Two Kanji-Word - Which comes first?

I hope this has not been asked a gazillion times before …

I use Kaniwani in addition to Wanikani because I have the feeling that vocab sinks in deeper this way. One problem I came across is the order of 2-Kanji words.
Sometimes we get complety different meanings as in 理論 and 論理,
Sometimes only one way can be a correct word.

In Wanikani we don’t have this problem - because we always see the correct order in the questions - but if you only see the English word and have to come up with the correct kanji in the correct order, sometimes it leads to endless repetitions.

My question: are there any rules of thumb (or better) as to which kanji usally come first in a two (or more) kanji-vocab?

Thank you :slight_smile:


If you look at the meanings and all you can remember is the two kanji, and not the actual words themselves, then spending time hammering those words in more would be what I would do. Find examples of the words being used, dig into monolingual definitions, repeat them out loud to yourself. Of course, you can always just force some full-word mnemonic on them as well. Something like “lonely” for ろんり and… I’m not quite sure for りろん, but maybe someone has something.

But at the end of the day, I don’t use any overarching rule of thumb. Just familiarity with the words behind the kanji.


What comes before modifies what comes after. This seems to be true for kanji compounds too. 論理 is an argument of reason so it’s logic. 理論 is a reasoned argument so it’s a theory. In each of the compounds that I’ve looked at closely, the final kanji is the main idea with the others modifying it. I only look closely when I’m struggling with remembering something so perhaps this doesn’t apply as much as I think it does. It’s worked for me so far, so I hope it can work for you too.


This is probably strictly true in the sense that it’s probably how the words came to exist in Chinese. Unfortunately, there are lots of times where knowing this doesn’t really seem all that helpful to me (会社, 社会, for instance). I guess it’s just about finding ones that work for you.

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Exactly what I use, including when I’m speaking Chinese. It works the same way.

@RalfKanjii An alternative breakdown: 理 is ‘reason’, but also ‘principle’. It’s something that brings order. 論 contains 言, which suggests it’s about talking: ‘arguing’, yes, but also about ‘discussion’. If you want a principle for arguments or discussions, then it has to be ‘logic’. If you’re discussing/arguing things in a reasoned/orderly manner, based on principles, then you’re looking at a ‘theory’.

I took a crack at this one before, but both Japanese and Chinese sources agree that the two words used to mean almost the same thing, and I’m not entirely convinced by my own explanation in that post. However, one of the old senses for 社会 in Chinese was ‘a festival organised on specific days to thank the village/earth god’, which might have helped make it seem more ‘social’ than 会社 when the Japanese author who popularised 社会 as ‘society’ was deciding which word to choose.

If I went with the nuances associated with 社 and 会 now, I’d say that 社 feels more like a complex, hierarchical organisation that functions as a single unit, whereas 会 is a more general kanji for meeting or coming together. To me, that makes 社会 a better fit for ‘society’, which is a much looser grouping of people, and 会社 a better fit for ‘company’. However, this is might be a chicken and egg thing, since the decision to use 社会 for ‘society’ probably influenced how each kanji is used. ‘What comes before modifies what comes after’ works very well in Chinese though, and it hasn’t failed me often in Japanese, at least in my limited experience so far, especially when kanji are involved.

Yeah, ultimately, I guess it’s about whatever helps someone remember a phrase. I like that ‘before modifies after’ rule, but if I can’t make it work, I’ll have to use something else, and some kanji compounds in Japanese and Chinese are so strange that even with such a rule, only familiarity will really allow one to remember them.

EDIT: In all fairness, I have some vague memories coming back to me of wondering what in the world the difference between the words in certain ‘AB vs BA’ pairs in Chinese was, particularly 適合 and 合適 (which are both valid in Chinese), so yeah, the rule isn’t foolproof. It was pretty frustrating at times. In that specific case though, the answer was ‘the former is a verb, and the latter is an adjective’. That’s something probably best learnt with a monolingual dictionary and assimilated through usage, which would probably be the sort of ‘hammering in’ you mentioned.


Thanks for your insight.
The first modifies second “rule” seems to help. At least with this one: 増税 . In English and in my language it would be the other way round. (But we also write the first name first …)
If I can avoid coming up with mnemonics for half of the words, you have already helped me and hopefully some more a great deal.

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OK, for this one, in actual fact, if you knew Chinese grammar… you would know that this one is a verb + noun (in that order). That’s also why this thing so easily becomes a する verb. It’s more accurately ‘(the act of) increasing taxes’. This is one of those cases where I wouldn’t be able to apply the rule, but I’d be OK because I speak Chinese. Chinese is a subject-verb-object language like English and most other European languages, and this is one example: ‘increase tax’. I guess you could say that if you want to learn this sort of interpretation without learning Chinese, then the bare minimum you need to do is to look out for kanji that are often associated with verbs, because that means they could represent an action. Then you can see whether it makes more sense to parse the kanji phrase as ‘first modifies second’ or ‘verb+noun’. In the case of 増, you have words like 増す, 増やす and 増える, so it’s very closely linked to the action of ‘increasing’.

I hope this isn’t too confusing, because I know it’s not exactly the same pattern. You could of course parse it with Japanese word order as ‘taxes that are increased’=‘増やす税金’. That wouldn’t match the Chinese grammar, but it’s still understandable. Ultimately, you need to find a way to remember what everything means, including the fact that it means ‘to raise taxes’ (i.e. someone else e.g. the government is doing it) and not ‘for taxes to rise’ (which involves no one other than the taxes). I’d say the ‘first modifies second’ rule works best for ‘noun and noun’, ‘adjective and noun’ and ‘adjective and adjective’ kanji compounds. When verbs are involved, a little more interpretation is needed, which may be hard without being able to speak Chinese. Still, I mean, Japanese people handle all this just fine without being able to speak Chinese, so don’t worry about it too much! When there’s a will, there’s a way!

PS: Feel free to ask if you’re confused or have another question. I’ll try to explain what I can, without drawing too much on Chinese if you prefer that.

I don’t think you should try to make ‘rules’ for anything with Kanji, because there will always be exceptions. Just try to find ways you can remember. I find 論理 easy to get right, because Mister Spock may be perfectly logical, but he’s always lonely inside. So ronely.

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Honestly with 論理 and 理論 the only thing that made it stick for me is the ‘o’ is first in logic and ろんり and it’s last in theory and 理論.

The other “rule” I have is that the definition is usually based on the first Kanji. Works 8 times out of 10, so it’s not bad. Example, 圧迫 is pressure.


I struggled for so long with these two so this is kind of the method I use, except I use the ‘i’ sound in “reason” too:

論理 - ronri - logic
理論 - riron - reason


I’m bookmarking this. So useful! Thank you.

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