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The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji: Remembering and Understanding the 2,136 Standard Japanese Characters
The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji: Remembering and Understanding the 2,136 Standard Japanese Characters
The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji: Remembering and Understanding the 2,136 Standard Japanese Characters
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The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji: Remembering and Understanding the 2,136 Standard Japanese Characters

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Learn over 2,000 Japanese Kanji characters with this user-friendly Japanese language-learning book.

This unique Kanji study guide provides a comprehensive introduction to all the Kanji characters on the Japanese Ministry of Education's official Joyo ("General Use") list--providing detailed notes on the historical development of each character as well as all information needed by students to read and write them. As fascinating as it is useful, this is the book every Japanese language learners keeps on his or her desk and visits over and over.

This Kanji book includes:
  • Clear, large-sized entries
  • All of the General Use Joyo Kanji Characters
  • Japanese readings and English meanings
  • stroke-count
  • stroke order
  • usage examples
  • mnemonic hints for easy memorization
The components which make up each character are detailed, and the Kanji are graded in difficulty according to Ministry of Education guidelines, allowing students to prioritize the order in which the Kanji are learned and track their progress. This book is essential to anyone who is planning to take the official Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and will appeal to beginning students as well as those who wish to attain higher-level mastery of the Japanese language. It is the only book that also provides historical and etymological information about the Japanese Kanji.

This latest edition has been updated to include all of the 2,136 Kanji on the expanded Joyo list issued by the Japanese government in 2010. Many entries have been revised to include the most recent research on character etymologies.
Release dateMar 22, 2016
The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji: Remembering and Understanding the 2,136 Standard Japanese Characters
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    There’s really better out there. Radicals are not discussed enough.

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The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji - Christopher Seely











TUTTLE Publishing

Tokyo | Rutland, Vermont | Singapore

Published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.


Copyright © 1998, 2016 Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior written permission from the publisher.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015954332

ISBN 978-4-8053-1170-7; ISBN 978-1-4629-1773-0 (ebook)

First edition

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Preface to the Second Edition



• Beginnings of the Chinese Script

• Formational Principles of the Chinese Script

• Word-Families and the Chinese Script

• Fluctuation in the Script: Variant Forms

• Early and Pre-Modern Character Dictionaries

• Printed Texts and the Calligraphic Tradition

• Layout of Entries in This Book

• Sources Used and Terminology in This Book

• Limitations of This Book

The Japanese Writing System: A Brief Sketch

Hiragana and Katakana and Their Source Characters

The 214 Determinatives (or ‘Radicals’) System

General Principles of Stroke Order

Editorial and Typographical Matters; Romanization

The 80 First-Grade Characters

The 160 Second-Grade Characters

The 200 Third-Grade Characters

The 200 Fourth-Grade Characters

The 185 Fifth-Grade Characters

The 181 Sixth-Grade Characters

The Remaining 1130 Characters

Readings Index



• Similarly-Shaped Elements Easily Confused


Preface to the Second Edition

This book is an extensive revision of the original edition of A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters compiled by Kenneth Henshall and published in 1988. The original 1988 edition represents a pioneering work in English on the etymologies of the official General Use characters (Jōyō kanji) in use at that time. Since then, much has changed: a very substantial amount of scholarly research has been published on character etymologies and related areas, mainly in Japanese and Chinese, but also some in English. Another change has been that in 2010 there appeared a revised, expanded version of the Jōyō kanji list, the official list of characters for general use; this increased the basic number of characters for use in school education and government publications from 1945 (in the list promulgated in 1981) to 2136. In response to these changes, this second edition has been prepared. While care has been taken in the preparation of this work, any errors and omissions remain the responsibility of the authors.


Thanks are due to Ogino Masayoshi, Lecturer in Japanese at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, for his assistance with installation of software for the electronic version of the Kangxi zidian dictionary, one of the pre-modern Chinese character dictionaries referred to in compiling this book. Thanks also to Kazuko Seeley for her on-call status as unofficial consultant for a number of tricky points relating to Japanese language. Last but not least, recognition is due to Tuttle’s senior editor Cathy Layne and the Tuttle team for their painstaking work on this book at the production stage.


