Kanji (漢字) are one of the three writing systems used in the Japanese language, along with hiragana and katakana. Kanji are ideograms, which means each character has its own meaning and corresponds to a word. Several kanji are often combined to form additional words.

Kanji were imported from China in the 5th century and have been used in Japan ever since. Over the centuries, the Japanese molded and modified these characters to suit their linguistic and cultural needs, giving birth to a unique system that is distinctly Japanese.

How many kanji are there?

The exact number of kanji is difficult to determine, as there are various factors that come into play, including historical and regional variants. However, it is estimated that there are about 50,000 kanji characters.

Fortunately, only a part is commonly used. The Japanese Ministry of Education has defined a list of 2,136 kanji that are considered essential for daily use. This list is known as the jōyō kanji (常用漢字, regular-use kanji).

Kanji and pronunciations

Each kanji typically has several pronunications that can vary depending on the context or the combination of characters. There are two main types of kanji pronunciations: on'yomi and kun'yomi. On'yomi refers to Chinese-based readings, while kun'yomi represents the native Japanese readings.

The historical adoption of Chinese characters and their integration into the Japanese language resulted in a diverse range of pronunciations for kanji, adding depth and complexity to the language.

Kanji by JLPT level

Or browse all jōyō kanji