What is with these alternate Kanji?

I’m reading こころ on Aozora and the author seems fond of using what I would call more obscure Kanji in place of more common ones (like what WK teaches). For example:

淋しい instead of 寂しい
路 instead 道
解る instead 分かる
座蒲団 instead 座布団
蔽う instead 覆う

I’m curious why this is. Is it because the book was published in 1914 and these are older forms? Dictionaries list these alternate forms but I almost never see them. I once went through the remainder of the 常用漢字 not covered by WK, and noticed that many of them belong to this category.

These words usually have furigana on them, as if to acknowledge that they are unusual, however I’m not sure if that was done by the author originally or added later. Generally speaking, should I be looking out for a different nuance with the alternate Kanji usage?


It’s normal to see more unusual kanji in novels. Sometimes there is a genuinely different nuance they are expressing (which I would say is the case for something like 解る and 分かる), but sometimes it’s just because they don’t want to use the typical way of writing it.

Also, keep in mind that things like… having a standard of kanji education for all schools (the jouyou kanji or other earlier versions) didn’t exist at that time. So there wasn’t a concept of “hyougai” kanji or readings. Just more common or less common.


I’ve seen 解る on occasion, but still very infrequently compared to 分かる. Here’s an explanation on the versions of わかる:

I feel like I’ve seen 淋しい before, but like once and I don’t remember where.

I don’t think I’ve seen the other three you mentioned. For what it’s worth, I haven’t read anything nearly as old as こころ.

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I also stumbled upon this sometime and found the Kodansha Kanji Usage Guide by Jack Halpern quite helpful which is basically a dictionary trying to explain the nuances of these so called “Kun Homophones” (Words that sound the same/ have the same kun-reading and a similar but just not quite the same meaning) in English. Historically I would assume they are words that existed in the Japanese language before Kanji were introduced and Kanji were applied to them retroactively but not always in the same way. Over time certain nuances and standards in usage were established but not always followed through. There is quite a few of these words - e.g. also のぼる: 登る、上る、昇る。

Btw I would not refer to them as Kanji-variants in every case which I think would be closer to an alternative form to write certain Kanji (e.g. 国、國 - the latter of which is sometimes used in names but has the same readings and etymology as the former standard form and therefore is considered the same character and listed in kanji dictionaries under the same entry marked as an alternative form).

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It’s definitely much more common to encounter (now) uncommon kanji variants in older books, as all the older stuff I’ve read (pre-1950 or so) have lots and lots of things like this, so I’ve just come to think of it as old-fashioned. Other stuff like that that I’ve seen include using kanji for common grammar bits where probably no one would today (like 迄), and the (now) unusual omission of the middle furigana in words like, say, 振切る instead of 振り切る.

I’ve often wondered when furigana was added or if it were ever expanded over time, or if any of this is ever modernized in certain editions (or if there’s even stranger things I haven’t seen because they’re always cleaned up) but whenever I’ve compared aozora (which I would probably expect to tend to be more directly preserving the older manuscript) and a commercial edition (which I’d probably expect to care more about readability) I’ve never seen any real differences in the furigana yet, so my guess is it’s not particularly different from how it was printed originally, but I’d be really curious to know more / have confirmation.

So if you ever find an edition with one of those publisher’s notes where they meticulously describe everything they changed about the manuscript… let me know I guess!


Only time I saw this was in a manga published less than 10 years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were just running out of space in the dialogue bubble and needed to save a character. :joy:


I once saw this on a “take a number and wait” thing at a government office in Japan. The requirement that the government use jouyou kanji does only refer to officially published documents.


Generally speaking, yes absolutely if you’re at the level where you can afford to read more into subtle nuance. I feel like for older stuff though, its a lot more common that its not a nuance thing and they just used a different kanji.

For newer stuff you have the basic ones that everyone knows like 聞く 聴く 訊く 、 利く 効く、etc… But for the less common ones you just gotta ask yourself if its worth it. Some of them are pretty obvious like 殺める and 危める but have a pretty important difference when it comes to definition. Ones like 汚す and 穢す, however, I feel like I would have been able to pick up on even if I didn’t really outright study it. I think so long as you are dedicating some attention to it , you’ll be able to notice which one is used in what sorta situation. Then, later down the road if you’ve seen them a few times and still can’t get a clear impression, its worth taking some time and looking it up. But for the most part, when it gets to that point theres usually not actually a difference to begin with.

What, yeah I’ve been back in japan for like 10 days now and have already seen 迄 like twice. Its still used for sure.


To add onto this, a common thing people get tripped up on: 始め and 初め are the same word, but one writing feels more like it’s… Uhhh… Referring to what comes next? 始め would be used for something like the start of a game, where 初め indicates more that something is the first of something. So, 初めまして and not 始めまして

Or maybe I got them backwards. As I said, it trips a lot of people up.

Or maybe I’m totally wrong about something. I hope not.

Maybe in Aria ? I’m 80% sure I saw 淋しい in Aria (among a few other like 唱う for 歌う)

One thing that surprised me while reading “Breaking Into Japanese Literature” (collection of seven story from classic literature) is that the text by Sosuke (1867-1916) was like you said. Full of kanji variant and grammar written in kanji (てみる always written て見る, こと as 事 etc) but the text by Ryunosuke (1892-1927) had no such thing if I remember correctly, it just read like average contemporary Japanese. They lived and published around the same time, so maybe it’s just Sosuke style ?


Heh, I was about to bring up Aria. That does like using alternate kanji for the nuances.

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Funny enough I saw 淋 first in 淋しい, but then proceeded to see it more in 油淋鶏 so 淋 ended up becoming the yummy chicken kanji in my head.

But yeah 唱う and 歌う are two more examples of kanji changing nuance. It actually goes a bit further than that, though. You actually have six for those

歌う 唄う 謳う 詠う 謡う 唱う

歌う- for regular singing

唄う- same as above but usually for traditonal japanese stuff

謡う-Similar to above but for Noh

謳う- Can be like praising or advocating something

詠う-writing or reciting a poem (with rise and falls I believe)

唱う- For reading something aloud like prayer or poem aloud without really having any rise or falls in for voice.


Thanks for mentioning this. I didn’t know I was wondering about this before you brought it up! ^^’ Now I know which one to use for myself - keeping with the times and all that.

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Not exactly that, but sometimes on Aozora you can find old and modernized versions of a text side-by-side… Which is not to say that they didn’t change anything about the old version, but it should be a big deal closer to the original, is my take on it.

E.g. if you look at the 夏目漱石 page: 作家別作品リスト:夏目 漱石 you can see that after each link they describe whether old (旧) or new (新) kanji and/or kana are in the text, and sometimes you can find the same story in different versions, which makes for a nice comparison. And I think you’ve guessed alread that of course “old” might also include old spellings, old grammar and the like. Enjoy :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:


Do take it with a grain of salt though :slight_smile: as this thread also demonstrates I only really have context for what ends up in books (and even then only my assumptions from the small handful I’ve read) - I don’t have any real context for what people use day to day


This seems like a rule-of-thumb to go by, rather than mix-and-match just however! XD

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