When to use On'yomi or Kun'yomi?

How do you know when to use the different readings? Now that I am starting to get more vocabulary and there’s a bigger mixture of kanji/vocabulary in my reviews, I’m finding that most of the time I am getting answers wrong because I am using the incorrect reading.

Also: what does jukugo mean? And what are jukugo words?

Sorry if there is another topic similar to this, doing this on mobile so I can’t see the “Your topic is similar to…”

Jukugo in this context just means a word that contains more than one kanji. It’s a kanji compound.

There are some rules of thumb for when to read things certain ways, but there are exceptions to everything.

-When a word is made from a single kanji, it often uses the kunyomi
-When a word is made from a single kanji plus some hiragana, it usually uses the kunyomi
-When a word is made from two or more kanji, it often uses the onyomi

But as I said, there are exceptions to all of those.

You can have single kanji, or kanji plus hiragana, where the onyomi is used. A common word like ほん is one such example.

You can have words with multiple kanji that are read with kunyomi (手紙てがみ), or a mixture of on and kun (場所ばしょ), or a completely different kind of reading called jukujikun, where a Japanese word gets assigned to the whole set of kanji as a whole. An example of a jukujikun would be like 大人おとな or 今日きょう.

Some words can be read in multiple ways without changing the meaning. An example would be 帆船はんせん, which is on-on, and 帆船ほぶね, which is kun-kun, but they both mean sailboat. I believe はんせん is the more common reading.

This all will become simpler with experience as well. Over time you’ll be able to read things and kind of guess with better-than-chance odds of getting it right.


Numbers almost always use the On’yomi reading, except for the numbers four and seven, because their On readings are similar to the word death.

exceptions within exceptions x3

One remarkably good rule of thumb is that body parts and compounds with body parts often use kun-yomi, like 手紙 above.

1 Like

This is something that I still struggle to remember lol, but I found this video really helpful. I jumped it ahead to 2:53 where he starts explaining the difference:

I find myself watching it multiple times because I can’t seem to keep the concept straight in my head haha, but he explains it pretty clearly.

I’m not sure how often it happens exactly… it’s certainly often enough that it makes sense to note that it’s a source of many exceptions, but I’m not certain that kunyomi body part compounds outnumber onyomi body part compounds.

Numbers from Jisho: (Using the most common kun/on reading)
手 て 474, しゅ 69
足 あし 373, そく 19
首 くび 57, しゅ 54
頭 あたま 83, とう 43
So yeah, not a hard and fast rule at all, but kun>on.

I don’t really have a reason to argue with it, but I would be curious what you included or excluded. For instance, I probably would not include, say 手続き or お手洗い, seeing as “hiragana attached” is what I would consider as the explanation for an overall kunyomi. Or like, 手錠, where 錠 has no kunyomi so it has to be a mixed reading.

But it was kind of a rhetorical question anyway.

I just counted the number of occurrences of each reading because it was a trivial exercise. I agree that things like お手洗い should probably be excluded but that would have been a lot more effort…

1 Like

Personally I find it not really mattering, so much so that I no longer know which is which or I just don’t care or pay attention to it.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed 365 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.