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Help How do I read kanji?

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NotaWeeb

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I know about radicals and stuff and how they all create components to Kanji but whenever i try to take apart a Kanji radical by radical, I find that the meaning of the kanji is not remotely similar to the meanings of the individual radicals.
 

Mike Cash

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I know about radicals and stuff and how they all create components to Kanji but whenever i try to take apart a Kanji radical by radical, I find that the meaning of the kanji is not remotely similar to the meanings of the individual radicals.
Why would you expect them to be?

Each kanji has only one "radical", by the way.

Are you concurrently learning the Japanese language or are you one of the many who start out with the mistaken impression that learning kanji is learning Japanese?
 

Toritoribe

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I know about radicals and stuff and how they all create components to Kanji but whenever i try to take apart a Kanji radical by radical, I find that the meaning of the kanji is not remotely similar to the meanings of the individual radicals.
Also, which are you talking about; reading or meaning?
 

NotaWeeb

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Why would you expect them to be?

Each kanji has only one "radical", by the way.

Are you concurrently learning the Japanese language or are you one of the many who start out with the mistaken impression that learning kanji is learning Japanese?
I'm learning this in high school. Now that freshman year is over, I am trying to independently study kanji so I can be ahead next year.
 

Transformer5

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I know about radicals and stuff and how they all create components to Kanji but whenever i try to take apart a Kanji radical by radical, I find that the meaning of the kanji is not remotely similar to the meanings of the individual radicals.
The radical can give a hint as to the general category of meaning. So if you see 月, that often means it's an internal body organ, or 口 means it has something to do with breathing.
 
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OoTmaster

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Obviously this isn't a comprehensive explanation. No doubt Mike Cash, our joyful resident Japan expert, will find something to tear into in this post.
Sounds like someone's got a chip on their shoulder.

I would suggest learning Kanji as you learn the language. Knowing the meanings of words that use a kanji can sometimes help you understand what the kanji means.
 

OoTmaster

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I think he's someone that's run into a lot of people that go about learning Japanese the wrong way. I think he's just trying to save himself the trouble of getting 10 pages deep in this thread trying to help this guy find resources that will help him if he's one of those people. Honestly when I started this forum I thought he was abrasive as well, but even being that way he helped me more than a lot of other members on here whether or not I appreciated the way he approached it at the time.
 

Transformer5

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I think he's someone that's run into a lot of people that go about learning Japanese the wrong way.
Learning Japanese the right way... Now THERE'S a topic.

Personally, I think all language learning begins and ends with reading. That's where you learn how the language is constructed, and get a feel for how to use it, which is especially important with Japanese, as it uses words and grammar differently than English.

Learning and remembering kanji is difficult, especially in the earlier stages, so you need to take your time with it, be patient and take it steady.
 

OoTmaster

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Learning Japanese the right way... Now THERE'S a topic.
I would argue there's no real right way to learn Japanese as I'm sure is your point. But there certainly are wrong ways to learn it. Even coming here as infrequently as I do I've seen quite a few of those myself.
 

Mike Cash

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What exactly was so mean spirited about that quote? Seemed fine to me, albeit unhelpful
Thank you. There was nothing mean-spirited about it. It was at least more helpful than telling you wrong information, such as 口 having to with breathing. Maybe he's a habitual mouth-breather. Who knows?

My second question was to learn something about you and how you're going about this.

My first question was to get you to question your assumptions, to give it a bit more thought, and to help you work through it rather than just hand it to you. It was a serious question I had hoped you would answer, not a smart-assed rhetorical remark.

And, quite frankly, we get so many people who come here, create an account, make one post and never come back to check for replies (drive-by posters) that when I see a post count of "1" I'm not going to spend much time typing up an answer for their sole benefit until I at least see they're going to come back.
 

Mike Cash

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ok, sorry if i was being passive aggressive. also, is there a way to remove people from a thread? this transformer guy is clogging it up.
You have done nothing to apologize for. You can add people to your Ignore List by clicking on their user name and then clicking "Ignore" on the menu that pops up. If you find anyone disruptive to the point that they're violating our Forum Rules then you can click on the "Report" button at the bottom of the post in question or you can message one of the site staff directly with your concerns.

Getting back to your main question, though....

As you no doubt know, Japan borrowed kanji from China way back when and applied it to writing Japanese, a very different language. The result was a "round peg in a square hole" force-fit situation.

Kanji have readings which come from their original Chinese readings, slightly warped to fit Japanese pronunciation. These are the "on-yomi".

Kanji have readings which come from Japanese words. These readings have no relation to Chinese; but the meaning is the same (or at least something close). These are the "kun-yomi".

