So which is it damn it

Well, now they’re just making them up.


A good rule of thumb for whether it’s read as ちゅう or じゅう in Jukugo is also to determine whether the main thing is meant as something happening once in a given timeframe/location or throughout the whole thing.

For example, in 年中 (ねんじゅう, throughout the year) or in 世界中 (せかいじゅう, throughout the world) it’s read as じゅう and the thing you’re talking about isn’t just a single occurrence. On the other hand, a word like 地中 (ちちゅう, underground) might only refer to a single thing that’s underground somewhere, and not necessarily to something that can be found whenever you dig a hole in the ground


Thank you for providing numerous examples to illustrate your point. I believe that OP will find them useful. However, I’d like to implore you to read my entire post and pay attention to my choice of words before jumping to conclusions on my position.

I said it was ‘typical’. In other words, it’s something that works for most kanji, or at least many kanji. I then said

And offered further elaboration, such as

Which are exactly the sort of examples you raised in your post. I did not dismiss them outright, and in fact made sure to mention them so OP wouldn’t have the wrong impression. Now then, in order to respond to some of your specific claims, I’ll need to see your definition of ‘jukugo’, which is this:

With that, I’ll respond to this:

It is true that compound words can be created without stringing kanji together. I do not, however, see why this makes my rule of thumb dangerous. It has served me extremely well when watching anime, and it’s even more useful when reading newspapers, where technical terms that have their roots in Sino-Japanese vocabulary are exceedingly common. It works very well, but it is not – I emphasise this again – universal, and that is not what I claimed. Also…

The reason you’re talking about ‘actual jukugo’ and seeing all these contradictions is because you haven’t accounted for the fact that there are in fact two definitions of the word ‘jukugo’, which is frequently translated by the word ‘idiom’. In particular, 大辞林 says this:

① 二つ以上の単語が結合してできた語。合成語。複合語。「山鳩」「酒樽」「草分け」の類。
② 二つ以上の漢字の結合してできた語。「登山」「思想」の類。熟字。成語。

In other words, jukugo are

  1. Words that are made up of two or more words i.e. ‘compound words’
  2. Words that are made up of two or more kanji i.e. ‘kanji compounds’.

Jukugo are both of these. For that matter, that’s exactly what thegooseking’s post was getting at. You’re talking about ‘compound-word jukugo’ in your examples. My general rule applies to ‘kanji-compound jukugo’. In fact, I specifically said this:

Which is in the very section you quoted me on. In other words, the examples you raised do not contradict what I intuitively proposed based on experience, since I at least subconsciously limited myself to ‘kanji compounds’ from the very beginning. However, if my very commonly useable general rule is to be applied to all compounds that contain nothing but kanji (i.e. compounds like 人々 and 途中, but not phrases like 世の中), then they’re exceptions which will have to be learnt, well… as exceptions.

Speaking of 世の中,

I didn’t say that anything of this sort would involve an on’yomi. For that matter, the way my general rule was written suggests that kun’yomi should be used for this phrase. Also, I’m not entirely certain that this should be considered a compound word, because 世 read as よ can be used as a standalone word. Some examples from the Wisdom English-Japanese Dictionary:

▸ 世の荒波
the rough dealings of the world 【人生のさまざまな困難】the hardships of life.
▸ 世のためになる
benefit the world [the society].
▸ それが世の常というものだ
That’s the way of the world. 【人生とはそういうものだ】That [Such] is life.
▸ 世の⦅世間一般の⦆親たちは何と言うだろう
What would parents in general say?

…and it’s pretty clear that 世の中’s meaning is easily deduced from its constituents. In other words, this matches what I said:

Obviously, there are exceptions, like 宅 and 雑, which are almost always read with their on’yomi even when they’re alone, but I never claimed my rule was universal.

As a Chinese speaker, perhaps I have an easier time telling which jukugo are kanji compounds, because I’ll often have already encountered them in Mandarin. I’ve also encountered jukugo that don’t exist in Mandarin, but which are meant to be read with on’yomi and clearly function as kanji compounds, like 投与, which means ‘the act of giving a patient medicine’ or ‘the act of giving by throwing i.e. throwing something to someone’. The second definition can be deduced from the kanji meanings, but neither kanji functions as a word on its own, particularly with its on’yomi, and the first definition is clearly a special use case that cannot be deduced from the kanji alone. This is thus, as I said, an example of a case in which

