Vocabulary VS Kanji?

Hello friends. This is the first thing about Japanese to really confuse me. I’ve started the vocabulary lessons and I can’t wrap my head around why Kanji are pronounced differently as “vocabulary words” and “word words”. As in: “you read a Kanji differently if it’s conjugated into a phrase or concept with hiragana.” - okay, I totally get that. But why are some read two entirely different ways when they’re completely alone? Such as mountain being pronounced “san” to mean “mountain”, and also being pronounced “yama” to mean “mountain”? All WaniKani tells me is that one is “vocabulary” and the other is “Kanji”. What is going on here and what is the pertinence of it in Japanese writing? Do I just go further into my lessons before it’ll make sense?

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It’s important to remember that when you learn the kanji, you’re just learning one reading, but it’s not “THE reading” or anything like that. The ones you learn later are also readings on the same level of validity as the one you learned first, they just aren’t all taught at once so you aren’t overwhelmed.

Kanji can have many readings and can appear in many vocab. Vocab usually only have one reading, but there are exceptions.

So さん is “a” (not “the”) reading of the kanji 山, and やま is another. However, if you see the word 山 in a sentence, it’s going to be read as やま and not さん.

If you see 山 as a suffix at the end of a mountain name, it could be either さん or やま, depending on that mountain’s name.

So maybe that clears things up to some extent. Keep asking questions if it doesn’t though.


Kanji is an abstract concept that has meanings and readings. For example kanji 日 has meanings “day” and “sun”, and multiple readings.

What you see written in a book or website or store sign is a vocabulary. If you see “朝日”, it would be read as あさひ=あさ + ひ and it would mean “morning sun” or “rising sun” (this is vocal from level 8, sorry).

But the meaning of vocal usually is tied to the meaning of individual kanjis, and there are (complicated) rules for a reading of vocab as well.

I suggest you to give it a bit more time, keep an open mind, pay attention to pink (kanji) background vs purple (vocabulary) background during reviews, and maybe read more on Japanese on’yomi vs kun’yomi readinfs on Tofugu blog or podcast:

And forums have multitude of related topics, so old-timers are getting tired a bit of repetitive questions.
Searching forums first works like a charm for me.

All this is coming from the absolute beginner of Japanese, who started not that far ago, and only learned thru internet and most of it on this forum. So it’s possible to get it without a teacher. The main thing is to accept that you are not going to understand the language or the WK process 100% right away.

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