Questions about Kanji that share the same reading

So I’m new to learning Japanese. Currently I’m going through a first few kanji lessons and I’ve noticed that the character 三 and 山 share the same reading of “さん” and while I can understand recognizing the difference When reading 2 completely separate kanji characters, it seems like it’s going to be confusing when having a conversation with someone? I mean, If someone says さん on it’s own, how do you really know if they mean “mountain” or “three”? Also, I have a suspicious feeling that I’m gonna later find out their are probably other words referred to as “さん”. This seems to be a trend so far as I’m learning. Previously, I used Duolingo to learn hiragana and katakana and they referred to the number 4 as よん while on my favorite anime “My Hero Academia”, the main character said “し” when counting. I’ve also read that “し” is also used for the word death. I understand that kanji will most likely have difference readings and I understand one of the readings are brought over from China and I understand there are 3 generations of kanji brought over at different times but I don’t understand why you would continue to use so many confusing readings for one word that seems it could be simplified by just using the reading that doesn’t conflict with another? Am just overthinking this? I just worry that as I learn more kanji I’ll become more confused. Kanji seems to do a good job in separating words that might have the same reading but it seems like this will be a confusing problem when speaking with someone directly?

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First of all, 山 as a word is pronounced やま. It is sometimes pronounced さん when part of a larger word, such as 富士山 (Mount Fuji).

Now to your general question about homophones. It is the case Japanese has many more homophones than English. But generally speaking you should be able to understand what word is being used from the context (assuming you understand most of the rest of the sentence already). If all you heard with no context was くもがきらい you may not be able to figure out if they dislike clouds or spiders. But if you have enough context (e.g. it’s currently cloudy out, or you’re talking about the weather, or you just killed a spider), you’d be able to figure it out.


It all comes down to context. It happens more in Japanese than in English for sure, but think about the word “might” for example.

  • I did it with all my might.
  • He might be the one.
  • He might be the one who did it with all his might.

It can become confusing when the only word you could pick up from the sentence is “might”. As you progress and get a larger vocabulary under your belt, these problems will fade away.


Ah, ok. Well the lesson for the kanji for mountain only displayed the reading as さん and didn’t really mention the other readings or which reading type it was so I didn’t know the main reading for mountain was different. When I first registered on the site, they said they would teach the most commonly used reading of the words so I though さん was the main reading and other meanings that might pop up for the word are exceptions.

The comment about the english word “might” does make sense. I guess I never thought about that. When I use the word might in sentences with different meanings, I guess I don’t think about it, I just know what I mean and assume others can also know what I mean. So I guess the same will happen with japanese, or at least I hope.

It could be considered “main” when it pops up in a lot of compound words (multiple kanji) or in a few that are used extensively. Other readings are taught when you learn the vocabulary too. For example, after learning the kanji 山, you’ll learn the actual word for mountain, which is やま.

You’ll see it soon. You need to get Guru in the Kanji first, if you haven’t. Here’s the details for the mountain Kanji, it is disabled or “grayed out” but the other reading, やま、that @seanblue mentions is certainly there.

For the vocabulary word, not the kanji, you can see that the reading of choice becomes やま when used as a noun in a sentence like “I’ll climb a mountain with my friends”


Then as a proper noun, like Mount Fuji, it uses the さん reading

I understand your point of view, and I can tell you that by the time you hit the end of level three, you’ll become a lot more comfortable with it.

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Ok, well I guess I might be getting a head of myself and should just trust the system and let everything fall into place. I think my problem is I find learning Japanese to be slightly intimidating since it’s so different then other languages and I’m sure everyone felt that way when they where first learning. It’s nice that Wanikani has a community to ask these questions when I find myself confused. That’s really helpful! :blush:


It’s for sure intimidating at first but like you said, just trust in the fact that things will become clearer as you advance. It’s really fascinating how the Japanese language is structured and there’s always people around to help you when things get a little tricky.


Out of curiosity and distractability, I took a quick look at some research findings about homophones. The brain is no doubt super fascinating and we do a lot of subliminal work to pick up the contextual clues that help us automatically select the meaning for a homophone.

I’ll put the highlights in bold, I don’t expect anyone to read all this.

Homonyms, i.e. ambiguous words like ‘score’, have different meanings in different contexts. Previous research indicates that all potential meanings of a homonym are first accessed in parallel before one of the meanings is selected in a competitive race. If these processes are automatic, these processes of selection should even be observed when homonyms are shown subliminally. This study measured the time course of subliminal and supraliminal priming by homonyms with a frequent (dominant) and a rare (subordinate) meaning in a neutral context, using a lexical decision task. In the subliminal condition, priming across prime-target asynchronies ranging from 100 ms to 1.5 s indicated that the dominant meaning of homonyms was facilitated and the subordinate meaning was inhibited. This indicates that selection of meaning was much faster with subliminal presentation than with supraliminal presentation. Awareness of a prime might decelerate an otherwise rapid selection process.

The present study examined the manner in which both hemispheres utilize prior semantic context and relative meaning frequency during the processing of homographs. Participants read sentences biased toward the dominant or the subordinate meaning of their final homograph, or unbiased neutral sentences, and performed a lexical decision task on lateralized targets presented 250ms after the onset of the sentence-final ambiguous prime. Targets were either related to the dominant or the subordinate meaning of the preceding homograph, or unrelated to it. Performance asymmetry was found in the absence of a biasing context: dominant-related targets were exclusively facilitated in the RVF/LH, whereas both dominant- and subordinate-related targets were facilitated in the LVF/RH. Performance symmetry was found in the presence of a biasing context: dominant-related targets were exclusively activated in dominant-biasing contexts, whereas both dominant- and subordinate-related targets were facilitated in subordinate-biasing contexts. The implications of the results for both general and hemispheric models of word processing are discussed.


You will develop the feeling over time.

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