms, the vowel can be omitted to sound like one syllable with a final consonant.

You will notice this when Japanese people count things, they say 「一、二、三!」and pronounce 一 as /ich/ rather than /ichi/. 末 can be appropriately read /matsu/ or /mats/ and both are correct.

This happens a little less often with き and く though, because they wind up sounding the same without the vowel, but fortunately there aren’t many characters with them, and they are somewhat predictable which a syllable can end with. There are some rules to the pattern, but at this point it’s so in-depth, you’re better off just memorizing. Syllables can only end in き if the previous vowel is /I/ or /e/. So, an On’yomi like そき or さき is not possible, but せき and しき are. The reasons for this are phonotactic in nature, so I won’t go into it.

く can have the vowel omitted, but き usually can’t though. I apologize for the confusion in calling these types of On’yomi 1 syllables. Thankfully though, there are few enough of these kanji that it’s easy to remember which are which.

Anyway, why is this? When Japanese borrowed all those words from (Middle) Chinese, they sometimes ended in -p, -t, or -k. Since Japanese can’t have a final consonant in writing other than ん (which is an innovation based on む anyway), they tacked on ふ* for p, ち or つ for t, and き or く for k, using kana with high vowels that can potentially omitted. We don’t know how Japanese people would have originally pronounced these, but now we’re allowed to omit the last vowel to turn these special readings as 2-morae syllables.


  • 別 /betsu/ or /bets/ 末 /matsu/ or /mats/
  • 七 /shichi/ or /shich/ 八 /hachi/ or /hach/
  • 服 /fuku/ or /fuk/ 悪 /aku/ or /ak/ 足 /soku/ or /sok/
  • 的 /teki/ but NEVER /tek/

*The ハ行 line of kana used to start with a /p/ sound. Because of phonologic shifts where /p/ became /ɸ/ became /h/, syllables ending in ふ all became long vowels instead.

I made a spreadsheet to determine what On’yomi are possible. Yellow cells are very rare, and gray cells have no kanji or are historical. I hope you can interpret my patterns.



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