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Is "niku" the on-pronunciation, or the kun-pronunciation, for (meat)? The answer appears at the bottom of this page.

Column #33 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, February 24, 2003
"Kanji pronunciations: 'Made in China?' 'Made in Japan?'"

Early in my Japanese studies, a teacher once summed up her country's kanji pronunciation system as follows: "There are two ways to pronounce characters. The on pronunciation came from China and the kun pronunciation is a native Japanese word." Naively, I assumed this was a sufficient basis for wading through the pronunciation complexities of Japan's 1,945 general-use kanji, characterized by their multiple readings. After years of mispronouncing kanji, I decided to ferret out more details on on and kun.

The story begins, let's say...with a dog. In some parts of ancient China, our four-legged friend was referred to as k'iwen. Then several thousand years ago, the creators of kanji decided to represent "dog" with the symbol , just one of the 50,000 characters they invented. In any given Chinese dialect, most characters, including , have only one pronunciation. Except for occasional tone changes, this is true even when they are joined together to form compound words like , "doghouse." Not so with Japanese!

When Chinese books on religion and philosophy arrived in Japan some 1,500 years ago, the Japanese aristocracy began to study (kanji, Chinese letters) with a passion. Because spoken Chinese and Japanese are about as closely related as, say, English and Swahili, the best the Japanese could do was to force the Chinese pronunciations into their own phonetic system. Thus (k'iwen) came to be pronounced "ken" in Japan, and is an example of a "Chinese-derived reading," or on-yomi (ǂ, literally "sound-reading"). On-yomi are used more frequently in Japanese compounds--like Ԍ (banken, watchdog)--than in single-character words.

Of course, at the time they were getting fired up about kanji, the Japanese already had words for everyday things. Using Chinese characters to represent native Japanese words--such as inu (dog)-- eventually became an established practice; such pronunciations, or "readings," are known as kun-yomi (Pǂ, literally "explanatory readings").

From a learning perspective, it would be ideal if--like --every kanji used in modern Japanese had just two pronunciations. But since on-yomi entered Japan at various points in history and from different regions in China, and since kun-yomi were based on a variety of concepts found in the original language of Japan, many individual kanji have acquired several on and/or kun readings AND different meanings. (For clarity, on-yomi will be capitalized).

s (go, act, line), for example, has three on readings (GYOU, KOU, and AN), and three kun (iku, yuku, and okonau). "GYOU" came to Japan from the Shanghai area through Buddhist writings, and is often used in compound words related to Buddhism, such as sV (gyougi, behavior), and s (gyouretsu, procession/queue). "KOU," used in compounds like s (ginkou, bank) and s (ryokou, trip), is a "Han reading," based on the 700-800 A.D. pronunciation of s in northwestern China.

Four different pronunciation patterns are possible when kanji are joined in pairs to form compounds: ON/ON, kun/kun ON/kun and, kun/ON. When encountering an unfamiliar compound word, start with possible on sounds. If that does not work, try a kun-kun amalgam. Finally, the compound could have an ON-kun pronunciation (dǂ JUUbako-yomi, "stack of boxes reading")--or a kun-ON one (ǂ yuTOU-yomi, "hot water pail reading").

Here are some examples:
#1 ON/ON: Ǝ (KA-JI, housework), H (DOU-RO, road), ̎ (KA-SHU, singer).
#2 kun/kun: i (shina-mono, goods), (sake-kuse, demeanor when drunk), l (koi-bito, lover).
#3 ON/kun: d (SHI-goto, work), (RYOU-te, both hands), d (JUU-bako).
#4: kun/ON: (michi-JUN, route), ~ (ume-SHU, plum wine), (yu-TOU).

Active readers of Japanese, including native speakers, inevitably face skirmishes with unfamiliar pronunciations of characters. Being armed with adequate information about the origins of the complex Japanese kanji pronunciation system, however, can give foreign learners added confidence to go bravely into battle.

Ask a Japanese friend whether "niku" is the kun-, or the on- pronunciation of (meat). The correct answer is on-pronunciation, but chances are your friend will say it is a kun-pronunciation. Why?

One of the ways native speakers distinguish between the on- and kun-pronunciations of a particular kanji is to say the pronunciations out loud to see if the pronunciation alone gives them an image of the concept it represents. For example, "TOU" is easily distinguished by a native speaker as the on-pronunciation of , and "shima" as the kun-pronunciation, because the latter--a native Japanese word--conjures up an image of an "island" while "TOU" alone generally does not. (Nearly 50 other commonly-used kanji have TOU as an on-pronunciation, including ~ winter, east, steal, cylinder, bean, and | topple).

The reason your Japanese friend likely guessed that "niku" was a kun-pronunciation is that the sound of "niku" alone immediately brings to his/her mind "meat." This Chinese-derived pronunciation has become so entrenched as a vocabulary item in the Japanese language that it is often assumed to be a native Japanese word.

By the way, the (rarely used) kun-pronunciation for is shishi.

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