Same word for different kanji

I’m at level 7 now and on previous level i learned 亡 and 死. Both of which seem to mean the very same thing (death). It was first time that happened, so i didn’t really pay much attention to it and assumed it’s some kind of exception. But after reaching level 7 yesterday i learned another two kanji 理 and 由 (both meaning “reason”).

So now i’m starting to ask myself, why is that they have multiple kanji for same word?

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Languages sometimes have multiple ways of saying things. English has “dead”, “deceased”, “passed away” and a whole bunch of other ways to say the exact same thing.

But more generally speaking, don’t get hung up on the meaning of kanji. Kanji are not words. Some words are a single kanji, but kanji are not words in and of themselves - it’s just that sometimes they hold meaning within a word. Japanese does not have a kanji for a word, they have a kanji and it sometimes expresses a concept.

And when you do think about the meaning of a kanji (or word, for that matter), don’t get hung up on the English translation. There’s usually a nuance to them. For 死 and 亡 for instance, it seems like 亡 is a more abstract/indirect concept of death, but that’s a bit hard to say for me - it’s not a word on its own as far as I can tell, it’s just used in words - but you can tell by for example how 亡くなる is essentially a euphemism for 死ぬ (which is very direct and sometimes considered crude, as I understand).

As for 理 and 由 - 理 is reason as in logic (think “to reason”) whereas 由 is reason as in your reason to do something.


This might come off as a little snarky, but the answer is… kanji were made for Chinese languages, not English. More seriously though, it’s because different kanji have different nuances. This isn’t just something that pops up with regard to the English meanings of various kanji: certain words in Japanese can be used with different kanji in order to highlight the fact that they are being used with a specific nuance, even if their basic meanings and pronunciations remain the same. I’d say that 亡 tends to be more of the act of passing away, whereas 死 represents the concept of death. (I’m basing that on Chinese though, because I see 亡 very rarely in Japanese.) For 理 and 由… 理 doesn’t even have to mean ‘reason’ – it can also mean ‘principle’ – and 由 can also mean ‘origin’ or ‘to pass through’. Like I said, kanji weren’t made for English, and they have a whole different set of nuances from each of their possible translations. It’s just like how ‘revenge’ in English and its equivalents/relatives in other languages like French don’t have all the same nuances, or how English has tons of synonyms like ‘win’, ‘triumph’, ‘emerge victorious’ and so on. Each is slightly different, and each is linked to a different set of concepts even if they can both be translated as the same word in a particular context.


I completely agree with yamitenshi-san and Jonapedia-san: each kanji gives a different nuance which is used to the writer’s advantage when they believe such a certain nuance is needed. The English concept of “diction” or “word-choice” comes to mind.

I actually just “learned” the verb 産まれる, which means “to be born.” However, it means the same thing as the word 生まれる from a previous level. I am not advanced enough to know what the nuance is, but I could venture a guess: 産 means “give birth,” “products,” “child-birth,” etc. whereas 生 means “life,” “genuine,” and “birth.” (This info is from 産 seems to focus more on the act of child-birth itself, whereas 生 seems more abstract and general, focusing on life itself, if that makes sense. This seems to be reflected in the words that 生 is used in, and I have not seen many examples yet, but I can imagine it is the same way with 産.

All of this is meant to say that the “same word” may be more of a relic of translation rather than an intrinsic “sameness” within the language.


Yes, jackpot. 産 is often used in reference to production, as in industrial production so if one were to speak of 産 as in 出産(する), that would be “labor” as in, the act of giving birth, but also “output” of goods. 生 has many uses. Sometimes those 2 are used interchangeably, so you can spell うみだす as 生み出す or 産み出す if you want to say you’re bringing forth an idea or something.

亡 I have only seen in 亡くなる, I think. 死 in plenty other words. Both also as components of larger kanji.

The general problem, I think is that one can’t assign English words to kanji 1:1. Kanji are usually more conceptual so they represent a sentiment and not a “thing”. Unless it’s stuff like 猫 or 犬, I guess.
So even if both 亡 and 死 have the gloss “death”, they don’t mean the same thing.