Words written with kanji can be either single kanji, multiple kanji, or a mix of kanji and "okurigana" (inflected grammatical markers in the form of suffixes). Words written with multiple kanji can be either all on-yomi, all kun-yomi, or a mix of the two.

Further complicating matters is that many kanji have multiple on-yomi due to having been borrowed multiple times from different areas of China with different dialects. They may be read one way in one Japanese word and another way in a different one.

It is important to have some foothold on learning the language itself in order to make heads or tails out of what the hell is going on with the system used to write the language. Trying to learn kanji in isolation without learning the language would be a little like trying to learn algebra before learning arithmetic. Unfortunately, it isn't unusual for beginning learners to only want to learn kanji...often under the mistaken impression that they are learning Japanese and believing that once they have memorized a bunch of kanji they will be able to read Japanese (they won't). This is why I asked if you are learning Japanese concurrent with your kanji studies or if you are one of the misguided people who are tackling kanji thinking "kanji = Japanese"; the advice we should give you would be very different based on the answer.

A word you will hear until you are sick to death of it when learning Japanese is "context". You will find it easier to learn to read kanji if you learn them in conjunction with vocabulary acquisition as you progress through your Japanese language studies, in the context of the sentences in your exercises.
 
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nice gaijin

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Kanji are very important if you want to become a functioning adult in Japanese, but learning them usually ends up coming down to exposure. You should learn the radicals, they can be very helpful for remembering the correct way to write characters, and provide hints to meaning (to an extent), but don't expect to magically decipher new kanji you encounter, there are too many influences on Japanese kanji to nail it down like a science. Japanese requires you to be exposed to a character somehow before you can recognize and reproduce it; you aren't going to be able to guess the right way to write something if you've never seen it before. Likewise when you see a character for the first time, you may only be able to take a stab at the onyomi reading based on its radicals, but again, nothing is guaranteed.

So the key to remembering the kanji is to learn it in the context of its natural environment: in Japanese sentences! This is why folks here are telling you to learn it alongside the language--you will retain so much more if the knowledge you are absorbing is connected to your other knowledge. And it's so much more helpful to remember the various readings of a particular kanji by remembering the vocabulary words that use those different readings. Use sources with furigana/okurigana, or plugins like rikaichan if you're reading online, to practice reading through Japanese sentences quickly, and then study the kanji compounds that are new to you.

Here's probably my most useful tip: Look at the individual characters in the compound and look at the other compounds they're commonly used in. This also gives you another cross-wiring technique that includes some important learning vocabulary, I call it "XY の X"

A:「安定」ってどうやって書く?
B:「安全の安、定食の定」

So, if person A is familiar with the kanji used for those other common words, they can make the connection to this new vocabulary.

The more you learn kanji, the more you can play with it, and take the opportunity to come up with puns and homophones that will seem funny to you and not to Japanese people.
 
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joadbres

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口 means it has something to do with breathing.
I don't think you were wrong, per se, but I think it would be more accurate and complete to say that the 口 radical indicates actions performed with the mouth. (Other than speaking, which is marked using a different radical.)
 

Transformer5

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I don't think you were wrong, per se, but I think it would be more accurate and complete to say that the 口 radical indicates actions performed with the mouth. (Other than speaking, which is marked using a different radical.)
That's right. That radical can appear in various places within a kanji. I was thinking of when it's placed on the left as referring to actions performed with the mouth, which often involve the use of breath. You can guess at the meaning of a kanji by the radical that's placed in that position.
 

Mike Cash

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吸 吐 鳴 吹

You were saying?
呉 唇 喰 噛 釦 品 癌 嘔 嘴 鷗 呑 谷 溶 容 各 吉 同 含 君 吾 否 呆 倉 向 和 周 週 合 高 程 呈 味 命 咽 喉 培 倍 咲 員 唐 唾 唯 営 善 喪 嗣 嘗 器

Take out the ones that merely contain 口 as an element and constrain the examples to those which are classified under the radical 口 and it still shows how wrong your assertion is.
 

joadbres

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The 口 element in particular is, perhaps, not the best example, as it has a very basic shape and because of that can be found within quite a variety of characters, with a variety of different meanings.

However, among characters that are classified as 形成文字, that is, characters which consist of a meaning element and a phonetic element, when 口 is the meaning element, the character meaning often is pertaining to the mouth: parts of the mouth, actions involving the mouth, etc.

