How to guess a Kanji's on-yomi in 4 easy steps

25 Jun 2018

2 minute read

Lately I have been putting a lot of effort into studying Japanese, to prepare for my upcoming trip to Japan at the end of summer 2018. While learning the readings for various kanji (Chinese character) words, I’ve noticed that a lot of their pronunciations (on-yomi) are related to the Chinese pronunciations in an interesting way. Let me explain my empirical theory about how to to convert Chinese pronunciations into Japanese ones:

  1. Say no: No to too many letters. If the Chinese word has multiple consonants, or too many vowels, drop them.
  2. Change the vowels (and sometimes the consonants: Otherwise it would be too easy.
  3. Go K-razy: Find ways to put the letter K into the word as much as possible. For some reason it seems like all kanji have lots of k’s in them.
  4. (Optional) Add some extra syllables: Ususally either つ (tsu) or く (ku)

Sound weird? Let me walk you through some examples.

Some examples

結果 [jié guǒ] (result)

  1. Say no: the ie and uo are clusters of vowels, so we say no to that, and remove a vowel from each. So we get ji’go
  2. Change the vowels: change i to e, and o to a: so we get je’ga
  3. Go K-razy: now change all consonants to the letter k. Also add another k into the middle of the word. So we get kek’ka.
  4. Skip this step

So we get the final Japanese pronunciation, kekka (けっか). Wow that word has a lot of k’s.

計画 [jì huà] (plan/project)

  1. Say no: the ua in hua just becomes a.
  2. Change the vowels: ji becomes jei (pronounced just like je but with a “long vowel”)
  3. Go K-razy: Now make every consonant a K. It becomes keika. Also, just add an extra k syllable on the end, ku. So we get keikaku

This gives us kei’kaku (けいかく), the Japanese pronunciation.

価格 [jià gé] (price)

  1. Say no: jia becomes ja, so we have ja ge
  2. Change the vowels: ge becomes ga, so we have ja ga
  3. Add K’s. ja becomes ka, and ga also becomes ka. And why not, add an extra ku, giving us kakaku. Note that every consonant has now become the letter K.

We now have the Japanese pronunciation, ka’kaku (かかく).

More examples of Kanji with K’s in weird places or just lots of K’s

So you’ve seen some examples worked through. Look at all those K’s!! Although those were somewhat cherry-picked, allow me to give some more examples of on-yomi with tons of extra K’s.

Kanji Meaning Chinese (no tones) Japanese # K’s added
改革 Revolution gai ge kaikaku 4
過去 past guo qu kako 2
目的 goal mu di moku teki 2
地下 basement di xia chi ka 1
高校 high school gao xiao kou kou 2
強化 strengthening qiang hua kyou ka 2
教科 subject jiao ke kyou ka 2
空港 airport kong gang kuu kou 2
効果 effect xiao guo kou ka 2
後悔 regret hou hui kou kai 2
結婚 marriage jie hun kekkon 3
国会 Japanese parliament guo hui kokkai 3


This weird method works surprisingly well. Even though this is probably just a confirmation bias, now that I have this idea in mind I always think of Japanese pronunciations as variations on the Chinese pronunciation. And I really notice the large number of K’s! These kind of weird things are part of the reason I like learning languages.