Pronouncing Lone Kanji On Things

So I’ve been learning Japanese for a while now and I can get by with most manga and a lot of novels just fine, but despite knowing most Joyo kanji out there, there’s some kanji I still can’t read, and I don’t know whether it should be obvious or not, and living in Japan it’s beginning to get quite annoying not knowing the correct way to read these simple things I see everywhere.

How the heck do you read those singular kanji that you often find on buttons for things? For example, 入/切 for on/off, or 止 for stop. There are many other examples I’ve came across, but these are the three that come to mind.


You would say whichever verb is most reasonable, pretty much.

For turning something on/off, the applicable verbs are いれる and きる, so if you absolutely had to talk about the action associated with the button, that’s what you would say.

It wouldn’t be some other verb, or the onyomi.

These are more like symbols in this case, so I wouldn’t call these “readings” for them. As such, they could be different in scenarios where the most reasonable verb was different (like I can imagine 入 being a symbol for はいる instead).


To give an English analogy, the letter H drawn on a big empty paved area represents a helicopter pad, but you wouldn’t really point at the letter and say "that’s pronounced ‘aitch’ ". You’d just say “that’s a helicopter pad”, and maybe "the H is short for ‘helicopter’ ".


Right, and on the highway it’s more likely an H would be a sign for a hospital.


So, when a Japanese person reads it in their head, they would just read it as like, 入れる for 入, or 止める for 止? This whole time I’ve just been reading 入 as いり :thinking:


You wouldn’t really normally read it in your head. Just “sense” the meaning. At least for me, the concept just enters my brain with these. From what I gather, lot of Japanese people don’t even subvocalize while reading books. Even if they forget the reading for some weird kanji, they still understand the sentence just fine.


Was this because that’s a reading that “fits” inside the single kanji in some words, like 入口? Whereas いれる, when written in kanji, gets okurigana, so it didn’t seem like an option?


But what if you’re explaining it to someone like “that H symbol means ‘helicopter’”? You’d pronounce the H as “aitch” since you’re saying the letter. How would you pronounce the same statement about a 入 symbol? E.g. “that 入 symbol means 入れる”.

You just wouldn’t say that, since it’d be redundant. You’d say something like この漢字はいれるという意味を表す

It would sound silly to say このいれるという意味を表す文字はいれるという意味を表す

Kanji don’t have any default way to refer to them in a vacuum.


That occurred to me, but let’s say there’s a situation where there’s a 入 and a 切 next to each other and saying この漢字 (or similar) would be too ambiguous. I guess I’m basically getting into the territory of what you’d say if you found 入 in an arbitrary sentence and had to say it somehow.

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That’s not that difficult to resolve. You could just say 右の漢字 or something.

As I said, there’s no default way to refer to kanji in a vacuum, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way. You just choose whatever reading makes it the most apparent to the listener.

I can’t really imagine a sentence like that, unless you’re talking about a sentence within this kind of meta conversation, which is a bit of a weird scenario to begin with.


I think so, yep. Either that or I’m taking the verb stem if there’s a verb associated with the kanji. Like if I see 飲 on its own I’ll say のみ. Onyomi readings don’t seem right, but okurigana also doesn’t seem right. I figured, there must be a way that the natives pronounce it, even if just mentally referring to it to themselves. Although by the sounds if it, this may be getting beyond linguistics and into psychology.

I think the tendency is to refer to full kunyomi readings of verbs or adjectives when those are available, since they can be neutral as in their use as dictionary versions.

This means that のみ might actually be a little confusing, since it’s an inflected version (and it does involve okurigana as well, 飲み). Someone hearing のみ is more likely to imagine 蚤, the insect, since that’s an uninflected word.

のむ is far less ambigious.


In a written text someone might want to describe the symbols on some buttons. If someone then was to read the book or manual or whatever out loud, how would they pronounce them?
Then there are expressions like 大の字 where the kanji is used for its shape, not its meaning. In this case it is read だい, but in general I suppose you just choose the reading that is less likely to be misunderstood, as you say?

In that situation (based from experience in video games where there’s a lot of kanji on symbols and buttons and tokens and things) in an explanation (if it needs an explanation at all), they’ll already have explained what the thing does, so the kanji will likely make lots of sense in the first place since it probably came up a lot of times in that explanation, plus the the symbol will likely be in「」 quotes or bolded or things like that to make it clear it’s meant as a symbol.
I think the best way to read it out loud would be to say “this kanji” and point at it to the person you’re reading it out loud to, but even in a convoluted bomb defusal scenario where you can’t do that for some reason, saying like, “the kanji from [word]” (like 大の字) should make sense I would think.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of a toilet control I found:


止 appears to me to be marked in Japanese braille とまる

edit to add an example from a game:
In the game I’m playing now there’s a map, and on the map:
「!」means a substory
「乗」means a fast travel point
「記」means a save point.
Looking at the manual, these officially mark エベント, 駕籠乗り場, and セーブポイント, respectively, but I never questioned any of them or pronounced the kanji in my head any more than I did the exclamation points.
There’s a legend and the icons are all different colors, so it would be very hard to get into a situation where you would need to say them verbally, but I guess in that situation I would just have said き or じょう which would be enough to differentiate them.
(disclaimer: have not had to explain anything in Japanese)


When I meet new Japanese people and they’re explaining the kanji in their name, they’ll usually reference the kanji from a familiar word. Like, if their name was 有里奈、and you were like “How do you write your name’s kanji?”, they would say ”最初の漢字は「有名」の「有」" and so on.

So they would probably do the same if you asked, “Why is that symbol 入?” Like, “Oh, 「入れる」の「入」。”


I think that a common and recognizable word using the kanji is used as description.
If I say やまとのわ I think it would be understood it is the 和that is used in 大和.
Another possibility, with more obscure ones, is to describe them, like 「のぎへん」と右側に「くち」を書く
(のぎへん=ノ木偏= 禾 on the left side)

(I don’t know if there is a more or less standardized way to describe them)

EDIT: BTW, as I don’t like to remember often meaningless English words for WK radicals, I use similar descriptions as user aliases (eg for the right side of 漢 I named it “kanjinokannomigi” (漢字の漢の石))

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