Why a distinction between Kanji that contains On and Kun readings and Vocabulary?

Hi :slightly_smiling_face:

I hope you are well today. I have read through similar posts but cannot understand this distinction from the answers.

Why does WaniKani have a category for Kanji and Vocabulary?

I understand there is a difference between On and Kun readings, what is confusing to me is the category “Vocabulary”.
What makes a Kanji a Vocab word and what makes it a Kanji by WaniKani’s definition? Is this just a grouping used by WaniKani to help with learning? Or are there Vocabulary words and Kanji words in the Japanese language, clearly defined as such?

Apologies if the question is not clear, I am a little confused. Please let me know if I can clarify.

Thank you,

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Is the letter b a word? No

Is the letter e a word? No

Is the letter a a word? Yes, it’s both a letter and word

Is be a word? Yes, despite consisting of things that aren’t words.

B, e and a would be kanji. Be and a would be words.

Some kanji are also words by themselves. Some aren’t.

There are vocab words and kanji, yes. Not sure what you mean by a kanji word necessarily.


Welcome to the site!

Only the vocabulary items are words you would encounter in real sentences.

Kanji items are more like a broad concept for that particular character. They often can have many readings and many meanings. WaniKani typically only teaches and asks for one of each to keep things from being overwhelming, but they’re all acceptable most of the time.

Words usually have just one reading, though there are exceptions.

When you read a sentence, you’re seeing words, but the words can be made up of 1 or more kanji. So, it can be confusing why there is a 水 kanji item and a 水 vocab item, but it’s kind of like how “a” or “I” (that’s a capital i) can be words in English with very specific meanings, even though they are also letters that can make up other words too.


The other two explanations are good, but allow me to also give my own comparison because I think it might be clearer than letters that don’t really have “meaning” on their own.

I think the best comparison are English parts of words that reappear in many words. Think “bio.” Not really a word on its own (barring abbreviated uses), but words with it tend to mean something related to life. Biology, biometrics, biography, etc. That’s what kanji is like, while vocab are, of course, those words. Sometimes a single kanji is a word in itself, but of course is still a kanji which probably has uses in combination with other kanji, so they double up on teaching them as both (often with different readings)


The best thing about learning the kanji themselves, and not just memorizing words made up of kanji, is that once you internalize the kanji, you aren’t constrained to just the words you learn directly in Wanikani. This is invaluable when you apply what you’re learning by reading (or listening, but especially reading) Japanese content. I’m halfway through the journey, but just knowing the kanji I’ve done so far gives me a pretty good chance at figuring out new words I encounter. You see how things fit together, which is very satisfying. And you’ll Burn vocab much more efficiently.

Good luck with your learning.


another way to look at it might be with (as an example) the triplet of “water”, “aqua”, and “hydro”.

all three carry the meaning of “water”. the first is the english word (with roots in germanic languages). the second and third come from latin and greek. we drink water. we keep fish and other aquatic lifeforms in aquariums. we study hydrology to learn about the water cycle, and get power from hydro-electric dams.

japanese is quite similar in that aspect, in that it has words with japanese origins (kun), and words with chinese origins (on). in english, we rarely (compared to water) use aqua and hydro as standalone words. and similarly, in japanese we rarely use the chinese reading as a standalone word.

so we have 水 (みず), and (for example) 水道 (すいどう, water supply).

if we used symbols (e.g. kanji) for writing english, we’d be using 水 for all three of water, aqua, and hydro. and we’d distinguish between the word water (written 水) and the symbol 水.


絵文字 enters the chat


derails thread by mentioning the title of another thread

Still my favorite explanation: How do you explain Japanese to people? - #16 by adr-p

Not sure if it completely answers your question but still wanted to share/hope it sheds some light anyway :slight_smile:

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Craiyon attempting to capture the “emoji means what” part of the title…


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Thank you all, really helpful information.

So vocabulary are how the words appear in sentences and can either be kun or on reading, and kanji are standalone characters never used in sentences and can be kun or on reading?

If we are talking strictly about single kanji, yes, vocab words can be on or Kun in general. However, except for a few exceptions, specific words will be read with one or the other and never both. Multi character vocab words also don’t have an “on or Kun”. They are units made up of onyomi, Kunyomi, both, or neither.

Simply put: words exist. They can be made up of 0-?? Kanji characters. Words are read a certain way. This reading can be a result of the kanji that make it up.

There are already good answer but let me answer to the last question only

“Or are there Vocabulary words and Kanji words in the Japanese language, clearly defined as such?”

no, they’re not.
Native people (including Japanese) learn to speak before writing, which is hardly surprising but it’s often not the case when you learn a foreign language.
In the language there is no concept of a “kanji”. Simple names can be often written with a single Kanji (fi.e. kuruma: 車) but for verbs and adjective you need to put some hiragana ( arau: 洗う)
So far so good. But when people want to create new fancy words, they usually use the onyomi, since it sounds more “polite” ( sensya: 洗車), but there are tons of exceptions.

So learning both the onyomi and kunyomi of a kanji helps when reading unknown words, but only the words in the vocabolary part of WK are used by themselves.

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