The focus of this book is on giving etymologies together with mnemonics for each of the 2,136 characters that make up the 改定常用漢字 Kaitei Jōyō kanji ‘Revised General Use Characters’ officially adopted in Japan in 2010, replacing the earlier Jōyō kanji List of 1981 (1,945 characters). In setting out the etymologies, we need to go back to the origins of the kanji in China. In consequence, to explain adequately some of the characters, considerable space is taken up referring to such things as values, customs, and technology in ancient China, all of which tend to reflect a very different world from the one we inhabit today.

1 Beginnings of the Chinese Script

Some scholars regard Chinese writing as dating back to long before the Shang Dynasty (ca. 16th–11th century BC), pointing to marks on pottery, for instance, but these are no more than isolated examples consisting of one or two signs of typically abstract shape which cannot be described with confidence as writing as opposed to something like owners’ marks.

1.1 Oracle Bone Script (Ch. 甲⾻⽂ jiaguwen, J. 甲⾻⽂字 kōkotsu moji)

The earliest stage of Chinese writing (and of the characters to be adopted much later by the Japanese) widely recognized among scholars is what is known as oracle bone script, sometimes referred to as OBI (for ‘oracle bone inscriptions’). This dates back to the later part of the Shang Dynasty.

The oracle bone script is so called because typically it is written on bones that were the shoulder blades of cattle, or sometimes on the underside of turtle shells. These were flattish surfaces which were reasonably easy to use for writing. A knife-like instrument was used to scratch characters or graphs (these two words are used with the same meaning in this book) on the bone or shell surface, hence the angular appearance at this stage. In some cases, a text was written first onto the bone with a writing brush, and then incised. Writing at this very early period in China was used by a small minority, centered on the Shang rulers, for such purposes as enquiring about the outcome of future events such as a battle, harvest, or childbirth, hence the term ‘oracle bones’.

Although the oracle bone texts—typically fragmentary in nature—date back more than two thousand years, they were only brought to light (rediscovered) in relatively recent times. In 1899, 劉鶚 Liu E, a Chinese scholar who was looking for material to make up traditional Chinese medicine, purchased some bone fragments. These were fragments which had been unearthed by farmers when plowing, and they were known as ‘dragon bones’, based on the belief that dragons shed their bones. Liu happened to notice some unusual scratching on the fragments. Being familiar with how the early Chinese script looked, and guessing that these markings probably represented a still earlier stage of Chinese writing, he decided to purchase more of the bone fragments. His study of these fragments led to confirmation that this was indeed an ancient stage of Chinese writing, and a stage earlier than what had been recognized until then. This was a very important discovery, and marked the point of departure for the scientific study of the oracle bone script.

1.2 Seal Script (篆書 Ch. zhuanshu, J. tensho)

The ancient variety of the Chinese script known as seal script is divided into two varieties: ‘great seal’ (大篆 Ch. dazhuan, J. daiten) and ‘small seal’ (少篆 Ch. xiaozhuan, J. shōten). Some of the examples of great seal script—the older variety—found on bronze vessels date back in some cases to a period no later than that of the oracle bone inscriptions, i.e., the latter part of the Shang Dynasty. The situation has been summed up by the noted Chinese scholar Qiu Xigui as follows: ‘The practice of casting inscriptions on bronzes initially grew in popularity in the latter half of the Shang period and reached its zenith during the Zhou.’ (QX2000:62). Reflecting the fact that before the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) bronze was referred to as 金 (Ch. jin, J. kin), characters on ancient bronzes are sometimes known alternatively as 金文 (Ch. jinwen, J. kinbun). Great seal characters of very early date often occur in a very short sequence of a few characters or even just one, and are notable for their ornateness compared to those on oracle bones. In shape, the great seal forms tend to be characterized by soft curves and varying stroke width, contrasting with the thin angularity of the oracle bone characters. In a given text, individual characters can vary considerable in size. The ornate great seal characters were ill-suited for practical purposes, and so the evolution of less impractical shapes was really a natural development, though this does not mean that utilitarian considerations were all-consuming: aesthetic considerations were still very important. A degree of simplification in shape compared with great seal can be seen in many cases in the small seal forms, which were very actively promoted—with the incentive of punishment for those who transgressed—in the Qin Dynasty under Emperor Shi Huangdi (the self-styled ‘First Emperor’) as part of his strategy to unify the land under his rule. Small seal forms were preserved for posterity in the following Han Dynasty (Early Han Dynasty: 206 BC–24 AD; Later Han Dynasty: 25–220 AD) in the character dictionary entitled Shuowen jiezi (Explanation of Indivisible Characters and Analysis of Compound Characters) completed ca.100AD by Xu Shen (for details, see Section 5 [‘Early and Pre-Modern Character Dictionaries’]). In terms of Chinese writing, this was a pioneering work which soon became an indispensable reference for later scholars working on the script, and this remains true through to the present day. In the Early Han period, small seal was still the official script, but the clerical script was gaining in popularity.

