How to know if Kanji reading is ON or KUN?

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Do you know what ON YOMI reading or KUN YOMI reading is? Ever wondered how the Japanese manage to read text without mispronunciation or stumbling? If you have studied Japanese for some time, you should know that kanji, or ideograms, are imported from Chinese, and have different pronunciations.

Kanji in the Japanese language is divided into 2 Readings:

  • On yomi (音読み) – Reading by sound - These are the readings of Chinese origin;
  • Kun yomi (訓読み) - Semantic reading - Are readings of Japanese origin;

Because? When Chinese ideograms were imported into Japan, the Japanese associated the words already used in Japanese to the ideograms, and they also associated and converted the Chinese readings into the Japanese ideograms.

See the example of the ideogram east [東]. In Chinese it says “dong”, this was converted to Japanese as “tou” becoming an ON reading. However, the Japanese already used “higashi” or “azuma” to refer to the east, so this ideogram ended up gaining these 3 and other pronunciations. Remember that the ON reading will always be written in Katakana, while the KUN reading will always be written in hiragana.

Tip on how to know when to pronounce ON and KUN

It is impossible to know precisely when to use the ON or KUN reading on the word without knowing it. However, there is a tip that works in most words, but it is worth making clear that it does not apply to 100% of cases.

To know the reading of the ideograms for the most part, keep the following in mind:

  • ON - It is   read when the Kanji is accompanied by another;
  • KUN - It is read when Kanji is accompanied by a hiragana;

The custom is to read every word using the ON reading, but in some cases it may end with the KUN reading;

When ideograms are usually isolated, they are individual verbs or words that have their origin in ancient Japanese. The ON reading is most often when one ideogram is next to another, because the ON readings usually have 1 syllable, or as the name says, a sound.

Verbs, suffixes and prefixes often read KUN. Remembering that a reading can also vary. It is worth remembering that people's names usually have other readings besides ON and KUN.

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Examples of Kanji with ON and KUN Readings

Below, see how knowing this will help us identify the reading of the Japanese ideogram. And also see how this tip doesn't work 100% sometimes.


See below the example of the ideogram that means study and learn in Japanese:

ON =  gakko 
KUN = mana
  • 学校 – gakkou – School (Used a variation of on, because it's accompanied by a kanji.)
  • 学ぶ – manabu – Learn (Used kun because it is accompanied by a hiragana (it is a verb);

Below we have the ideogram with the meaning of great and its readings ON YOMI and KUN YOMI:

ON = dai
KUN = oo
  • 大好き – daisuki – (Used on, because it is accompanied by a kanji.)
  • 大き – ooki – (Used kun, because it's accompanied by hiragana.)

Now let's see the example of the day and sun ideogram:

ON = nichi, jitsu
KUN - hi, _bi, _ka
  • 日曜日 - nicheyoubi Sunday (Started using Chinese reading and ended using Japanese reading.

Below is an example of the person ideogram:

ON = jin, nin
KUN = _to, hito, _ri
  • ブラジル人 – burajirujin Brazilian (used the on without being accompanied by a kanji.)
  • 二人 – futari – Two Persons (both used the kun reading.)

For this reason it is important to know the vocabulary, not all ideograms follow this rule.

Whenever you see a kanji followed by a hiragana, remember that your reading is probably Japanese (kun yomi).

And when you come across several ideograms forming a word, your reading is usually Chinese (on yomi), but your last ideogram can be a Japanese reading (kun yomi).

Knowing this makes us more confident in reading, and makes us not get lost when trying to figure out how to read a word.

Why did I decide to write this article? 

Until today I have never found this small and simple tip in any book or course. Knowing when reading is ON or KUN helps a lot in learning ideograms and when pronouncing unfamiliar words. What do you think of this tip? Have you noticed that this is so?

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