What is Kanji: Ideographic Character and The 6 Type of Kanji

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Japanese language has 3 type of characters: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. Kanji are the Chinese characters that were adopted into the Japanese writing system and are an integral part of the language. In this blog post, I’ll talk about kanji and some of its important features that foreign learners and enthusiasts of Japanese culture should know.

What is Kanji as Ideographic Characters?

In written language, there are 2 main types of characters: ideographic characters (表意文字) and phonetic characters (表音文字). Ideographic characters represent ideas or concepts, while phonetic characters represent sounds. Let’s take a closer look at these two types of characters and how they are used.

Ideographic characters are characters that represent a concept or an idea, rather than a sound. In languages that use ideographic characters, such as Chinese and Japanese, one character can represent a whole word or idea. For example, in Japanese, the Kanji character for “tree” (木) represents the idea of a tree, rather than the sound of the word “tree”.

On the other hand, phonetic characters are characters that represent a sound or a pronunciation. In languages that use phonetic characters, such as English, each character typically represents a sound or a combination of sounds that make up a word. For example, in the English word “cat”, each letter represents a sound that, when combined, create the word. Hiragana and Katakana of Japanese language are also phonetic characters.

For someone whose native language doesn’t use ideographic characters, understanding them can be a bit of a challenge. One way to think of it is like looking at a picture or symbol that represents a concept or idea. For example, the “stop” sign is a symbol that represents the idea of stopping, rather than a specific sound or word. In the same way, ideographic characters represent ideas or concepts, rather than specific sounds or words.

Thus, ideographic characters and phonetic characters are 2 types of characters used in written language. Ideographic characters represent ideas or concepts, while phonetic characters represent sounds. While it may be challenging for someone whose native language doesn’t have ideographic characters to understand them, thinking of them as symbols that represent concepts or ideas can be helpful in understanding their meaning.

The Origin and Usage of Kanji: How Kanji is Born?

How Kanji is created? What is the origin? If you study Japanese language or you are interested in exploring Japanese culture and history, you might get this question in your mind. In this blog post, I will explain the principles of Kanji origin and Kanji usages based on “六書 (Rikusho/Liushu/The Six Types of Characters)”. The categorizing is the traditional system which 許慎 (Kyo-shin/Xu Shen) from Han dynasty of China defined an ancient Chinese dictionary, “説文解字 (Setsumon-kaiji/Shuowen Jiezi)”.

4 Principles of Kanji Creation: Kanji Origin

Principles of Kanji creation have 2 groups: Primary Principles and Secondary Principles. Primary Principles are Pictograms and Ideograms. Secondary Principles are Compounds and Phonetic-ideographic. Let’s take a closer look at these principles below.

Primary Principles

Pictograms 象形 (Shokei)

Pictograms are characters that are based on images of real objects. They are the most straightforward type of character, as they directly represent the objects they depict.


  • “日 (Hi/Ri)” means the sun.
  • “月 (Tsuki/Yue)” means the moon.
  • “山 (Yama/)” means a mountain.
  • “川 (Kawa/Shan)” means a river.
  • “木 (Ki/Mu)” means a tree.
  • “魚 (Sakana/Yu)” means fish.
Ideograms 指事 (Shizi/Zhi shi)

Ideograms were created to express “things that have no form” and “abstract things”. The characters are created by combining dots and lines that are difficult to represent in form. They are often used to express numbers and positions in Kanji.


  • “一 (Ichi/Yi)”, “二 (Ni/Er)”, and “三(San)” mean one, two, and three.
  • “上 (Ue/Jo/Shang)” means up, above, and over.
  • “中 (Naka/Chu/Zhong)” means middle and center.
  • “下 (Shita/Ge/Xia)” means down, below, and under.
  • “本 (Hon/)” means a book.

Secondary Principles

Compounds 会意 (Kaii/Hui yi)

Compounds were created for a different meaning by combining 2 or more pre-existing Kanji.


  • 日 (The Sun) + 月 (The moon) → 明 (Bright)
  • 木 (A tree) + 木 (A tree) → 林 (Forest)
  • 口 (Mouth) + 鳥 (Bird) → 鳴 (sing (bird))
Phonetic-ideographics 形声 (Keisei/Kei sheng)

Phonetic-ideographics are also called semasio-phonetics. This type of Kanji was created by combining the parts that express meaning and the parts that express pronunciation. More than 80% of Kanji belongs to this type of origin.


  • 日 (Meaning; the Sun) + 青 (Pronunciation; Sei) → 晴 (Meaning; sunny, Pronunciation; sei)
  • 食 (Meaning; Food) + 反 (Pronunciation; Han) → 飯 (Meaning; Meal, Pronunciation; han)

2 Types of Kanji Usages

Derivative 転注 (Tenchu/Tun zhu)

Derivative is a usage of Kanji which is diverting it from its original meaning to other meanings.


  • The origin of “楽 (Gaku)” is a pictogram of music instruments. Because it is fun to enjoy music, “楽(Gaku) “ got the meaning of “fun”.

Borrowed 仮借 (Kasha/jia jie)

Borrowed is a usage of Kanji which refers the pronunciation regardless of the original meaning.


  • 亜米利加 (Amerika) means America.
  • 珈琲 (Kohi) means coffee.


Japanese students study ideographic characters and phonetic characters, and the origin and usage of Kanji. These concepts are essential to understand Japanese and Japanese culture deeply. In addition, Chinese characters are exported to and had been used in also Korea and Vietnam but not only China and Japan. Kanji is in the background of the Japanese and Asian thoughts and cultures.

Japan Kanji Museum & Library | Exploring Museums in Kyoto
Once Chinese characters had arrived in Japan, the Japanese modified them, developed them and invented their own unique w...
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