Why learn kanji readings if the reading of the kanji in vocab could easily be different?

So I’m a bit confused … what is the point of even learning the reading for a lone kanji if the reading of that kanji in the context of a vocab word could easily be different? Doesn’t it make more sense to just learn the readings for vocab words? I suppose the counterpoint is that if a given vocab word DOES use the on’yomi reading then you already “know” the reading for the vocab word, but since there’s no way to know for sure ahead of time (read: before learning the vocal word) whether or not a given vocab word does use the on’yomi reading, this point seems to be of little value. Thoughts?

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You use both. Some words use the on reading, some words use the kon reading.


This is a common argument I’ve seen on the internet. In contrast, some people focus heavily on learning kanji and all their readings. I guess it’s a different ideology when it comes to learning. I like learning the individual kanji, since it gives me like a toolbox of kanji that I can draw from when I come across new words. I can guess at readings, even if I won’t always be right. And for me, learning the kanji meanings helps me with creating mnemonics for vocab words. You could argue it might be more efficient to just learn vocab and not individual kanji, that’s possible. To each their own though, some people prefer focusing on actual vocab. There might be a better argument for Wanikani’s method that I’m not aware of, though.


It’s nice to have a go-to reading at the tip of your tongue when encountering the kanji in new words, because learning to read is going to involve a lot of encountering new words. Which means a lot of guessing readings to look up those words.

Wanikani teaching one common reading along with the kanji is just getting you to the point where you can confidently guess the likeliest reading slightly quicker.


Interesting points made here. This might be a stupid question (forgive me as I’m just a beginner, level 1) but will it always be the case that some words will use the on’yomi reading? Or are there kanji for which only vocab words with kun’yomi readings exist? Also, is it common for multiple vocab words that contain a given kanji to use the same kun’yomi reading for the kanji? Or is it more common for vocab words to use a myriad of different kun’yomi readings for a given kanji?

No worries! The multiple readings is surely the most confusing thing for anyone when starting to learn to read Japanese so you’re in plenty good company :slight_smile:

Wanikani does not always teach the on’yomi with the kanji. For some kanji, it will teach the kun’yomi.

Overall, there’s really no pattern that holds for all characters. Some kanji you’ll always see in on’yomi compounds, and a kun’yomi may not even exist. Some kanji you’ll always see as kun’yomi and an on’yomi may not even exist. Lots of kanji have a common reading of both type. Some have multiple common readings of one or the other or both.
So Wanikani just picks the one or two readings it thinks should pop into your head first when you see the kanji in a new word, and teaches those, leaving you to pick up the other readings through vocabulary.

I’d say it’s most common for a kanji to have 1 common on’yomi and/or 1 common kun’yomi, with variations on those readings or obscure exceptions also being common but less important.

It can be confusing and intimidating starting out, because the most common kanji are, naturally, the ones that also have the most common readings!
So you may get the impression that every kanji will have lots of exceptions and special cases, but most are comparatively straightforward, and just with experience (no need to specifically study this) you can tell over time pretty confidently which readings are on’yomi and which are kun’yomi, as well as what situations they’re likely to appear.
Keeping the on/kun classifications in mind isn’t something you need to worry about as much as it seems like at first as long as you’re learning the readings for vocabulary correctly. And imo at least, Wanikani does a good job easing you into each kanji.

Thank you for your detailed reply, it was quite helpful!

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Trying to avoid stepping over the line between adding clarifying information and just plain muddying the waters, but I think it’s worth noting that some of the most common kanji have multiple readings that need remembering, unfortunately - for example 上 has じょう (on’yomi), うえ, あ and のぼ (all kun’yomi) as common readings. And slightly less commonly, かみ.

Meanwhile, other kanji have only a single reading - either only on (because they describe a concept that didn’t exist in Japan when that kanji was introduced) or only kun (because they were invented in Japan). For example 駅 (meaning “station”, as in a train station) has only an on’yomi (えき) and no kun’yomi. For a not insignificant number kanji which do have two readings, one of them is so rare that it’s not included in the Joyo list - for example 案 has both an on’yomi (あん) and a kun’yomi (つくえ), but the kun’yomi is obsolete and not used any more.


Thanks for the post I was just thinking the same thing - also a beginner currently on level 2

Another reason why teaching reading and meaning (and teaching the kanji themselves, as opposed to just vocabulary) is to get the idea that words are not made randomly, there is a reason why a given word uses such and such kanji and has a given sound.

If vocabulary is learnt be by one, without refence to kanji, then one could get the impression that each sound is particular to each word (and for some few words that is actually the case).
Over time some patterns will emerge, and you will realize that some kanji have some sounds, but it is much easier if you are given the key beforehand.

It allows guessing how to say unknown words, but also say and understand made-up words (that occur a lot in books, games etc), book titles, institution names etc (which are very often long strings of kanji) that with very few exceptions you won’t find on dictionaries.

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