Kanji Story – How Japan Overloaded Chinese Characters

Kanji Story – How Japan Overloaded Chinese Characters


In my last rant about all the ridiculousness
it takes just to write a simple sentence in Japanese, the list of complications kept growing
and growing and growing, until we threw that kanji bomb into the mix like a writing systems
ninja. But I didn’t get into the stuff that really takes Japanese kanji over the top,
making them seriously awkward. Don’t forget, don’t you dare forget, that
Japan borrowed its characters from China. That’s important, because it explains what
happens next. When a Kanji came on the boat across the sea, it brought its Chinese pronunciation
along with it. But Chinese and Japanese are two very different languages with two very
different pronunciation systems. So each character didn’t get pronounced the way somebody from
China would say it but the way somebody from Japan would hear it. Here’s how I imagine
that history. “Well, hello! Who might you be?” “Han.” “Ok, Kan.” “No, HAN!” “Yes,
Kan. Nice to meet you, Kan.” And that is just the tip of the Sapporo ice sculpture. What makes this confusing cultural mismatch
even better is that the acoustic exchange happened a long time ago, so it’s the way
characters from old China sounded to people in old Japan. And since, like I explained last time, most
characters are a bad game of charades with one part of the character telling you what
the word “sounds like”, the confusion coming out of this phonological telephone game makes
that vague “sounds like” hint even more vague in Japanese. The fancy term for this cultural mishmash
of kanji pronunciation is the Sino-Japanese reading. In Japanese, they call it the On’yomi!
Literally “sound reading”, since you’re reading the kanji with its Chinese sound.
And, of course, there’s more than one way to skin an on’yomi. There’s go-on. That’s
the classical Wu pronunciation of the characters from the 5th century. Then came the kan’on,
which are T’ang dynasty pronunciations starting in the 7th century. Tou-on pronunciations
made their way to Japan from later dynasties. The final on’yomi is kan’you-on, outlier
pronunciations and even mistakes that became conventional and stuck around over the centuries.
So, yeah, don’t be surprised when the on’yomi for a kanji you’re learning is actually
a bunch of different Sino-Japanese pronunciations. This has amusing consequences. If you go to
Zen ceremonies, they recite this passage in Classical Chinese that’s called the Heart
Sutra. But this is Japan, and these are all kanji. So how do you think the sutra gets
pronounced? In Classical Chinese? No. In Standard Chinese? No. In Japanese? No! It’s just
chanted as a long string of on’yomi, basically resulting in gibberish in both languages. Kanji don’t just have on’yomi though. They
also have Kun’yomi! Like I said before, Japanese and Chinese are two very different languages,
which means that all these on’yomi getting borrowed century after century are basically
foreign vocabulary words. But do you think the native Japanese words just stepped aside
and made room for all the shiny new Chinese terms? No. The incoming kanji had to fit Japanese,
too. So Japanese words got matched to Chinese characters that seemed like a good fit at
the time. Here’s the character for cart or vehicle.
It has a few Sino-Japanese on’yomi, but the basic one is “sha”. But the Japanese already
had a word for this: kuruma. So this character can represent any of these pronunciations. It wasn’t an exact science though. Just
like you can have multiple Chinese pronunciations for each kanji, why not have multiple Japanese
meaning readings, too? There’s even one more bunch of readings
to add to this list. Nanori! It’s for proper names and is usually yet another native Japanese
pronunciation for the character. And the excitement doesn’t stop here, tomodachi! Because it’s time to forget the reading
fun and think about all the writing fun you can have with these. That is where you really
get to play with this systems within systems madness… I mean, uh, amazingness!… that
is the kanji. If you want to play fast and loose with the
history and meaning of the characters, you can switch in some Ateji! Those are kanji
characters used just for the way they sound. When you see “sushi” written this way, that’s
some improv ateji stuff going on. Neither of those characters has anything to do with
the meaning of that word. Sometimes Japan just builds its own characters
following the logic of Chinese character composition. Just makes characters up. Because you can
be productive with this charades game. These are called Kokuji! Country characters. Sometimes there are newer ways and older ways
of writing the exact same character. Shinjitai! Kyuujitai! Sometimes a character gets way too complicated
or you’re just feeling creative and you need to abbreviate it in one way or another.
And by abbreviate, I mean turn it into a completely unrecognizable thing that I’ll sit there
trying to look up, like WHAT IS THAT? IT WASN’T ON MY OFFICIAL KANJI LIST! Ryakuji! And mastering one character is only a fraction
of the battle. Often characters don’t mean what you think they mean, or they really don’t
mean much on their own. Japanese loves to combine characters to make a word. You go,
Japan! Stack those characters! And then, once you’re comfortable with multi-kanji words,
level up again to tackle those terse little three-character or four-character proverbs
that pack some deep meaning in just a very few syllables. (“Yame!”) This not even where things get out of hand.
I promise you. You see, it’s not the quirky syllables from last time. It’s not the quagmire
that you get into when you start memorizing all the kanji with their sound readings, their
meaning readings, their substitutions and abbreviations. It’s the untamed beast that
only rears its head when you first put ink to that fresh sheet of Japanese paper. Which
looks a lot like regular paper. Uh, stop and think about how super intricate the characters
get with all their little lines and strokes and da–… while I tell you in all seriousness
that there’s officially a right way and a wrong way to write each and every single
mark in these things. You made it this far, but I need you next
time to help me through this. Stick around and subscribe for language.

