What's the system?

I have tried for a while now, but I can’t figure out the system.

One second I’m told that the kanji for “person” (in the sentence category) should be pronounced “hito”, but then I run into sentences like “American person”, “two people” or “population” and suddenly I can’t figure out if I’m supposed to write “hito” or “jinn”

I end up guessing and I don’t like that. I remember more easily if I understand the system. That, or if there was some sort of clue in the sentences as to the pronunciation - which there isn’t with a lot of these words.

Someone please help?

In short, a reading for Kanji has two or more way of reading. I dont actually understand much too, someone will elaborate more on this.

Simply to say in this case, we say 人 as Hito when it stand alone, meaning Person. When it is combined with other kanji to make another word, lets say 白人, it read as Hakujin, Haku from 白 and Jin from 人. 白 is read Shiro when it stand alone.

Thats more or less the simple way to describe it. A standalone Kanji is (edit: usually) read differently than two combined Kanjis*. This is very simple description, someone will surely gonna give more detailed explanation. All I know is they are called Kunyomi and Onyomi readings.

Edit 2: *exception exist (thanks to lucdle)

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I think you’re confused about Kun’yomi and On’yomi. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a good idea to look it up. But basically, Onyomi = Chinese reading and Kunyomi = Japanese reading.

There’s no concrete rule, but pink kanji reviews will generally be On’yomi while vocabulary is purple and normally involves the Kun’yomi. However, if there are two kanji next to each other its called a Jukugo word and that would then normally use the On’yomi.

In this case, American person (アメリカ人 - Amerikajin)which includes Kanji with Katakana acts like a jukugo and it uses the On’yomi for 人 (jin).

In any case, that’s a generally good rule to follow, but there some exceptions. For example some kanji involving body parts use kun’yomi readings. Left hand (左手 - Hidarite)


Do you have any link that describing this? I also had trouble sometimes understanding this and need some good sources to learn.

From how I describe it above, it clearly indicating I only have few, flawed understanding.

I found this pretty enlightening Kanji Facts | KANJIDAMAGE


First, thank you for your reply :slight_smile:

Yes, I’ve used the colors to remember the different pronounciations too, but isn’t that a bad idea? I mean, in real life the sentences/kanji won’t be in pink or purple, so it’s better to understand the reason why first.

But that’s another question. The kanji for “person” (pink) is pronounced “nin” or “jin” (On’yomi, I’m guessing). That’s also just a single kanji and yet it’s pronounced like that. How do I know the difference?

The difference is that when it’s pink, WaniKani is asking how you would read the kanji 人, and when it’s purple, WaniKani is asking how you would read the word 人. Some words consist of a single kanji. In “real life”, you read words, not kanji.


Basic rundown,

Kunyomi: Usually standalone word that acts as a single unit of vocab; ex: 人(ひと): Person. Verbs are a good example of this, when you read a verb you should jump to the kunyomi reading, ex: 食べる (たべる), 走る (はしる). This pronunciation also frequently has characters following the word, giving it away.

Onyomi: Compound vocab pronunciation, when the character 人(ひと)is attached to another character, its pronunciation changes to an established Onyomi reading, such as じん、にん. A better example instead of フランス人 for our purposes of showing this change (because in フランス人 you’re using katakana), the verb “to write” is 書く, (かく), but the word for “dictionary” is 辞書 (じしょ).

It’s really not that hard, wanikani just beats the onyomi readings into you during the “kanji” lessons so that you can eventually read long-winded nouns like 第二次世界大戦 (だいにじせかいたいせん) : Second world war - all without having to look up the characters because you know how it all should be pronounced.


As kanji has multiple On/Kun readings, whether you choose “nin” or “jin” depends on the word that the kanji is used in.
人生 (Jinsei) - One’s life
人気 (Ninki) - Popular
You learn when to use which reading when you learn more words.
Wanikani doesn’t always initially include all of the On/Kun readings either, you learn those extra readings as you learn more vocabulary.

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Came here to suggest the same thing. @Haesselmaas do read the page @lucdle suggested, it’s very descriptive. :+1:

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Enquiries about or suggested changes to ‘the system’ should be presented directly to the Emperor of Japan. His address is as follows:

The Emperor


WK doesn’t hold your hand on the basics of Japanese. You should probably study the general concepts for a bit before you jump into a narrow subject like kanji.

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I finished the reading. Enlightening and Entertaining at the same time. Really good learning material.

I wonder how many people would actually get this (considering I get this correctly in the first place)

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I think you’ve gotten a bunch of good answers already in this thread. I’ll try and summarize some of them.

Kanji characters have multiple ways of being read, in different categories. For the purpose of using WaniKani, we focus on the “main” two: On’yomi (the “Chinese” reading), kun’yomi (native reading). On’yomi refers to pronunciations borrowed from the Chinese language, from many different periods. Kun’yomi refers to pronunciations created within Japan, for Japan (presumably).

A single kanji character can have one or more of each. I think the highest amount for a single character is 12 or something.

On’yomi is most frequently found in words that are composed of two or more kanji.
Kun’yomi is most frequently found in words that are composed of a single kanji, or that can have hiragana/katakana in them.

WaniKani will try and first teach you what it thinks is the single most, or two most important, pronunciations for the character. You may learn the rest through vocabulary.

There is no way to know in advance what word uses which pronunciation unless the kanji has a single, easy pronunciation. Those are good words.

And yes, there are words which have exceptional ways to read them, with no warning beforehand.

This video may be fun to watch! It has some more info about why kanji have multiple readings, multiple times: Kanji Story - How Japan Overloaded Chinese Characters - YouTube

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I can’t say whether you get it correctly, but what I can say it’s a multilayered comment that reveals deeper and deeper, more esoteric meanings with each read. I expect it will still be being analyzed ten thousand years from now - long after its great wisdom has first caused and then healed the ‘great schism’.

Also when possible the WK will give you warning when it notices you entered the wrong reading and say that it was looking for the other reading, I’ve also notices that WK seems to give you a second chance if you were close, like missed keystroke, or mistook meaning for reading.

This post from Tofugu does a pretty good job explaining the difference between Onyomi and Kunyomi

An important thing worth noting is that WaniKani doesn’t always teach you the onyomi first, either. On words that the kunyomi is more common and useful, WK will teach you the kunyomi first and want the kunyomi for kanji reviews. As you go through lessons, it should show which reading it is as you work on them, and again on the kanji page.

As for which reading to use when, a general good rule of thumb:
1 kanji: Kunyomi
1 kanji with hiragana/katakana: Kunyomi
2+ kanji without hiragana/katakana: Onyomi, unless one is a body part, then maybe some Kunyomi

Using this, I can guess the readings before they reveal them surprisingly often.

Thanks everyone!

I think I understand the system a bit better now :+1:

The only issue now is to make it clear in my head which of the two pronounciations in my head is onyomi and which is kunyomi - otherwise none of the rules (about when to use what) will make sense :wink:

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