Exploring On-yomi and Kun-yomi in Kanji: Understanding the Sounds of Japanese Characters

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Hello to all the Japanese language learners out there! In this blog post, we will explore the concept of On’yomi and Kun’yomi in Kanji, providing a clear explanation. Kanji is an essential part of learning Japanese, and understanding how to pronounce them correctly involves On’yomi and Kun’yomi, which are special reading rules. So, let’s delve into the world of Kanji’s sound variations together!

What are On-yomi and Kun-yomi?

On-yomi (音読み) and Kun-yomi (訓読み) are two distinct reading systems used for Kanji characters in Japanese.

Because Japan didn’t have its original characters in ancient era, Japan imported Chinese characters which we call “Kanji” now. When Chinese characters, Kanji, were imported from China, the characters brought along its original Chinese pronunciations, which became On-yomi. Gradually Japanese people applied Japanese transliterations to each Kanji, which became Kun-yomi. Since then, they have used Chinese characters both On-yomi and Kun-yomi.

On-yomi differs depending on the period and region of China. The kun-yomi is also allocated multiple transliterations and pronunciations. 

As a result, many Kanji characters have multiple pronunciations based on their origins and usage.

Categories of On-yomi and Kun-yomi

3 Types of On-yomi

Go-on 呉音
Pronunciations that came to Japan mainly during the Nara period (710-794) from the Southern Dynasty, Lower Changjiang River region, Go (呉, Wu) in 6th and 7th centuries.
e.g. 文 (Kyo-mon), 道 (Ge-do), 修 (Shu-gyo), 痛 (-tsu)

Kan-on 漢音
Pronunciations of Tang (唐) capital near Chang’an (長安), China in the 9th and 10th century, introduced during the Heian period by Japanese envoys and students to the Tang Dynasty.
e.g. 書 (Kei-sho), 内 (Nai-gai), 旅 (Ryo-ko), 先 (Sen-to)

Tohsoh-on 唐宋音
Pronunciations of the Song (宋) and Yuan (元) dynasties of China, introduced by Zen monks and merchants of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods of Japan.
e.g. 看 (Kan-kin), 郎 (Ui-ro), 脚 (An-gya), 饅 (Man-ju)

3 Types of Kun-yomi

Sei-kun 正訓
Pronunciations of Japanese transrated words corresponding to the Chinese characters.
e.g. 日 (Hi), 月 (Tsuki), 山 (Yama), 雨 (Ame), 馬 (Uma), 足 (Ashi)

Gi-kun 義訓
The translation is given according to the meaning of the compounds without regard to the meaning of the individual Chinese characters.
e.g. 七夕 (Tanabata), 海苔 (Noro), 東風 (Kochi), 東雲 (Shinonome), 長閑 (Nodoka), 蚊帳 (Kaya)

Kok-kun 国訓
Japanese translations are given regardless of the original meaning of the Chinese characters.
e.g. 柏 (Kashiwa), 鮨 (Sushi), 椿 (Tsubaki)

Characteristics and Usage of On-yomi and Kun-yomi

Both On-yomi and Kun-yomi have distinct characteristics and usage patterns. On-yomi are often used in compound words, technical terms, and borrowed words, reflecting the Chinese influence on Japanese vocabulary. On the other hand, Kun-yomi are typically found in native Japanese words.

The Significance and Tips for Learning On-yomi and Kun-yomi

Understanding On-yomi and Kun-yomi is crucial for correctly reading and comprehending Kanji in Japanese. Here are some tips to help you navigate these reading systems:

Recognize common patterns: Notice recurring On-yomi or Kun-yomi readings for certain groups of Kanji characters to establish a foundation for pronunciation.

Learn from context: Pay attention to how Kanji characters are used within words and sentences to grasp their appropriate readings.

Practice vocabulary: Engage in vocabulary exercises to familiarize yourself with different readings and expand your Kanji knowledge.

By embracing the variations in On-yomi and Kun-yomi, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of the Japanese language and its writing system.


On-yomi and Kun-yomi are vital aspects of mastering Kanji in Japanese. Understanding these reading systems unlocks a world of pronunciation nuances and expands your vocabulary. Embrace the challenge of learning On-yomi and Kun-yomi, and through practice and exposure, you’ll discover the beauty and complexity of Japanese characters. Happy learning!

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