100 thoughts on “Kanji Story – How Japan Overloaded Chinese Characters

  1. 一般の日本人より詳しいでしょ この人w

  2. As someone studying Chinese, it's interesting to see the similarities between Chinese and Japanese. Many of the Japanese kanji words are written the exact same in Chinese and have the same meaning, but the pronunciation is completely different. 圖書館 is library in both languages, and 車 means car in both languages. However, at least Japanese learners don't need to worry about tones, which in Chinese completely change the meaning of the word.

  3. As a Chinese , I hope that the Chinese language would change into something like Japanese- with both kanji and letters , we can make some letters up with the example of Korean letters

  4. Oh, gee. I only knew about Onyomi and Kunyomi before watching this vid. Oh, and the name variant, but I didn't know what it was called. After seeing this vid I'm super glad I'm taking a different approach to Japanese and trying to hold off on getting Kanji down until I've mastered the basics of the language, as I assume I'll have an easier time once I'm more proficient. I mean, I'm going to keep trying to read in Hiragana/Katakana and basic Kanji most of which has Furigana, but maybe I'm getting ahead of myself when I try to cram Kanji in too.

  5. And thus, asian languages became over complicated and slightly pointless. AMERICAN ENGLISH FOR THE WIN! lol

  6. Illiterate people in japan
    When tries to learn kanji
    After 3 days
    I better learn English than learning kanji

  7. Mandarin is a lot easier 哈哈哈哈哈哈哈

  8. It all begins from Korean Buddhist monk gave Chinese character to Japan during Paekje Dynasty/ Kudara Dynasty.

  9. You make it sound more complicated than it is: as a language learner, you don't need to concern yourself with ALL the possible meanings of words, for the same reason a beginning English learner doesn't start with Shakespeare. Most of it is on a need-to-know basis, and you can learn a lot of basic kanji easily that will make reading easier than using hiragana alone. Also, you don't really explain when to use katakana and when you use hiragana, making it sound like that's a complicated thing when it's as easy as knowing when to use italics or normal letters in an English text following many style guides.

  10. The only way I will ever learn Japanese is if I have a gun to my head 24/7 while being tied to an electric chair

  11. Chinese and Japanese are the same people. But one follow the way of the sun and one follow the way of the moon

  12. The only easy thing in Japanese are the numbers. It's basically just one two three so one until ten eleven would be pronounced ten one or ju ichi ju meaning ten and ichi meaning one.

  13. I’ve memorized 道、魚、鳥、牛、天、犬、猫、日本語、何、あんづ何でよ

  14. 信じたい!あっ、待ってくれ 「新字体」と言うつもりだった。

  15. Here's a kanji I made for fun: it's pronounced ftsvjyuyfdtyjgdrfghguyfutrgjyuftytdutfvbhjua and means Japanese. It's made by putting the characters for kanji and then evil into one character.

  16. So basically Japanese is the English of the east, only understandable if you're adept at knowing arbitrary bullshit people a few centuries ago thought was a good idea

  17. so like… are just a bunch of people in Japan illiterate, or did their schools somehow actually manage to teach this?

  18. The very reason why King Sejong of neighbouring Joseon (now Korea) commissioned the invention of Hangeul writing system, because Chinese characters are too cumbersome especially for those who cannot afford education.

  19. That's why a Chinese needn't learn Japanese. Seriously when I'm reading say a instruction in Japanese, I can say simply pick those Chinese characters, then I will get the brief meaning! Thanks for sharing, and, 0:21 is important 👍

  20. 日语越高级,越多汉字。汉字确实在日本意味着高雅,正式,韩国也一样。只不过韩国和越南蠢到因为政治放弃汉字,自作自受。

  21. If that were not confusing enough, here's more. "Kan-on" means "Han (dynasty) sound", but it is from the Tang Dynasty. "To-on" means "Tang (dynasty) sound", but it is from the Song Dynasty and later…

  22. The first time I noticed that 漢字 were really hard were the words for left and right. 左 and 右 have the first two strokes swapped even though they are the same.

