Why are kanji readings, esp. on'yomi, so important to progress in WaniKani?


I’ve been using WaniKani for no longer than three days now, and I’ve just encountered my first kanji characters (the fairly slow beginning stage is another thing I’d love to complain about, but not now), and I can’t help but notice that knowing how to read a logographic character seems to be as important to the creators of WaniKani as knowing its meaning. Especially, in the case of most kanji characters (that I’ve encountered, even though, I think the FAQ and the User Guide did state that it was the case for most kanji in general on the website), the on’yomi reading, which is mostly known to be the “chinese” reading of a kanji character.

I mean, I get it. If I know what two characters mean, and also how they are read (whatever reading is given to me by WaniKani - kun’ or on’yomi - based on whatever is more important and useful to know, according to the FAQ and User Guide), if I ever see them together, even if I had never seen that word before, I could probably guess how it’s read, but also have a pretty good idea of what it means, thanks to WaniKani.

But nevertheless kanji are merely logographic, meaning that they tend to be determined by meaning more than by how they’re read. Meaning that there is still a chance that my guess on how to read that “foreign word” may be wrong, whereas my vague guess on what it means is definitely - with almost no shadow of a doubt - right. What if those two kanji characters use kun’yomi reading in that context, and I’ve only actually learned their on’yomi reading, for example? I mean, WaniKani recognizes this very “meaning over reading” principle of kanji already, when it gives us multiple alternatives of on’yomi or kun’yomi for a single character.

My question is: if kanji are in fact more consistent in, and tend to be more determined by, their meaning, and WaniKani knows this, and WaniKani even gives us examples of how these kanji characters can be read in different contexts with their vocabulary lessons, why even bother testing us on kanji reading, if we’re gonna learn it at some point anyway, and we’ll all eventually know it’s actually more complicated than just “this is how you read this character”? I mean, when I get new vocabulary that features kanji I know (kanji that I know at least the meaning of), I’ll not only have some idea of what that new vocabulary means, but WaniKani will also teach me how to read the new words anyway, regardless of the kanji readings I already learned for the characters present. So, what was the point of creating a barrier when I was learning those kanji characters that I could only cross if I knew their “reading”, when now that “reading” is actually not even how you read those specific characters in this specific new word I’ve just learned? Couldn’t I just have learned the meaning of that character, and then eventually learn how it can be read in different contexts through the vocabulary lessons? And I think I wouldn’t need WaniKani’s help on grouping those “readings” together with their kanji, because simply learning the vocabulary would probably already lead me to notice some patterns here and there, therefore figuring out most “kanji readings” on my own. It would just make for a more self-didactic experience, with less hand-holding.

I don’t mean to force WaniKani to change or anything. I’m still happy with the website, and this one issue doesn’t really bother me that much. I can still have a pretty enjoyable experience here. But it’s just something I couldn’t help but notice.


If it seems a little arbitrary, that’s because it is. Both Japanese and this website.

But a little hand holding can be nice in the jungle of kanji.


Why would you deliberately want to make it harder for you? Instead of having to notice “patterns” on your own, being straight out told “Yeah the reading for this kanji is mostly this” saves you extra time, doesn’t it?
The reason I gave up on “Remembering the kanji” by Heisig is exactly because of this.


Please don’t make a topic about Wanikani’s slow start. Trust me, you wouldn’t be the first - or the last. It’s actually a bit of a running joke among the community.

The reason wanikani teaches you a reading for the kanji, is because wanikani works by teaching you incrementally. First you learn to recognize shapes in the kanji (radicals), then you learn the kanji themselves along with one reading, then you learn the other readings through vocabulary. Instead of giving you an overwhelming amount of information to memorize at once, it breaks it down into different stages.

One reason why the Chinese readings are very important is because they are often used when constructing multi-kanji words. Because I have learned these readings, I am often able to correctly guess the pronunciation of words that I have never seen before, because I know the readings of the individual kanji. For example, you might encounter something like 第二次世界大戦. If you don’t learn the readings of the kanji, you might have no idea how to pronounce this word for “World War II”, but if you learn the on’yomi, you could guess the pronunciation despite never learning the word before.

Also you mentioned in your post that you expect to be able to guess the meaning of words based on kanji meanings. This is not always the case. There are a lot of weird words that don’t follow the regular meanings of kanji - a lot of kanji have secondary meanings, extra meanings used in certain contexts, and even older meanings that are mostly defunct but still remain in a word here and there.

So to conclude, yes, you do need to learn those readings, and yes it will help your studies in the long run. Kanji tend to have one or two most commonly used readings, so when you learn one of them with the kanji, you’re already doing half the work, which will make learning the vocab words a lot easier.


