In modern
Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan , image_flag = Flag of Japan.svg , alt_flag = Centered deep red circle on a white rectangle , image_coat = Imperial Seal of J ...

, principally refers to
kanji are a set of logographic In a written language A written language is the representation of a spoken or gestural language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gest ...

used to phonetically represent native or borrowed words with less regard to the underlying meaning of the characters. This is similar to in
Old Japanese is the oldest attested stage of the Japanese language, recorded in documents from the Nara period The of the history of Japan The first human inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago The Japanese archipelago (Japanese: 日本列島, ...
. Conversely, also refers to kanji used semantically without regard to the readings. For example, the word "
sushi is a traditional Japanese dish of prepared , usually with some sugar and salt, accompanied by a variety of , such as seafood Seafood is any form of Marine life, sea life regarded as food by humans, prominently including Fish as food, fis ...

" is often written with its . Though the two characters have the readings and respectively, the character means "one's natural life span" and means "to administer", neither of which has anything to do with the food. as a means of representing
loanword A loanword (also loan word or loan-word) is a word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes that can be uttered in isolation with semantic, objective or pragmatics, practical meaning (lin ...
s has been largely superseded in modern Japanese by the use of (see also
Transcription into Japanese In contemporary Japanese writing The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic In a written language, a logogram or logograph is a written character that represents a word or morpheme. Chinese characters (pronounce ...
), although many coined in earlier eras still linger on.


today are used conventionally for certain words, such as ('sushi'), though these words may be written in
hiragana is a Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan , image_flag = Flag of Japan.svg , alt_flag = Centered deep red circle on a white rectangle , image_coat ...

(especially for native words), or
katakana is a Japanese , one component of the along with , and in some cases the (known as ). The word ''katakana'' means "fragmentary kana", as the katakana characters are derived from components or fragments of more complex kanji. Katakana and hi ...
(especially for borrowed words), with preference depending on the particular word, context, and choice of the writer. are particularly common on traditional store signs and menus. For example, "
tempura is a typical Japanese cuisine, Japanese dish usually consisting of seafood, meat and vegetables that have been Batter (cooking), battered and deep frying, deep fried. The dish was introduced by the Portuguese people, Portuguese in Nagasaki throu ...

" may be written as . The Japanese loanword for "coffee" is generally written using the katakana , but on coffee shop signs and menus it may be written with the Chinese word , which is then pronounced irregularly to their normal Japanese reading (their ). Many characters have gained meanings derived from usage. For example, were once widely utilized for foreign place names; such as in the used to write "
Asia Asia () is 's largest and most populous , located primarily in the and . It shares the continental of with the continent of and the continental landmass of with both Europe and . Asia covers an area of , about 30% of Earth's total lan ...

". The original word is now considered archaic, but the character has gained the meaning "Asia" in such compounds as , even though originally meant "subsequent" (and continues to). From the , the second character was taken, resulting in the semi-formal coinage , which literally translates to "rice country" but means "
United States of America The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US) or America, is a country in . It consists of 50 , a , five major , 326 , and some . At , it is the world's . The United States shares significan ...

United States of America
"; however, remains in far more common use in modern Japanese. Major
natural gas Natural gas (also called fossil gas; sometimes just gas) is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon In , a hydrocarbon is an consisting entirely of and . Hydrocarbons are examples of s. Hydrocarbons are generally colourless and hydrophobic wit ...

natural gas
companies in Japan use the in their company names, but use the katakana in their trade names.

Phono-semantic matching

When using to represent loanwords, the kanji are sometimes chosen for both their semantic and phonetic values, a form of
phono-semantic matching Phono-semantic matching (PSM) is the incorporation of a word into one language from another, often creating a neologism, where the word's non-native quality is hidden by replacing it with Phonetics, phonetically and semantically similar words or r ...
. A stock example is () for "
club Club may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media * Club (magazine), ''Club'' (magazine) * Club, a ''Yie Ar Kung-Fu'' character * Clubs (suit), a suit of playing cards * Club music * "Club", by Kelsea Ballerini from the album ''kelsea'' Brands an ...
", where the characters can be interpreted loosely in sequence as "together", "fun" and "place". Another example is () for the
Portuguese Portuguese may refer to: * anything of, from, or related to the country and nation of Portugal ** Portuguese cuisine, traditional foods ** Portuguese language, a Romance language *** Portuguese dialects, variants of the Portuguese language ** Portug ...

, a kind of
raincoat upA child wearing a yellow raincoat with hood A raincoat or also known as rain suit. In most fashion market including America, France, Asia etc, raincoat refers to both the top and bottom including trousers. It is a waterproof or water-resistant ...

. The characters can mean "wings coming together", as the pointed resembles a bird with wings folded together.


The ad hoc usage of Chinese characters for their phonetic values dates nearly to the introduction of Chinese characters to Japan. Two widespread uses of came out of this. On one front, scholars and monks used kanji characters as translation aids between the lines of Chinese texts. On the other, poets simply used kanji phonetically to write in Japanese. Many different characters were used with the same sound values. This system of characters is called , "alphabet of myriad leaves". The of modern Japanese, and developed as organic simplifications of that were eventually codified. are primarily used today for historical terms – in historical order, these are primarily
Sanskrit Sanskrit (; attributively , ; nominalization, nominally , , ) is a classical language of South Asia that belongs to the Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. It arose in South Asia after its predecessor langua ...

terms dating from the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, Portuguese terms from the 16th and 17th centuries, and Dutch terms from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. found some use in the
Meiji period The is an era An era is a span of time defined for the purposes of chronology 222px, Joseph Scaliger's ''De emendatione temporum'' (1583) began the modern science of chronology Chronology (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical ...
and in the 20th century, but has largely been superseded by .