  23. I started learning Hanyu this semester and seeing this just makes me think, that learning to write Hanzi is even easier than I thought ^^' (and to clarify I know that it's not as easy as learning English [btw. non- native writer here] but it's definitely not as hard to learn as many seem to fear) I love writing Chinese, especially those signs in which you can still see the pictogram they were using like with 馬 or 龍 🙂

  24. English has stuff analogous to this but not nearly as difficult. Through the use of archaic spelling. The letters "ough" can be pronounced as "uf" , "oo", or oh while know and no sound identical but are two completely different words, and don't forget plurals.

  25. as a Chinese,you just need to treat Japanese as a more complexed dialect of Chinese.and find the connection between Chinese and Japanese.

  26. Both Hiragana and Katakana derived from Chinese, one was like Chinese writing in cursive, and the other was just breaking apart Chinese characters.

  27. When I was in pre-school and early kindergarten, I pronounced my r’s a s tap, like in Japanese. And I can say from experience, I got my r’s and l’s mixed up.

    I am a native English speaker, da eff I say then like that?

  28. 5:00 "japanese love to combine characters to make a word" but what you through on the screen is just regular Chinese.

  29. About stroke orders. As far as I know,
    1) Learn general rules (memorize)
    2) Learn exceptions (memorize)
    And that's it. No need to memorize it for all.
    Also I do not think you need to memorize readings of a kanji.

  30. Kanji isn't that hard.A lot of people always "claim" that kanji is practically impossible to learn, but in actuality, it's very easy. I am a non-Japanese who is fluent in Japanese; I studied in the United States and Kyoto. The secret to kanji is learning all the radicals. For example, 侍、持、待、寺. The most common thing about these kanjis is this symbol: 寺。Once a person learns all the radicals, they basically know every kanji. They just need to learn the diff combinations that make up the words. Also, each kanji has their own meaning whether it is for food, war, cars, machines, store, etc. Yes, it takes practice but kanji isn't how most non-speakers describe. Japanese is a language just like any other and it requires studying. 1 to 2 hours per day studying for the 日本能力試験 (JLPT) within a two month period, anyone can become a kanji master. Kanji is actually the easiest part of Japanese; the most difficult thing about Japanese is the grammar.

  31. you see, as a Chinese student who decided to pick up Japanese, what hurt me the most wasn't what you'd expect. We all thought the kanji would be the easiest, because we knew them already. but no, we didn't. The Japanese distorted our hanzi into a broken and malleable shell of itself. i was ready for the hellish pronunciations and new meanings but what i was not prepared for…

    the changed stroke order

    WHY WOULD THEY CHANGE THE STROKE ORDER

    listen, it's hard enough to have to read characters different to how i've been doing so since birth, but… THE STROKE ORDER????????

    WHY WRITE THE VERTICAL LINE BEFORE THE HORIZONTALS

    WHY CLOSE THE GATES BEFORE THE INSIDES ARE IN
    WHY
    it's a trap, i tell you. they trap chinese students into thinking it'll be a easy course with all their kanji and not-too-different meanings. but hidden underneath all those familiar faces is a dark and twisted language without tones
    (AND THEY GOT RID OF THE TONES)

  32. Kanji is just like a symbol but not the phonetic alphabet ,so it can be used by different language even with different pronunciation. Not only japan , Korea Vietnam , when the gokturk still in the north of China , before they conquered China established Tang Dynasty, they also used kanji ( Mulan is belongs to gocturk at that moment and the war was between gocturk and rouran)

  33. 日本の文字遊ぶも文化の一つがある
    例えば:うらにわにはにわ にわにはにわにわとりがいる   おやおや やおやのおやがいもやのおやか
    裏庭には2羽、庭には二羽鶏が居る   おやおや八百屋の親が芋屋の親か
    中国人として、日本文化にも漢字の深さを感じる。一つ一つ漢字は意味があるその意味を組み込んだらwordになる。he meaning of a sentence can be fully expressed without using punctuation.四字熟语谚语文言文,每一段文字的背後都有一段故事。

  34. Coming back to this after studying some n4. Turns out it’s so much easier to read Japanese with the Kanji, since you almost can’t read the kana meanings without them.

  35. It's easier than you think…
    今 = now = いま
    今日 = today = きょう
    毎日 = every day = まいにち
    Usually if you know the meaning, just pull the word.

    Sometimes I don't know the word, but I know the meaning. So the sentence makes sense even though I can't say it… LOL!

