A Key to Japanese Kanji Pronunciation: Meet the Sound Sisterhoods

sound-sisters-japanese-kanji-pronunciationJapanese kanji pronunciation is one of the difficulties learners have with Japanese.

Since kanji are not phonetic symbols it can be difficult to know how they are pronounced. And unlike their Chinese cousins, most kanji do not have a single reading. They will be pronounced differently in different words.

One important aid in coming to grips with this are kanji elements (or “radicals”) that are actually there to indicate the pronunciation. These seem to be little taught, but they are in fact very useful.

Learning all the sound elements can help you with around 65% of kanji. They aren’t all here, but a lot of the main ones are. The 80-20 rule works in your favor here, and by learning the ones on this page you will have sound keys to a surprising proportion of words you are likely to encounter.

One of the problems with them is that they are not consistent. There are exceptions to the pronunciation “rules”. I actually prefer to think of certain kanji-elements as “dominant genes”. If you see a kanji that includes one, it is pretty likely to be pronounced in a particular way.

Since it is not absolute, is it really useful? I would say from experience that it is very useful. As we have said before, if you are writing on electronic devices (as most of us are most of the time) kanji recognition is the vital skill in both reading and writing.

If you know (as you often do) the pronunciation of a word but are unsure of the kanji, you type it, see a group of kanji and the one that has the correct sound element is very likely to be the correct one.

If you see a two-word kanji you are unsure of, and one (or both) have the sound kanji, you can try sounding it out and as likely as not you will remember it.

This method obviously cannot teach you things you really don’t know. But it can be a huge mnemonic for things you do, or half-do, even if only vaguely.

Also it helps in subtler ways with seeing how Japanese words fit together and work.  The more hooks you have to hang things on the more everything comes together in your mind. So, for example, when you meet a new two-kanji word and the pronunciation of one half is governed by one of these sound-elements, you say “ah yes”. The more times you say “ah yes”—the more pegs there are to things you already know—the more likely you are to remember the word. That is how the mind works.

One other problem that may make the use of this knowledge difficult and therefore less used than it should be is that it would tend to involve learning lists of sound readings that look pretty random and unconnected.

That is what this page is really here for. We are going to put the sound-elements together into little families that will make them much easier to learn.

One point to bear in mind is that while some people talk about “sound elements” and “meaning elements” in kanji, implying the sound elements do not also carry meaning, in fact they most often do. If they didn’t there could be a standard element for each sound.

The sound element will often be obviously connected with the meaning, and where it isn’t it is likely the case that the connection is just not obvious and lost in the mists of time.

This is important because sounds do have meanings, or at least meaning-tendencies in Japanese. It is a subtle phenomenon—generally too subtle for the highly quantitative approach of Western scholarship to take much notice of. But meeting the sound-sisterhoods will help you to understand this a little more and deepen your intuitive grasp of Japanese.

Some of our associations are, of course, purely fanciful mnemonics, but we think you will find them useful.

This is not a full list but it contains a lot of the more useful and regular kanji sound elements. As you start to use them you will find that you discover others, including some small-but-useful one-off associations—for example 早 fast/early has the on-reading そう for example 早々 can be either hayabaya or sousou. 草 grass also has the on-reading そう as in 草原 sougen.

What to look for

When using these sound-elements, remember that they do not usually apply to kun-readings. That means if you see one of these kanji on its own with okurigana (following kana) it will most likely not have the pronunciation listed here. For example, the kun-reading of 照る to shine is てる, not しょうる. You will mostly find the pronunciation as listed below when the kanji is part of a two-kanji word.

All righty. Let’s meet the girls:

The Show Sisters 召 肖 昌  尚 (Shining SHOWgirls)

The four Show sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation しょう

They are bright, shiny, and seductive.

One is a shining moon 肖. One is a shining face with smiling mouth open wide and eyes crinkly-closed so you can’t see them. Note that the “shine” is really a miniature of 小, small, whose on-reading is also しょう as in 小学).