1.3 Clerical Script (隷書 Ch. lishu, J. reisho)

While small seal was promoted as the official script during the Qin Dynasty, for practical purposes it was still quite cumbersome. To overcome this, an abbreviated variety of the small seal script came to be used for record-keeping, known as lishu ‘clerical script’ (sometimes translated as ‘scribe script’). While its use appears to have been promoted by the needs of an expanding government administration, according to Qiu Xigui the beginnings of clerical script can be traced back to the Warring States period (475–221 BC). It is fair to say that clerical script represents the early stage of what was later to become the modern character script, as most of the characters in clerical script are recognisable to us today. While initially a practical script type in nature, over time clerical script also developed a dimension of aesthetic refinement, and thereby acquired respectability. By the Later Han period, clerical script was accepted as the official script, and small seal was retained for ornamental purposes.

1.4 Block Script (楷書 Ch. kaishu, J. kaisho)

Also known in English variously as standard script, regular script, or model script. The kai of kaishu/kaisho means ‘standard, a model’. In this book, this stage is referred to as ‘block script’. It is difficult to pinpoint the time when block script evolved from clerical script, but in broad terms this development took place towards the end of the Later Han Dynasty. Compared with clerical script, characters in block script tend to be modestly less undulating and slightly more square in appearance, are readily legible (as far as is possible for often intricate shapes), yet at the same time retain an aesthetically pleasing aspect. The merits of block script have seen it endure and occupy the position of a standard over the centuries and down to the present.

1.5 Cursive Script Forms

While the block script has strong merits, it is quite a slow way of writing characters, and inevitably quicker ways of writing evolved, later to be quite commonly broadly categorized as semi-cursive script (行書 Ch. xingshu, J. gyōsho) and cursive script (草書 Ch. caoshu, J. sōsho). For caoshu/sōsho, which are terms sometimes translated literally into English as ‘grass script’ but more appropriately rendered as ‘cursive script’, Qiu Xigui notes both broad and narrow meanings: the broad sense refers to any characters of any period past or present-day written hastily, while the narrow sense is limited to characters written in certain historical periods or modelled thereon (QX2000:130–31). In the present book, the term ‘cursive script’ is used only infrequently, and will be reserved for characters written with an advanced degree of cursivity (i.e., advanced degradation in shape compared with characters written slowly and carefully), while ‘semi-cursive script’ will be used to denote modest cursivity (limited degradation of shape compared with slowly and carefully written equivalents). At times, the term ‘cursivized’ may also be used in this book as a convenient way to indicate character text written with a degree of rapidity, without going into the question of greater or lesser degree. It is worth highlighting here that cursivized characters began to appear as early as the Warring States period, also marking the emergence of clerical script forms as an entity born out of the small seal script. In everyday (non-formal) usage today, as in the past, texts in Chinese and Japanese written by hand tend to exhibit a modest degree of cursivity.

