Why so much concern over on’yomi vs kun’yomi?

In my limited time looking at these boards, I’ve noticed a couple things that are quite common:

  • Assuming (incorrectly) that all the kanji readings we learn are on’yomi and all the single-kanji vocab readings are kun’yomi
  • Wanting more clarity on when what we’re given is the on’yomi reading or the kun’yomi reading

To be honest, I don’t really get it. I understand the value in knowing the concept of on’yomi and kun’yomi, but it seems like kind of an academic issue, like knowing the etymology of every word you learn in English. The “rule” (that compound words will use on’yomi and single-kanji words will use kun’yomi) is broken so often that WaniKani’s approach of “just learn readings based on frequency and don’t worry much beyond that” makes a lot more sense to me.

I’m curious what other people think about this. My view is likely influenced by having never taken any Japanese classes, where perhaps this comes up a lot? Everything has been WK, plus a bit of self-guided Genki and occasionally Duolingo to mix it up. (I actually started with Duolingo and quickly abandoned that as a primary approach.)


The rule is not really broken that often. I would guess around 95% of words follow the rule? (If someone knows an actual number feel free to correct me) It’s important to know the difference so you know how to pronounce a word when you see it. Either way most of the people making these threads I think don’t really understand the difference between on’yomi and kun’yomi. And want to be able to type either or during a review and are annoyed when the on’yomi they learned for a kanji doesn’t work when it’s kun’yomi instead.


I worried a lot about on’yomi and kun’yomi… Until I started having Japanese lessons with a Japanese teacher. I mentioned it to her in passing, she was horrified that I was paying attention to the on’yomi and kun’yomi. She told me, plainly, do not worry about it or bother about it. I don’t need to be concerned with it. And I tell you what, my Japanese has improved no end since I’m no longer worrying about something that is, frankly, purely academic. I stopped worrying about it, started properly learning vocab instead of readings, and my comprehension is far better than it was. If there is anything I will be forever grateful to my Japanese teacher for, it’s to not worry about on’yomi and kun’yomi. I admit, it’s helpful for Wanikani. But for actual Japanese, to speak and to listen, it’s nonessential.


I don’t really think about on’and kun’yomi myself and wanted to ask this question in one of those threads, but didn’t want to sound stuck up. I learn my words first and foremost as words, preferably with sound, so this question has struck me a few times too.


For me, on vs. kun is just another tool in the toolbox for reading and learning new words. It’s difficult to learn new vocabulary if you have to memorize all the information at once - what it looks like, how it’s pronounced, and what it means. Learning kanji helps to break that up a bit, and having an idea of what’s on or kun helps break it up even more. But it’s not really necessary to have a perfect recollection of what’s on or kun. Having a general feel for it just makes learning new words much easier. And, really, I think you do get a feeling for which reading is which naturally as you study, without thinking too hard about it or putting extra effort into memorizing that aspect.


Yes, the readings of kanji makes more sense if you think of the on’yomi of different kanji as being related, since they are due to the radicals used. That makes the kun’yomi stand apart from those connections.


I like to be aware of it, but I don’t stress about it. It helps to guess the reading. But often I will look it up anyway.


I took a class once and the teacher never mentioned anything about on’yomi and kun’yomi. In fact, we spent only 10 minutes per week on kanji. Classes focus a lot more on speaking.


Personally I never bother to remember on’yomi vs kun’yomi. I just try to remember how kanji are read in different words.


I don’t think it’s something beginners need to fixate on, because it’s something you’ll naturally get a sense for as you study the language. The rules are not broken very often, and the exceptions usually happen in specific instances - colors, body parts, and many food items take kun’yomi readings, even in compounds; on the other hand, there are several kanji that show up invariably or almost invariably with an on’yomi reading.

Eventually, it’s helpful to know the difference, because it makes it easier to learn new vocab by reading, and easier to find new vocab quickly in a dictionary. It’s also helpful to know on’yomi readings to guess the pronunciation of entirely new characters, as the on’yomi readings of kanji containing the same phonetic component are often if not usually the same.


Exactly! I find I can sometimes guess the on reading of kanji I’ve never even seen before, simply because I’ve seen the same radical with the same reading over and over.


Thanks for all the responses. I think I fall into the category of “it’s a useful thing to have some awareness of, but not worth obsessing over”. So my comment that it’s like learning the etymology of English words is admittedly flawed, since that is less obviously useful than on/kun (even if often interesting).


This is a good point too. I sometimes totally forget a kanji in a WK review and guess its reading successfully because of a radical used. Sadly this does not save me when I forget the meaning. :grimacing:

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I’ll try to explain by way of analogy.

Take the following phrase:

Pacific Ocean

Every ‘c’ in that phrase is pronounced differently. While you can sit down and try to remember all the different ways ‘c’ is pronounced, it’s much easier to just learn a bunch of words like citizen, cup, and ocean.

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This is true, but English pronunciation is a total mess.

Though fair enough that as children learning to read in English we do learn a couple of the most common pronunciations for each letter (and some specific letter combos) and then we pick up a bunch more (oh so many more) from experience with words, which is… more or less what we’re doing here on WaniKani.

Oh yeah. Japanese is much easier in that regard. I can make a much better guess as to the reading of a new word I see in Japanese now.


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