and ends up being read with an on’yomi. Could it have been read with a kun’yomi? Sure. なげあたえ, for example, since okurigana (which are the ‘additional hiragana’ you mentioned) and their usage are not subject to strict rules (e.g. both 現われる and 現れる are acceptable ways of writing あらわれる using the kanji 現). However, the reason that reading doesn’t exist, at least to my knowledge, is undoubtedly the fact that Japanese usage just never swung that way. For that matter, a possible reason for which 投与 exists as a word for ‘giving medicine’ is the fact that 投薬 exists in both Japanese and Chinese, meaning that there was another established word with a similar morphology and sound. That might have encouraged the development of such a meaning. In any case, I’m not suggesting we invent a general rule that ignores Japanese usage – usage is king, after all – and my background doesn’t change the fact that this ‘kanji compound => on’yomi’ pattern exists – it just makes me more sensitive to it, and perhaps slightly more likely to subscribe to the idea that it’s prevalent due to confirmation bias. That doesn’t mean I think it’s true in all cases, and I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m well aware of the exceptions.

In summary, once again, please take a look at exactly what was said and implied by another person’s words before assuming what he really meant.

Anyhow, the one thing I do agree with

Yes, one has to make the effort to remember readings for individual words. Also,

It’s true that relying ‘too much’ on a general rule is potentially harmful. However, having a ‘general’ rule, while being fully aware of the fact that it has exceptions, like almost every rule in the universe, allows one to structure one’s learning and more rapidly acquire knowledge by using patterns to facilitate memorisation. That way, provided one has already acquired common readings of a given kanji, one can simply retain what sort of pattern a new phrase fits instead of desperately straining to memorise the word individually, adding yet another word to an impossibly long mental vocabulary list. In other words, one can simply remember that something is an ‘on’yomi compound’, a ‘kun’yomi compound’, or, if necessary, as a ‘jukugo reading compound’, which would be the case in which a phrase or compound word has a reading that cannot be deduced from any of its constituent parts. (I think reading 流石 as さすが is an example of this.) With such knowledge, one would be able to reduce the effort required for learning since memories of known readings would suffice for learning most new words, allowing one to build on past knowledge instead of treating each and every word as an individual piece of information. As such, I’d like to register the fact that I vehemently disagree with the idea that general rules create ‘bad habits’. OP wanted to know if there was a general rule. I proposed one that works in a large number of cases, which should allow OP to learn faster and with greater ease. I made it clear that this rule is not universal, and never will be. If anyone who read my post chooses to refuse to look out for exceptions – which I clearly stated exist – and to ignore my advice and language use (e.g. ‘typical’, ‘not universal’), and ultimately goes on to form bad habits, that’s entirely on them. I will not take responsibility for the harm caused by someone else’s comprehension mistakes, especially when I feel I’ve been clear enough. The good habit that having a general rule allows one to build is twofold: one learns to look for patterns, which facilitates learning, and to look out for exceptions, heightening one’s attention – and thus one’s retention – when learning new readings. This, however, presupposes an understanding of the word ‘general’, and of the nature of a ‘rule’, which is that it is rarely without exceptions.

A final point: it seems you’re fairly advanced in Japanese despite being at level 9 of 60. Perhaps you’re only on WK to learn kanji in particular, and you already have a solid grammatical foundation, or you’re one of those people who has reset from level 60 (hats off if that’s the case, honestly). As such, I think you’d be able to appreciate this: my WK level does not reflect, in any way, my actual Japanese proficiency, and the pseudo-‘golden rule’ I proposed is based on my experience so far. I’m only here for the forums and discussions. I don’t use the SRS, and never will, both because I speak Chinese and because I have a longstanding dislike of flashcards and anything that resembles them. My country’s Chinese syllabus means I probably learnt anything between 2500 and 3000 kanji, not counting what I’ve learnt since leaving high school at the age of 18, and not counting the fact that I know multiple character sets because of calligraphy knowledge and the fact that China’s simplification and Japan’s simplification of traditional kanji took place independently. I can frequently guess kanji on’yomi correctly because I’ve noticed patterns linking Mandarin and standard Japanese pronunciation, just as I’m able to convert traditional/Japanese Shinjitai characters into Simplified Chinese because of calligraphy simplification knowledge. For every single language I’ve learnt (I’ve studied 6 of them seriously, and I’m fully fluent (i.e. capable of conversing, writing essays with proverbs and idioms, reading newspapers and literature, and listening to TV programmes) in 3. Japanese will be the next one in which I reach fluency), all I’ve ever done is create expansive general rules that work across the entire language, all the while looking out for exceptions. I even create general rules for individual words that have numerous nuances by looking for commonalities between those nuances (cf. かける, which has anything between 15 and 25 definitions, all of which express an idea of attachment or contact). If general rules were so dangerous, then my unfortunate habit of creating these monsters that spawn even more bad habits should have killed my proficiency in every language I’ve learnt so far, and yet here I am. I don’t see why anyone should be deprived of a tool that has done nothing but make my life easier and my language learning faster, particularly when OP personally and specifically asked for a ‘golden rule’. Just as the application of a mathematical theorem requires knowledge of all its application conditions and hypotheses, so too does applying a ‘rule of thumb’ require knowledge of its limits, particularly when they were highlighted by the one who proposed it.