Personally, I didn’t second-guess learning the readings at all. In fact, I often quiz myself on the likely reading of new vocab in my lessons before even seeing to reading to see if I remember the kanji readings correctly (of course there are exceptions to some vocab readings). I guess I don’t understand the pushback on this one…


I do love people who live in the imaginary world where seeing two Kanji you know together in a word you don’t know immediately means you know the meaning.


I don’t get it. Is your goal learning the language or learning the meanings of kanji?


I believe his wall of text was trying to say that he wants to learn readings through vocab and not kanji in isolation.
Which is a valid point, just not how WK teaches.


@Syphus, no need to be snarky, @renveia just arrived. Extend a helping hand instead.

@renveia, the answer is that your belief that kanji are “logographic” is largely wrong, for Japanese, as is your belief that you will be able to intuit the meaning of a word when you see two kanji together. It can seem this way at the very beginning, especially since the earliest kanji are simple pictograms. However, only a very small minority of kanji (or hanzi) are pictographic. You very quickly get into ideograms, rebus characters, or phono-semantic compound characters, almost none of which you will be able to guess at. Learning the readings (1) provides another handle with which you’ll be able to get at the meaning from another direction and (2) is going to be necessary the very moment you start in on vocabulary anyway.

TLDR: WaniKani’s purpose is to teach the kanji as used in Japanese. The readings of the characters are an essential part of that context.


This is literally the whole post.


Even if absolutely nothing else, having at least one reading firmly mentally connected to a kanji makes looking it up in a dictionary to figure out words you don’t know much easier. And looking up kanji to determine their meaning is something you’ll be doing a ton of.

The meaning of the individual kanji isn’t all that helpful when coming across a new compound word, because while some combinations are very logical, many others are quite abstract.


Awww yes, my time to shine with an anecdote to back up @Syphus ’ statement! (@renveia too)

The other day I saw this picture:

For the first time in my life (which was exciting), I was able to read kanji in the wild. The kanji there behind the windshield.

Note I say “the kanji,” and not “the word.” I was like, what the hell is a Sky Car?

Is that some kind of taxi company? A flying car? Surely if Japan was so far advanced, someone would have spilled the proverbial beans by now. However, because WK has taught me the onyomi for sky and car, I was able to pop くう + しゃ into the dictionary/wiktionary and discover that 空 - at least in this context - also means empty (I guess the sky is kind of empty too). It turned out to be empty car, aka vacant, ready to take passengers.

So in a nutshell, that’s pretty why it’s useful to know the onyomi and kunyomi. Otherwise I’d be left thinking Sky Car has a monopoly on taxi cabs. Imagine how dangerous that would be if it were two completely benign words that ended up meaning something like “High Voltage” or “Face away from body”


If you don’t want to learn reading, then grab a copy of Heisig’s “Learning the Kanji”… and after you finish the first book you will have invested lots of time and still not be able to read anything.


Ahh yes, my favorite way to get around. Flying in my sky car while I listen to some sound pleasants straight from my electric talk.


Although I understand the point you’re making, this is not a good example since also carries the meaning of void, empty, hollow, etc. So you’re not really refuting the OP’s original assertion.


The only question is … if the taxi is vacant, why is there so much stuff on the passenger seats?


As some here have already alluded to, ateji are going to mess with your meanings theory. The go-to example for this is sushi. Usually it is written as 寿司 when written in kanji. 寿 means “longevity, congratulations, one’s natural life”. 司 means “director, official, govt office, rule, administer”. However, their pronunciations can be す and し respectively. Obviously neither meaning has anything to do with the food.


While that’s true, if you use this site alone, at least for the Kanji it only takes “Sky”.

As far as non-Ateji go, 勝手, 空疎, 腹がたつ、肉欲 are a few things off the top of my head that I don’t think you could simply guess without any kind of context.


There is value to learning the meaning and reading of kanji in isolation. Here’s my thought on why. Disclaimer: everybody is different etc etc. When you practise something you get good at exactly what you practise. The question is how much spillover is there into other areas. For instance, if you practise cycling, there’s probably a lot of spillover into running. But you don’t get as good at running as you get at cycling. If you learn the kanji only by learning jukugo, then you learn the kanji in the context of what other kanji it is combined with. There is a lot of spillover into knowing the meaning and reading of the kanji in isolation, but as with cycling/running it’s not 100% the same. If you encounter a new word, you might not recognise the kanji it has in common with word that shares the kanji and you do know.

As for me, I fail reviews of kanji all the time even if i just a few review earlier passed a review with a word containing that kanji. I just didn’t recognise it because it was in isolation.

And I’m ashamed to say that even the fact that the word is on wanikani is a little bit of a crutch. There have been times when I have read a word on twitter on the bus home and not understood it, only to successfully review the very same word on wanikani when I get home (I guess the reason is that on twitter it could be anything, but on wanikani I at least know that it is something i should know).


As far as I understand the idea is not to ask for the reading for kanji. Not sure how working less will improve your memory, shouldn’t you just do additional reviews like kaniwani?