Kanji Clinic #53, The Japan Times, April 22, 2004
gThe magical power of phonetic componentsh

The first kanji, inscribed on animal bones in China approximately 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, were simple pictures of concrete objects. By 200 A.D., Chinese scholars had compiled a dictionary of 50,000 abstract and visually complex kanji. Most of these remarkable linguistic creations--including the several thousand commonly utilized in Japan today--are comprised of components called gradicals,h which indicate the general meaning of the character, and at least one helper component that provides additional information about its meaning or its on (gChineseh) pronunciation

In the three-component kanji , for example, the radical (thread) is conjoined with (white) and (cloth) to represent "cotton." Kanji like -- combinations of two or more semantic clue-givers-- are called ӕ (kaiimoji, meet-meaning characters).

` (keiseimoji, shape-voice characters), on the other hand, are composed of a radical and a phonetic component that indicates the kanjifs on pronunciation. Early in your Japanese studies you may have noticed, for example, that , a kanji meaning gfiveh and pronounced ggo,h was a phonetic component in (glanguageh), and could serve as a useful tool for remembering its on pronunciation, which is also ggo.h

Eighty-five percent of all kanji contain phonetic components, but textbooks designed for foreign adult kanji aspirants make surprisingly little application of these magical memory aids. One exception is James Heisigfs gRemembering the Kanji IIh (Japan Publications Trading Co.), a self-instruction text for learning kanji pronunciations.

Heisig masterfully arranges the 1,945 general-use characters into:
(a) "pure groups," in which the presence of a given phonetic component always signals a uniform pronunciation (e.g., m SHI, d SHI, u SHI, SHI);
(b) "semipure groups," in which there is a single exception to the phonetic pattern (e.g., p EI, f EI, OU);
(c) "mixed groups," in which a given phonetic component can signal two or more different on readings (e.g., JI, JI, JI, TAI, TOKU, TOU);
(d) kanji with on readings uniquely their own (e.g., CHA, GATSU, S HYAKU); and
(e) kanji with a kun ("Japanese") pronunciation but no officially approved on pronunciation (e.g., M sara, saku, I tana). (Note: On pronunciations are capitalized here).

Today, letfs first take a look at some phonetic components that should be relatively easy to put at your command, even if you are still only a kanji wizard-in-training. All are characters learned by Japanese schoolchildren in grades 1-3. Find the phonetic component common to the kanji in each gpure grouph below. After writing the component and its pronunciation, plug them into the parentheses to get a sample compound word. Answers are at the end of the column.

, , CF/KA
as in (), bun(ka) gcultureh

1. , , , , F?/?
as in ( )l, ( )jin gCaucasianh

2. , U, g, , v, IF?/?
as in ( ), ( )ji gconstructionh

3. , , , , , F ?/?
as in( )N, ( )nen gyouthh

4. , , :F?/?
as in ( ), ( )bun ghalfh

5. , , :F?/?
as in ( ), sha( ) gcompany presidenth

Ready for more of a challenge? Some phonetic components are not independent kanji. Find the nonkanji phonetic component common to the characters in each pure group below.

Example: , , F / EN

6. , , , F ?/?
7. , , , YF ?/?
8. , , , @F ?/ ?
9. G, K, E, HF?/ ?
10. u, \, w, aF ?/?

Of the nearly 2,000 general-use characters, 475 fall neatly into pure groups like those in todayfs column, and an additional 270 belong to semipure groups in which there is a single exception to the phonetic component pattern. Building familiarity with these phonetic components--from the beginning of your kanji studies--will put some powerful tricks up your sleeve as you match wits with the mystifying Japanese kanji pronunciation system.

1./HAKU 2.H/KOU 3./SEI 4./HAN 5./CHOU 6./KEN 7./HO 8./TEI 9./TEKI 10./KOU
(Note: Some kanji have more than one on pronunciation--e.g., SEI, JOU).

To learn more about kanji pronunciations, read Columns #4, #5, and #33.
Read a review of Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji II."

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