Just today, I stumbled upon this interesting example sentence with 生まれる:


Thank you everyone for replying, think i have a better idea of it now. I got a little demotivated hearing multiple people mention that kanji don’t work well with english. It makes me feel as if i’m learning the language somewhat incorrectly. I guess there’s no other way to about it though, i figure that eventually when i’m able to read and listen to japanese content, i’ll be able to pick up on those things and understand it better.


If/when you are just starting out, don’t worry about it too much :slight_smile: . You will figure all of that stuff out once you get more accustomed to the language.

It’s not that kanji don’t work well in English, but that English and Japanese don’t play well with each other. But once you start reading/listening/writing in Japanese, that problem will cease to exist :wink:


You’ll definitely pick up on these things over time as you learn, practice and ask questions.

Once you’re at a level of Japanese where that becomes an option, I can wholly recommend checking monolingual (JP→JP ) dictionaries for definitions. They tend to give a much clearer view of what the nuances of a specific term are than any translation does. But until then, don’t worry too much about it.


I think that’s the right attitude. The truth is, glosses are never perfect, even between closely related languages, but they’re useful time-saving tools; glossing both 死 and 亡 as “death” may not tell you everything about their nuances, but it gets you 95%* of the way there.

Your human brain all but assures that you’ll learn the language eventually if you keep at it. Maybe there are things you can do to learn more efficiently, but studying sub-optimally is still miles better than not studying at all.
Still, the fact that you’re progressing through your lessons and asking relevant questions suggests to me that you’re doing just fine.
(Speaking of which, I should really get back to my lessons. … and to asking questions.)

*This number is not an exact measurement, but it conveys the basic idea. Kind of like kanji glosses.


Wait until you get to the vocabs for debt, financing, and similar terms. I still struggle remembering those…

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In my case, it’s “Well, I’m not sure what this word means, so it probably means criticism.”


That is absolutely hilarious

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Just keep going and don’t worry about it too much. All you have to keep in mind is that translations don’t cover everything, particularly since even the best EN-JP dictionaries rarely give detailed explanations of nuance. It’s the same for any language: literal translations from English into French sound horribly stilted even though French probably gave English 60% of its lexicon.

English isn’t useless for learning Japanese; you just have to use it the right way. What I’d strongly recommend (even if some people are going to say it’s just old school grammar-translation that should have died along with the widespread instruction of Latin) is that you look for good-quality example sentences with their translations, and then attempt a fairly literal translation of your own in order to see how the parts of the sentence fit together. Your goal would not be to create a natural, readable translation; the idea is to attempt to understand how native speakers think and combine words. You can compare your literal translation with the translations provided in order to get a feel for the differences between the two languages. You can use for this, particularly since it has all of Jisho’s data and other dictionaries and many more translated example sentences.

That aside, when studying kanji, learning just one meaning keyword at first is fine provided that meaning keyword is accurate and sufficiently general. Your job then is to find links between that concept and other related concepts in order to see why certain kanji compounds mean what they do. It won’t always work out, especially when the kanji are obscure or only used for their pronunciations, but it’s often helpful to analyse compounds this way, particularly because over time, it will help you improve your kanji interpretation intuition. It’s a matter of lateral thinking. As you see more connections and pick up new nuances (so yes, each kanji can have a set of corresponding meaning keywords instead of just one), you’ll have an easier time working words out even with any translations.

(I’m not sure I can come up with meaningful examples, so if you want, you can throw me a sentence and a compound you’re having trouble with, and I’ll show you how I’d analyse them.)


Don’t worry, you’re not learning incorrectly, it’s just that there are multiple layers to learning any language, but especially Japanese. To start with we all have to learn the superficial 1:1 translated meanings of words and characters, the nuances and secondary meanings are best learnt through context and exposure. I.e. you’ll learn the difference between 亡 and 死 from seeing how they are used in writing and speech.


I just looked up 快便 and I love its translation: “comfortable bowel movement” from Interesting though that 便 can have the nuance of “excrement” in addition to convenience, I never noticed!


Yup, there is also 便所 (toilet) and 便秘 (constipation) :smiley:

Ah right, I completely forgot about 便所! What is the second kanji in 便秘?

“Secret” or “to conceal” :joy:

In my case, it’s “Well, I’m not sure what this word means, so it probably means criticism .”

Hahaha, so true!