How do I know if Kanji reading is ON or KUN?

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Do you know what reading On yomi is or reading Kun yomi? Have you ever wondered how the Japanese can read the text without misspelling or stumbling? If you have been studying Japanese for some time, you should know that kanji, or ideograms, are imported from Chinese, and have several pronunciations.

Japanese Kanji 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 – These are readings of Japanese origin.

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

See the example of the east ideogram (東). In Chinese it is called 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 that ideogram ended up gaining these 3 and other pronunciations. Remember that reading ON will always be written in Katakana, while reading KUN 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 in the word without knowing it. However, there is a tip that works in most words, but it is worth making it clear that it does not apply to 100% of cases.

To know the reading most of the times keep in mind the following:

  • ON – It is read when the Kanji is accompanied by another.
  • KUN – It is read when the Kanji is accompanied by a hiragana.
  • The custom is to read every word using on, but in some cases it can end with kun.

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

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

Examples with Kanji

Below, see how knowing this will help us identify the kanji reading. And also see how this tip doesn’t work 100% at times.

  • 学 – on – gako / kun – mana (study, learn)
    • 学校 – gakkou – school (Used a variation of on, because it is accompanied by a kanji.)
    • 学 ぶ – manabu – learn – used kun because it is accompanied by a hiragana (it is a verb).
  • 大 – on – dai / kun – oo (Grande)
    • 大好 き -daisuki (He used on, because it is accompanied by a kanji.)
    • 大 き – ooki (He used kun, because it is accompanied by a hiragana.)
  • 日 – on – nichi, jitsu / kun – hi, _bi, _ka (sol)
    • 日 曜 日nichiyoubi (Started using on. ended up using kun even with a kanji.)
  • 人 – on – Jin, Nin, / kun – _to, hito, _ri (Person)

For this reason it is important to know the vocabulary, not all kanji are applied to this tip.

  • Whenever you encounter a kanji followed by a hiragana, remember that most times, you should read the kun.
  • And when you come across several kanji, most of the time you read the on but there are cases of ending with kun.

Knowing this makes us more confident in reading, it means that we are not lost when trying to discover how to read a word.

Why did I decide to write this article? To this day, 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 pronouncing unknown words. What do you think of this tip? Have you realized that it is so? If you need more tips, we recommend reading similar kanji.

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