Original Kanji Composition

Is was wondering whether there are any dictionaries around that explain what the “inventors” of certain kanji meant when they first sketched them. Most of the time the WK stories are really ok, but sometimes it would be nice to read something more “real”.

Or: what does a Japanese teacher tell a 5th grader about the inner workings of a certain kanji?


Kanji go back far enough that we don’t really know what the “inventors” thought. The earliest versions we have are things that were able to survive because they were carved into turtle bones (hence the turtle motif here). But there are lots of resources for seeing those ancient forms and how they morphed over time to the shapes they have now.

But, just be aware, sometimes things did just get arbitrarily changed because of sound similarities, ease of writing, or transcription errors.

If a kanji looks kind of random and unrelated to its meaning… sometimes it’s just because that’s the way it is.

For a free kanji origin dictionary, I recommend the site okjiten.jp


Wiktionary often has basic descriptions too, and there’s an English version. But they really are often just the most basic info.

A nice paper Japanese kanji origin dictionary will have the most information that you can easily get your hands on. I’ll see if I can find the one I have.


Oh, I thought you meant modern kanji composition, like this:

You can tell what the creators were thinking when they made these, and it certainly gives me the warm fuzzies when I work out the pun that’s going on. :slightly_smiling_face:


When i started wanikani i bought A Guide to Remembering Japanese Kanji by Kenneth G. Henshall
after seeing it recommended on here.
I found it pretty interesting and helpful in my studies.

Here are some example entries

Thank you so much. There seems to be a new edition:

The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji: Remembering and Understanding the 2,136 Standard Japanese Characters

Christopher Seely & Kenneth G. Henshall

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