Hey, no need to get angry.

It’s true that you did say the “golden rule” is limited but I personally still found your phrasing somewhat ambiguous and wanted to clarify. Not to disagree entirely, just to clarify. We seem to be by and large in the same boat, but personally I feel like the usefulness of this “golden rule” is often vastly overstated and I personally have had something of a rude awakening with it.

Thank you for elaborating on the meaning of “jukugo”, I was not aware of its ambiguity and have never really seen it used to refer to just any kind of compound. I am here to learn and I learnt something today.

I wouldn’t say my Japanese is “fairly advanced” but I have an interest in linguistics and the language’s history, so I have a bit of a different perspective from people who “only” want to be able to be fluent.

So please don’t take my posts as a personal attack, and there is no need to write a book-length reply. It is bloody obvious that you are not just some rando who started to learn Japanese a week ago and I never wanted to imply you were.


It’s quite possible that I just haven’t been exposed to enough of the ‘native’ side of the Japanese lexicon. Everything I said is certainly useless when it comes to guessing kun’yomi of kanji, particularly when they’re used to refer to things that only exist in Japan and nowhere else. No amount of past experience is going to allow someone to guess that 七夕 is read たなばた, and with good reason: 七夕 is a character combination used in Chinese to refer to the same festival, but in China, and it’s almost certain that Japanese people celebrate the festival quite differently from Chinese people. Like I said, ultimately, experience is the most (and possibly only) reliable way to determine what readings are used.

With all due respect, I don’t stop at ‘fluency’ in the usual sense either. There’s a reason my criteria for declaring myself ‘fluent’ include ‘essays with proverbs and idioms’ and ‘reading… literature’: I have to be at least as good as a well-educated native speaker of my age, if not better. That’s my personal goal. As far as languages in general go, I’m quite an etymology nerd myself, though I don’t dig quite as deep in Japanese because it seems less common for dictionaries to break words down into root words and other units of meaning, which is common for European languages. However, that makes some sense since most Japanese words are much shorter than, say, complex terminology taken from Latin in English.

I simply felt that my position was being grossly misrepresented, and I was particularly riled up by the use of the words ‘dangerous’ and ‘this whole mess’. I mean, it’s true that the plethora of readings one kanji can have in Japanese is really quite shocking, even for a Chinese speaker, and I presume that’s what you were referring to as a ‘mess’, but in the heat of the moment, I felt as though I had been accused of contributing to the confusion, which was hardly my intention. Also, while it’s true that the vast majority of my exposure to Japanese has come from anime, the other things I read in Japanese include NHK news articles, dictionary definitions, and articles on Japanese usage, with studies from Japanese universities among them. Even if I might be overestimating the usefulness of my general rule (which I wouldn’t really call ‘golden’ in all honesty, since it’s riddled with exceptions), I still find that it’s been very applicable so far. Specifically, the more technical the language used, the more my general rule applies.

Finally, as far as ‘book-length replies’ go… I’m sorry about that. I probably could have been a little more succinct. At the same time though, even when I’m not upset about something, ‘book-length’ posts are standard fare for me on these forums: the more relevant evidence and explanation I can think of for a given topic, the longer my posts get. My replies on the ‘Short Grammar Questions’ thread are probably the longest in the entire thread. My past as a debater also means that I constantly anticipate possible questions and rebuttals, so I never stop shoring up my arguments and looking for holes I need to plug. It’s a habit. I mean, just look at this reply. I didn’t intend to write this much. Oh well. So yes, don’t take my reply length personally either. I acknowledge that your main point was valid, and that you raised good examples.

And I wasn’t trying to imply you did, just trying to explain that my knowledge is somewhat lopsided towards theory and historical stuff rather than practical use.


I see. That makes sense.

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Sir, this is a Wendy’s.


Hey, no need to fan the flames

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Eh, it’s OK. I got angry and did my best to give a well-substantiated response. It seems OP appreciated it. Also, you read (at least part of) it, and gave me a respectful response, to which (I hope) I gave a sufficiently respectful reply. It was an interesting discussion that forced me to learn things, including the fact that 世 really can be used independently (something that used to be just a hunch for me), and the fact that 熟語 had two meanings (I knew how to write the word and understood its literal meaning, but had never delved into it). That’s enough for me. It was worth it, and there are (I hope) no hard feelings. This thread is full of fascinating examples of the sheer number of readings kanji can have, not least among them your example of 生, and I’m glad to have participated.