  36. Ok, so I know that the answers to my questions are probably a little complicated. So, this is a clarifying question– the word in spoken Japanese is different from how the character for that word is pronounced? Why does the character have its own name at all? And, does that make reading aloud confusing? 

    Also, how do you know when to use kanji and when to use hiragana or katakana? Do they stand alone? It seems like when you look at written Japanese, some parts are kanji and some are hiragana, and I'm wondering how those two interact. 

    Also– apologies. I know very little about Japanese, so my questions might sound a little dumb, and even though I thought it was interesting, I found the video a bit confusing.

  37. Putting all the info together in one video makes it seems very unwieldy, but everything becomes quite logical, and not even that hard. if you study it methodically/properly. I've found that to be true for German and Japanese, and true for any language.

  38. 昨日三月一日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした
    Let's try reading.

  39. can someone explain to me the 4:48 part?….i don't get it even by searching RYAKUJI in google. Ryakuji didn't meant "colloquial simplifications of kanji"?, then why that kanji for machine is so complicated lol

  40. as a 5 year learner of Mandarin (trad.) and 1 year learner of Taiwanese (using hàn-jī), this really isn't that much different hahaha
    In Taiwanese a character always has 2 or more readings (not always always, but as good as always).
    Thing is, you never know when to use which reading exactly, unless you know what that character means in that exact case.
    For instance:
    生 has 3 readings depending on meaning.
    生 tshenn – undercooked, raw. Like nama in japanese
    生 sinn – to give birth
    生 sing – to live used in words like sing-ua̍h 生活

    then you also have collicual and book-reading, and it is really difficult to figure out when to use which reading. Some loan words use collicual reading, some use book-reading.
    雪花 suat-hua 雪 is read with book reading
    落雪 lo̍h-seh 雪 is read with collicual reading

  41. Clearly you have not researched this properly at all. Completely wrong from the start.. Firstly, Chinese is spoken differently across different parts of China, known as dialects but use the same characters, therefore the left hand side (or top) known as a radical is NOT the sound of the character, it provides an indication of what the character is is related to e.g. Fire radical used in a word suggests the character is related to something to do with fire,. Therefore a word can be spoken totally differently in different parts of china but is written the same. But hell. why am I doing your research for you…..

  42. I learned Japanese for more than 2 years, at the peak I knew about 400 kanji by heart, but overall it just overwhelmed me, I learned less and less and basically quit.

  43. No, the pronunciation of Chinese characters is changing with the times, which is quite different from the pronunciation of Chinese characters in Tang Dynasty.
    During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese and Japanese 汉字 should have the same pronunciation.

    Even today, some Chinese characters have very similar pronunciation.
    For example, "爱"=ai=“愛“=love

  44. 这老外牛逼奥,他说的我不仅没听说过,而且还听不懂…

  45. 所以,现代中国简化了汉字。
    简体字:中国大陆使用简体字。
    繁體字:中國大陸使用簡體字。

  46. I think you slightly exaggerated the messiness of it all. E.g. learning the many historic (and mostly disused) variant writing of the same kanji is quite optional, even at the level of typical university student. Also all the 4-words proverbs 四字熟語 are only part of the language insofar as Shakespearen quotes are also part of the English language.

    Anyway, still a great, helpful video. As a Chinese who watches a lot of anime, I now understand so much better.

  47. How the fuck does anybody learn this? I’ve seen Anime where characters have difficulty learning Kanji proper. I’m also away there is a minor discussion of spelling reform goin on in Japan (it worked for Korea!) I’m surprised anyone can learn this as a second language.

  48. Standard Chinese = modern Mandarin
    Middle Chinese = c. 7th-14th century Chinese
    Classical Chinese = Middle Chinese writing with modern Mandarin pronunciation

    I know it's peripheral to the point of the video, but the subtle differences between the three can be confusing and hardly anyone ever talks about it.

    Also: Wu is both the name of a historical Chinese kingdom and also the name of a language/dialect based around Zhejiang province… also peripheral, but also can be confusing if not clarified.

  49. 中国人の男に口を開かせた韓国人の男に口に便を入れさせた

  50. Ha ha ha~ very interesting video, the complicated language system of Japanese, the Japanese Kanji is borrowed form Chinese Han Zi in the 8th century~ even if I dont know speak Japanese or the Japanese who dont speak Chinese, but we can still using the hand writing Kanji (Han Zi = Chinese character) to communicate with each other in most of the time, no need to translation ~

  51. Me, Mandarin speaker: hehehe I've just mastered the most difficult writing part of a very difficult language without even trying.
    Me, after seeing this: nah I'll pass.

  52. There are 4 structural patterns of the Chinese characters that help you instantly see through the complexity. Check it out.

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