If I am learning the Kanji, should I learn the on’yomi and kun’yomi? I was recently asked my opinion on this and decided to turn it into a post.
First, the disclaimer: This is merely the opinion of someone who is learning Japanese based on what worked for me. My opinion is worth exactly as much as you paid for it, and the blog is ただ (free). YMMV.
When I learned the Kanji, I used the Heisig method. Among other things, this means that, for each character, I learned a basic meaning in English. I did not start out learning every possible meaning, nor did I start out learning the readings of the Kanji. This did what it was supposed to for me: help me learn vocabulary later.
I did consider learned all the meanings and all the reading for the Kanji when I started out. Let’s look at an example from the ever useful Jisho.org
- Radical: big, very 大
Jōyō kanji, taught in grade 1
JLPT level N5
7 of 2500 most used kanji in newspapers
So here we have a very useful Kanji since it pops up a lot and the various readings for it. Sitting around and memorizing those various readings simply didn’t work for me because they were just random sounds、and, after I learned several Kanji, they just kind of piled up and wanted to get jumbled together.
However, by learning vocabulary, I simply absorbed it all along the way. 大きい、大学、大切 and so on.
And, by the way, this brings me to a feature of Japanese that I find utterly
frustrating fascinating: euphony. Basically, certain sounds are more pleasing to the Japanese ear than others, so sometimes the sound of a character changes depending on what comes before it. Rather than memorize each sound, it helped me to memorize words. Let’s take a classic example: counting. (Now Japanese counters are [and have been] a whole other post. Here I’m just using it as an example of euphony.)
We count small animals using the counter 匹 which is pronounced ひき…except when it’s not. In fact, that’s only it’s reading when it is preceded by 2, 4, 5, 7 and 9, as in にひき and ごひき. but 3 small animals is さんびき and 1 small animal is いっぴき.
WARNING: BRIEF HISTORICAL CONTENT AHEAD
Once upon a time, Japan didn’t have a writing system of it’s own but thought that being to write things down was a pretty good idea. Some Japanese people learned Chinese and were quite taken with the Chinese writing system, so they imported it.
Many of these characters retained the original Chinese pronunciation (or a Japanese approximation thereof) but Japanese people wanted to write Japanese, not Chinese, so they began to assign Japanese words to the characters. Sometimes, that is. Here’s a wikipedia excerpt:
…the kanji for east, 東, has the on[yomi] reading tō. However, Japanese already had two words for “east”: higashi and azuma. Thus the kanji 東 had the latter readings added as kun’yomi. In contrast, the kanji 寸, denoting a Chinese unit of measurement (about 30 mm or 1.2 inch), has no native Japanese equivalent; it only has an on’yomi, sun, with no native kun reading. Most kokuji, Japanese-created Chinese characters [however], only have kun readings.
So, for Kanji we get the on’yomi and/or the kun’yomi depending on the Kanji plus any changes introduced by euphony in a given word.
For me personally, simply memorizing those sounds wasn’t really productive, since you still had to figure out which sound goes with the character in that particular word. It was easier just to learn the readings as I learned the vocabulary.