Definitely no hard feelings here.


To contribute something useful—

You said above that you were interested in the history of the language and in linguistics. You may want to check out A History of the Japanese Language, by Bjarke Frellesvig, which goes into great depth about how these writing and reading conventions developed. It’s an academic text with lots of weird phonetic notation but I’ve been able to figure out most of what it’s saying without an academic background in linguistics.

Also, separately, worth noting that on’yomi compounds are overrepresented on WK relative to their prevalence in the wild—which doesn’t invalidate your rule of thumb for kanji readings, but does fill out the picture a bit. The Wikipedia article on this is clear and well sourced.


Thanks for the links.

I started skimming towards the end of the article when I reached the section on sound changes, and I eventually stopped altogether, because some of the sound changes mentioned were things I had surmised based on the differences I heard between Mandarin and other Chinese dialects: my parents and grandparents are all dialect speakers, so I learnt to convert between dialect pronunciation and Mandarin pronunciation in order to understand what was being said in conversations. I’ve tackled the topic myself in a response to a Chinese speaker on these forums starting Japanese. Similarly, many of the phenomena mentioned by the article with regard to Sino-Japanese words were things I was already familiar with or that I had guessed. I didn’t realise that the phenomenon of back-borrowing had taken place at such a great scale though. Then again, it isn’t really surprising since it’s common for less advanced societies to borrow words from neighbouring societies that are more advanced: Japan borrowed words from Ancient China, and modern China borrowed words from Japan after it advanced beyond China. The article is very comprehensive though.

This looks like a good book, and it seems it’s received high praise, if the quotes in review section of the summary are to be believed. I might look into it if I want a structured, broad discussion of the history of Japanese. For now though, I’ll be focusing on improving my ability to use and understand Japanese, and I intend to study 古語 once I’m sufficiently advanced so I’ll be able to interpret Japanese proverbs properly. Japanese students have to study Classical Japanese in school anyway, so I have to do that too if I want to be on par with native speakers. After all, as a Chinese speaker, I’m able to read some Classical Chinese because of its ubiquity in Chinese proverbs. First, however, I’ll need to be fluent enough to understand websites that deal with such topics, along with lessons on YouTube that deal with all the classical inflections and helper verbs, which are quite different from those in Modern Japanese. (That’s a hurdle that Chinese speakers learning Classical Chinese don’t have to face, because inflections and conjugation don’t exist in Chinese.) Till then, I’ll keep in mind the existence of this book in case I want an academic discussion of Japanese in English. Thanks again.

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It’s like the entire country of Japan, across it’s entire history, conspired together to create the most perfect troll ever.

Well played

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You kind of just get a feel for it after a while and can guess with pretty good accuracy whenever you encounter a new usage of a kanji that you’ve learned before. In general, the rules that I use are:

  1. Government or legal texts - Jukugo galore, almost everything is going to be onyomi. This is because back in the day, Chinese was the lingua franca. Even today, using more onyomi words has a feeling of being more “academic” and “smart-sounding.”
  2. Folk custom related or other traditional writing - Almost always kunyomi. Even any jukugos will be given kunyomi. They also typically hide pronunciations that would be covered by okurigana in the modern age. For example, yama-no-te is frequently written 山手 without the の.
  3. Names (people and places) - Onyomi is typically the exception. Vast majority of the time, you’re safe using kunyomi.
  4. There’s also a set of kanji that just have one pronunciation in major use. After you see it enough, you just kind of know that it’s only pronounced this one way.

My recommendation is just to learn the sounds of vocabulary words, independent of their kanji. Once you do that, you tie the sound to the meaning, rather than having to go through the characters used.


Seems like no one mentioned in case of doubt you can simply paste the text to Google Translate. I can’t certify it is accurate, but I guess it knows :thinking:

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Browser extension with pop-up dictionary is even easier. Just highlight and bam, there it is. Look up rikaikun or rikaichamp depending on if you’re Chrome or Firefox. For words with multiple pronunciations, it even stars the most commonly used one.

Fun fact: of the hundred most common surnames in Japanese, all of the ones that use pure on’yomi, and only those, have 藤 as the second kanji. For example, 佐藤, 伊藤, 加藤, 斉藤.

For the rest, you’ll be correct nine times out of ten if you use the kun’yomi, but sometimes there’s half-and-half on/kun names, and sometimes they use nanori instead, which are readings that are used only in names. Also, sometimes there’s invisible particles, as with your 山手 example - 木下 is きした, 井上 is いうえ, and so forth.


First time? :joy:

Don’t worry, that’s kind of @Jonapedia’s thing. I’ve had 200 item review sessions that don’t last as long as his posts. :wink:

And that’s why this place is awesome. :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: You guys rock :metal:


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