One is two suns, 昌 meaning “shine”. Three suns 晶 meaning sparkling, clear, or crystal also contains this radical and is pronounced しょう in combinations.

The last sister is which has the root-meaning of “seduce” or “summon”.

So there we have the four Show sisters: shining moon, shining suns, shining face, and seductiveness. We hope you will get to know them.

The Show sisters in some of their Shows:

肖 (しょう) → 宵, 消, 硝
尚 (しょう) → 常, 裳, 掌
昌 (しょう) → 娼, 唱, 菖, 晶
召 (しょう) → 招, 沼, 昭, 紹, 詔, 照

The Ka Sisters 化 可 果 過 (KAwaii Flower-Girls)

The four Ka sisters give the Japanese Kanji pronunciation か.

They are the flower-girls.

One is 化, the ka of 花 flower, whose on-reading is ka (the root-meaning of 化 is “change”— in the case of 花, grass that changes from mere green into beautiful forms).

One is 可, the ka of 可愛い kawaii.

The third Ka sister 果 means fundamentally fruit—abundant fruit—look, there is a whole field’s-worth of fruit growing on that one tree. It can be fruit either literal or metaphorical (a result).

The last Ka sister means 過 “excess”. When you think of the abundance of that fruit you can see why.

The Ka sisters are the grass-type Pokemon of the Japanese kanji pronunciation universe.

The Ka sisters in their flower-shows:

化 (か) → 花, 貸, 靴
可 (か) → 河, 何, 荷, 苛, 呵, 歌
果 (か) → 課, 菓, 踝, 顆
過 (か) → 渦,  堝, 鍋, 蝸, 窩, 禍

The Ki Sisters 几 其 奇 己 (KEEpers of the KEY)

The Ki sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation of き.

Where is the key?

The first Ki sister hides it in plain sight on her desk 几.

The second Ki sister hides it on a table loaded with sweets 其 (甘い sweet).

The third Ki sister 奇 keeps hers in a very strange place. We don’t even ask where, but we do note that when the ka of kawaii 可 has something big on top of it, it stops being ka and becomes 奇 ki. I think it is squeaking because of the sudden weight.

The last Ki sister 己 keeps it to herself. She is actually a snake who swallowed it.

The Ki sisters in their key positions:

几 (き) → 机, 肌, 飢
其 (き) → 期, 欺, 棋, 基, 旗
己 (き) → 起, 記, 紀, 忌
奇 (き) → 崎, 埼, 椅

The Sei Sisters 生 正 成  青 (SAInts and SAges)

The Sei sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation せい

Sei can mean “holy” in Japanese, and the Sei sisters are connected with purity, righteousness, and fundamental things.

The first Sei sister is 正. We probably first meet this kanji in the word tadashii—correct, just, perfect.

The second Sei sister is 生  meaning life and purity.

The third Sei sister is 青 blue, the color of heaven.

The fourth Sei sister is 成 wearing a knightly helm and armed with a ceremonial sphere. She is actually the kanji for the very common word なる to become—though it is usually written in kana. She does a lot of work in compounds though.

NOTE: It is worth remembering that sei has a strong tendency to become shou/jou.
性 which means a thing’s nature or sex is sometimes sei and sometimes shou.
The usual on-reading of 城 shiro, castle, is jou.
情動 is pronounced joudou.
正 is sei in 正義 but shou in 正直。

The Sei sisters doing some of their good deeds:

正 (せい) → 征, 政, 症, 整, 性, 牲
生 (せい) → 姓, 性, 星, 牲, 惺
成 (せい) → 盛, 誠, 筬, 城
青 (せい) → 清, 靖, 精, 晴, 請, 情, 鯖, 静

The Shi Sisters 士 司 次 (She-Knights)

The three Shi sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation し。

The first Shi sister is a she-samurai 士.

The second Shi sister 司 wears a knightly helmet with a mouthpiece and eye-slit (the left side is left open so she can get into it).