Among the common-use characters, some examples, including characters already mentioned, are:
(simplified meanings are used for the sake of discussion)

吸 suck; inhale
吐 spit; vomit
吹 blow; to smoke
唇 lips
味 taste; flavor
咽 throat
喉 throat
唾 saliva
叱 scold; shush
叫 shout; exclaim
呼 call out to
呪 put a curse on; place a spell
唄 songs; singing
唱 chant; recite
喝 scold; shout
喚 yell; cry; scream
喫 eat; drink; consume; smoke
嘆 sigh; lament

As @Transformer5 noted, when the 口 element is located on the left-hand side of a character, it is especially likely that the character is a 形成文字, and pertains to the mouth.

Therefore, @Transformer5 's advice is quite helpful, I think.
 

nice gaijin

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As @Transformer5 noted, when the 口 element is located on the left-hand side of a character, it is especially likely that the character is a 形成文字, and pertains to the mouth.
Aren't you putting words in his mouth? He literally just said "口 means it has something to do with breathing" and later listed a few characters with it as the main radical to prove that point; it wasn't even clear if he had made that connection between the placement of the radical and its influence on the character's meaning. I'm curious though, did he think of those off the top of his head, or go through a dictionary by searching for the radical and cherry-picking the characters that prove his point whilst ignoring the ones that prove it to be false? I mean, that's what I would've done.

Like I said, it's not a science and very few kanji "rules" come without exceptions. The point that radicals can affect the way a character is interpreted or pronounced is an important thing to know, but his example was inaccurate.
 

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For the other radical that was brought up (月), it's also easy to find both examples and counterexamples.

胃: stomach
背: back
肺: lungs
脇: armpit
肌: skin

肯: affirm
青: blue
服: clothing
脱: escape
朋: companion

Meanwhile, the kanji that represent the most basic actions you can do with your mouth, namely eating (食), drinking (飲) and breathing (息), do not have the "mouth" (口) component.

So to come back to the original question: you can indeed not "read" a kanji as in "derive its meaning from its components". Often, the composition of kanji will appear meaningless, confusing or even misleading. When you encounter such a character, you have multiple options:
  • Look up its etymology to find out why it was composed that way when it was first created (keeping in mind that Chinese characters are thousands of years old and have changed a lot over time).
  • Use a mnemonic resource such as Memrise, KanjiDamage or WaniKani to find a silly, made-up explanation for its composition - or make up your own. For example, "the doctor affirmed (肯) that the president's organs (月) had stopped (止) functioning".
  • Give up on trying to make sense of it and learn it through rote instead: test yourself on recalling it over and over until it sticks.

Whatever the case, it's indeed best to learn each kanji together with some words it's used in - especially as there are plenty of characters that are only used in a handful of words in the first place.
 

Transformer5

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I'm curious though, did he think of those off the top of his head, or go through a dictionary by searching for the radical and cherry-picking the characters that prove his point whilst ignoring the ones that prove it to be false? I mean, that's what I would've done.
It just sprung to mind as an example of remembering or deciphering kanji. It's clearly not a scientific analysis.
 

Transformer5

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呉 唇 喰 噛 釦 品 癌 嘔 嘴 鷗 呑 谷 溶 容 各 吉 同 含 君 吾 否 呆 倉 向 和 周 週 合 高 程 呈 味 命 咽 喉 培 倍 咲 員 唐 唾 唯 営 善 喪 嗣 嘗 器

Take out the ones that merely contain 口 as an element and constrain the examples to those which are classified under the radical 口 and it still shows how wrong your assertion is.
咽 嘔 嘴 唾 咲 follow the pattern that I was referring to, and all refer to the parts of the anatomy through which you breathe, through which food goes through, or the act thereof. That was my point.

Sorry for not being 187.7% clear on that.
 

Toritoribe

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Sorry for nitpicking, but unlike in Chinese, 咲 basically only means "to bloom" at least in modern Japanese.
Back to the OP's original question, they mentioned "components", so even when 偏 has something to do with the meaning, 旁 just shows the sound and doesn't (well, at least always) have meaning in 形成文字. For instance, "shell" has nothing to do with "song/to sing", so it's impossible to guess the meaning of 唄 just from "mouth" and "shell". I think this is what the OP talking about, and I agree with lanthas-san. I recommend his third option, since you can choose the first option even after being familiar with most kanji if you still want to know the etymology of kanji.
 

Transformer5

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Sorry for nitpicking, but unlike in Chinese, 咲 basically only means "to bloom" at least in modern Japanese.
I'd think of the action of blooming as similar to opening the mouth, so it's connected in that way.

For instance, "shell" has nothing to do with "song/to sing", so it's impossible to guess the meaning of 唄 just from "mouth" and "shell".
I don't recall seeing that kanji before, but again, you can remember it by thinking of a shell opening its "mouth" as mimicking the action of singing.
 
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