Buddhist Buddhism (, ) is the world's fourth-largest religion Religion is a - of designated and practices, , s, s, , , , , or , that relates humanity to , , and elements; however, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitu ...

Japanese, Sanskrit terms used in some chants also derive from but were not called such. These Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese (in a Literary Chinese style) in China long ago. The translation rule for mantras was not to translate the mantra, but instead to represent it phonetically with Chinese characters. For the sutras, they were translated into Chinese Literary Language (). The terms () and (), or "perfection of wisdom" and "fully enlightened", both appear in the
Heart Sutra The ''Heart Sūtra'' ( sa, प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय ' or zh, 心經 , Tibetan Tibetan may mean: * of, from, or related to Tibet * Tibetan people, an ethnic group * Tibetan language: ** Classical Tibetan, the clas ...
, but are written using .

Related concepts

("Japanese-origin" readings) should not be confused with . Whereas are characters used to represent Japanese or borrowed words without regard to the meaning of those characters, are readings, typically words, of Japanese origin that have been officially applied to the borrowed Chinese characters, similar to Latin-Germanic origin synonyms in
English English usually refers to: * English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language first spoken in History of Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval England, which has eventually become the World language, leading lan ...

. When a native Japanese word is written as a compound by meaning only, and this spelling is established in the language, as in , the word is the semantic variety of , and is known specifically as . Intentional improvised use of irregular kanji spellings (as opposed to spelling mistakes) are known as , and generally require (notational reading characters) to be read properly. Many may have started out as . A loanword example is reading as the English-derived word , or "rival". While standardized use , as in having the suffix in order to inflect as for the past tense, only intended for one-off usage need not have sufficient . For example, ("spicy, salty") is an adjective requiring the suffix , but may also be spelt as, for example, (both legitimate of the characters) on a poster, for example, where there is no intention of inflecting this spelling.

Single-character loan words

Most are multi-character, but in rare cases they can be single-character, as in (simplification of , for which is the Chinese-derived pronunciation), used for "can, metal tin" ( originally meaning "metal pot, iron teakettle"). This is classified as . In some rare cases, an individual kanji has a loan word reading – that is, a character is given a new reading by borrowing a foreign word – though most often these words are written in . The three most notable examples are , , and . (from the Portuguese , "button") and are marginally understood or used in some settings, but most are obscure – see list of single character loan words for more. These are classed as of a single character, because the character is being used for meaning only (without the Chinese pronunciation), rather than as , which is the classification used when a loanword term is using existing sounds only (as in "tempura"), or alternatively as a compound with meaning only (as in – the sound cannot be broken down into readings of individual characters). In principle these could be considered as 1-character meaning-only , but because the reading corresponds to a single character, these are considered readings instead. Note that while are generally written as when writing out the word in instead of kanji (because native Japanese), these are generally written as (because a foreign borrowing). See single character ''gairaigo'' for further discussion. Note that numerically, most of these characters are for units, particularly
SI units The International System of Units, known by the international abbreviation SI in all languages and sometimes pleonastically as the SI system, is the modern form of the metric system The metric system is a system of measurement A syste ...
, in many cases using new characters () coined during the
Meiji period The is an era An era is a span of time defined for the purposes of chronology 222px, Joseph Scaliger's ''De emendatione temporum'' (1583) began the modern science of chronology Chronology (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical ...
, such as from "meter" + "thousand"; this character is obscure and not in common use. Some non-kanji symbols or Latin character abbreviations also have loanword readings, often quite long; a common example is '%' (the percent sign), which has the five kana reading (), while the word "centimeter" is generally written as "cm" (with two half-width characters, so occupying one space) and has the seven kana reading () it can also be written as , as with kilometer above, though this is very rare). Many borrowed measurement terms may be written as tiny abbreviations stuffed into a single character space called : (for centimeters; ), (for kilo; ), amongst others. In a few cases, the etymology of a word is unclear, and hence whether the term is a borrowing or not cannot be determined. One such example is , which may be from native Japanese or , or may be from English ''bill''; it is currently frequently written in katakana, however.

There are occasional spellings which derive from (Japanese form of literary Chinese), where the kanji form follows literary Chinese, but the pronunciation follows Japanese. An example of this is writing (, "no, not") before a kanji for a verb, corresponding to the verb inflection () – for example, writing for "not knowing". The word is read as (as if it were a native Japanese verb), though in this case is also a Sino-Japanese word (a noun), read as , meaning "ignorance". These are primarily found in older literature, but are occasionally used in variant spellings of everyday words, such as .

See also

* in Chinese *
Japanese exonyms Japanese exonyms are the names of places in the Japanese language that differ from the name given in the place's dominant language. While Japanese names of places that are not derived from the Chinese language generally tend to represent the Exony ...
Transcription into Chinese characters Transcription into Chinese characters is the use of traditional or simplified Chinese characters Chinese characters, also called ''Hanzi'' (), are logograms developed for the writing of Chinese. They have been adapted to write oth ...

Further reading

Painting Worlds and Words
by Mia Lewis


{{Reflist Japanese writing system terms Kanji Transliteration