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Kanji

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  • Japanese: 漢字 (kanji)

Kanji are the Chinese characters, sometimes described as ideographs, used alongside the phonetic kana in Japanese writing.

Kanji are composed of radicals, elements which indicate either the meaning of a character, or its pronunciation (reading). A relatively small number of radicals are used, in different combinations, to produce a large variety of characters. One example of a radical that suggests meaning is the sanzui, three strokes to the left of a character indicating an association with water. It appears, for example, in characters such as 滝 (waterfall), 泳 (swimming), and 流 (flow). An example of a radical that indicates pronunciation can be found in the right half of the character for "flow." That character, 流, can be pronounced ryû. The character 琉 has the same radical on its right side, indicating that it too is pronounced ryû. However, this character refers to a precious stone, a meaning unrelated to that of "flowing"; the right-side radical indicates only sound, and not meaning.

Each character may be read (pronounced) in a number of different ways. The vast majority of characters have at least two readings: a kun-yomi and an on-yomi. The kun-yomi is sometimes called the Japanese or Japanese-style reading; these are native Japanese words, not derived from Chinese. The on-yomi, meanwhile, is often called the Chinese or Chinese-style reading; this reading is often somewhat related to the actual pronunciation in Chinese, but should not be confused for being the actual Chinese pronunciation. To take one example, the character 港, meaning "port" or "harbor", is pronounced gǎng in Mandarin, and kong (as in Hong Kong) in Cantonese, but is (こう) in the Japanese "Chinese-style" on-yomi reading. The kun-yomi, having no relation to the Chinese, and drawing upon native Japanese vocabulary, is minato.

Up through the early 20th century, and to a small extent today, many materials were written exclusively, or almost exclusively, in kanji, with minimal or no use of kana, a form known as kanbun. In standard Japanese today, however, kanji are used intermixed with the phonetic kana, which serve as particles linking parts of speech, as okurigana indicating conjugations and other forms of words, and so forth, and sometimes spell out words without the use of kanji. To give a simple example, in the sentence 「私はこれを食べています」 (watashi ha kore wo tabeteimasu, "I am eating this"), the words watashi (私, "I") and ta[beru] (食, "to eat") are written in kanji, while kana are used for the word kore (これ, "this"), the okurigana indicating the current action aspect conjugation of the verb [ta]beteimasu (~べています, "am [eat]ing"), and the particles ha (は) and wo (を), which mark the subject and direct object of the clause, respectively.

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