The last Shi sister 次 is not one actually of the knights but their dependable follower.

The Shi sisters on their knightly errands:

士 (し) → 仕, 志, 誌
司 (し) → 伺, 詞, 嗣, 飼
次 (し)  → 姿, 諮, 資

The Kou Sisters 工 交 光 (The COÖperative of Makers and Scene-Changers)

The three Kou sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation こう

The first Kou sister is 工, craft or making.

The second is 交 change, alternation.

The third is 光, the basic kanji for light but in combinations often refers to a scene or watcher.  As you see in the list below, the third sister doesn’t do a lot of work in compound kanji, but you’ll often see her on her own. For example in 光景 koukei, scene or spectacle, 観光 kankou, sightseer.

The Kou sisters in their workshops:

工 (こう) → 紅, 空, 虹, 江, 攻, 功, 肛,
交 (こう) → 校, 絞, 狡, 較, 郊, 効, 咬
光 (こう) → 恍

Hit Singles

Next we look at some pronunciation elements that don’t have groups, but they are pretty regular and well worth knowing:

分 ふん / ぶん(粉, 紛, 雰)

白 はく(伯, 拍, 泊, 迫, 舶, 狛, 柏, 箔, 珀)

中 ちゅう(忠, 沖, 仲, 虫, 狆)

長 ちょう(張, 帳, 脹)

及 きゅう (吸, 級, 扱)

寺 (じ)  (侍, 持, 時, 塒, 峙)  (But wait! note thatwait is not pronouncedin modern usages).

And others

Look, two hans! 半, 反 very useful, common and quite regular han/ban pronunciation.

The Kan sisters 干 官 (見)They are in the canning business, which was originally, before the invention of cans, the drying business. 干 means drying or dried while 官 is an official (as in 警官 keikan, police constable). Originally this meant the officer who held an umbrella over the Empress to keep her dry. 見 is only a half-member of this group as she is either kan or ken (more often ken). Ken, in English is to know – a concept always conceptually connected with seeing while can is a dialectical variant of ken, as in canny.

The Hobo Sisters 方(ほう、ぼう) 亡(ぼう、もう) There are only two Hobo sisters and as you might expect they are a slightly raggedy pair. 方 is pronounced either hou or bou (of course using the voiced version can occur with other sounds as well) while is pronounced either bou or mou. The b/m slither is not uncommon in Japanese—as in さびしい / さみしい。The root-meanings of the sisters are direction and death respectively. Whatever direction these hobos wander they are always going in the direction of death. But then, aren’t we all?

The Shin Sisters 申 辰 Interestingly these two sisters are both Chinese zodiac signs, the monkey (saru) and the dragon (tatsu). For our purposes we just remember that when the wheels fell off the chariot 車 someone hurt her shin. Occasionally the top of the axle falls off too 押 and it still gives the reading shin.

There is another dominant-gene sound-radical we may like to consider here: 立 – its dominant on-sound in complex kanji is りゅう ryuu. Interesting because the regular word for dragon is りゅう, while the kun-reading of 立(つ) is たつ tatsu – which should make 立 as りゅう quite memorable. Note that the 立 radical appears in the kanji for dragon 竜 (りゅう, ryuu)  itself. (But be aware that the on-reading of 立 when not part of a complex kanji is more often りつ).

The Hi-men 皮 非  The pronoun “he” is of course 彼 in Japanese and its right-element 皮 usually gives the reading ひ hi or は ha in complex kanji. 非 as a prefix is hi, and means un- or not- (as in 非常 hijou, unusual) or adds a generally disadvantageous or unfavorable aspect to what follows. It can also give the reading ひ hi in complex kanji.

1 thought on “A Key to Japanese Kanji Pronunciation: Meet the Sound Sisterhoods

  1. Thank you SO much for this Cure Dolly! It is really helpful, I think. I love the way you have organized the different sound elements on this list into little stories!

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