2 Formational Principles of the Chinese Script

The earliest stage of Chinese writing dates back to the period from about the 14th to the 10th century BC. The script at that time (on oracle bones and bronze vessels) clearly has a strong pictorial dimension. Yet it is not ‘picture writing’, i.e., texts of that period do not represent a situation in an approximate way pictorially and without reference to language—a convention or system that we might think of as a forerunner of writing proper. Rather, texts already represented a full writing system, i.e., each character or graph represented a word or morpheme (for explanation of ‘morpheme’, see section 8.2 [‘Terminology in This Book’] below) in the early Chinese language. Writing is not just visual markings on paper or other material: it represents language, and this is something we should not lose sight of.

The formational principles of Chinese characters were categorized at a very early stage by Xu Shen, the compiler of the Shuowen jiezi dictionary, but several of those categories have never been fully understood and so here we will not follow the Shuowen categories completely.

Like other writing systems, the system for Chinese evolved originally from the pictorial representation of concrete objects, so it seems logical to start here with 1) pictographs. With this category, a written representation of a horse, say, was used to represent the early Chinese word for ‘horse’, and this same principle was utilized to represent numerous other words such as ‘sun’, ‘tree’, ‘bird’, mountain’, and so on.

There was, though, a limit to the usefulness of this principle. It was fine for writing simple, concrete words, but how to write more abstract words such as those for ‘above’ or ‘basis’, for example? In the oracle bone script, ‘above’ was represented by one short stroke above a longer one, while for ‘basis’ or ‘root’ a short horizontal stroke was added low down on the vertical stroke of 木 ‘tree, wood’ to give 本. In English, graphs of this category—type 2)—are generally referred to as ‘indicative symbols’ (or similar).

In some other cases, a word was conveyed by combining several pictographs into one graph, and so in English these may be termed 3) ‘semantic compounds’. Examples of this category include 林 (two trees) for ‘forest’, or 日 ‘sun’ and 月 ‘moon’ combined together as 明 to represent the word for ‘bright’.

A further means employed to represent various words or morphemes was 4) the loan-graph principle, whereby a character was ‘borrowed’ for its sound value to represent in writing another word of the same (or similar) pronunciation. Thus, in oracle bone texts we find, for instance, the pictograph for ‘winnowing basket’ (written 其 in its stylized modern form) borrowed to represent another word of the same pronunciation meaning ‘probably’ or ‘will’. Once this happened, the reader in ancient times had to decide whether 其 in a particular context was to be taken as ‘winnowing basket’ or ‘probably/will’. In the same way, a character originally meaning ‘sunset’ (莫) was borrowed to write a similar-sounding grammatical function-word meaning ‘there is none, not any’. This sort of arrangement seems to have worked adequately at first, helped no doubt by the fact that OBI and also the very early bronze texts tended to be quite formulaic and repetitive in nature. However, as the number of such borrowings increased and also texts became more diverse in terms of content, help was needed to avoid the danger of texts degenerating into hopelessly complex puzzles. To combat this, gradually semantic markers (traditionally called ‘radicals’, but better is ‘determinatives’) were often added. Thus, because 其 ended up being used more to indicate probability or futurity than in the sense ‘winnowing basket’, 竹 ‘bamboo’ was added at the top to create 箕 for the latter (i.e., original) sense, a graph which could readily be understood to mean just ‘winnowing basket’, leaving 其 to stand for probability/futurity. The same process took place with 莫: to overcome the ambiguity of this graph when it had come to mean either ‘sunset’ or ‘there is none’, a second 日 ‘sun’ was added to create a new graph 暮 for ‘sunset’, leaving 莫 to be used for ‘there is none’. Graphs of the type 箕 and 暮 are referred to as 5) ‘semantic-phonetic compounds’ (or similar); these are by far the most common category of Chinese characters.

3 Word-Families and the Chinese Script

Note: this section, which relies extensively on the work of Japanese scholar Tōdō Akiyasu, involves much technical detail which many readers may not need; for such readers, the brief entry ‘Phonetic with associated sense’ (see Section 8 below) is recommended instead.

The application of the semantic-phonetic compounding principle led to a dramatic increase in the total number of different graphs over time. As indicated above, in semantic-phonetic compounds the phonetic element is the original element, an