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Double Takes: 6 Pairs of Easily Confused Kanji

A look at different kanji characters with similar meanings and pronunciations and how to tell them apart.

By 5 min read

Last week, we had a look at some of the Japanese words easily confused when speaking that tend to trip learners up . From similar phonemes, homonyms to my personal pet peeve, the hidden う sound, there are lots of these traps waiting for learners to fall into. At first, it may seem like this is a problem that is only found in the spoken language. This isn’t the case, however. The written language can be equally challenging because of the trickiness of 漢字かんじ, or the  Chinese characters, and the surprising origin stories of these kanji.

While “lookalike” kanji will have to wait for another article (士 and 土, anyone?), trickier subjects are what I call the “double trouble” kanji. I coined this phrase as not only are these homophones, but they also have incredibly similar meanings, to boot. If you’ve ever been told that the はやい that you wrote is the wrong はやい — then you’ll know exactly how tricky these can be.

1. Speed: 早い & 速い

The first of these that learners usually encounter are the two はやいs: はやい and はやい, both of which are often translated as “fast” (although there are subtle differences). The first, 早い, means that someone is fast in the sense that they are ahead of their predicted time — such as arriving early to work or getting up before one would expect. It might help to remember that this kanji has the (sun) radical in it and therefore is concerned with the movement of that celestial body. It’s very easily confused with its sister 速い, which refers to the speed at which someone does something.

When I take out a video camera or camera to shoot some images, then the correct kanji is うつる. This can be remembered from the noun 写真しゃしん)     (photo) that contains the same first character. This is also the verb for projecting an image, too. Of course, reflective surfaces can serve a similar purpose and in this case the verb is うつる (reflect). Personally, I remember this because again the sunlight radical, 日, is in the kanji and that reminds me of the sun reflecting off the water.

2. Heat: 温かい & 暖かい

The sun radical pops up again when trying to distinguish the あたたかいs: あたたかい and あたたかい. The first  温かい means that something is hot in the sense that if we touched it or consumed it, it would be warm to our senses. A warming soup, for example, would be 温かいスープ and appropriately — if this helps you remember — the kanji contains the radical for bowl or plate, さら.

This subtle meaning of the effect on our senses is the key difference between it and its homophone 暖かい. This kanji, on the other hand, is most commonly used for talking about the weather, the temperature of a place or the feeling from bundling up in soft, cozy モコモコ (lumpy, fluffy) clothing. For the first two reasons, it contains the sun radical on its left-hand side.

These similarly explain the differences between the two kanji used for “hot”: あつい and あつい. In this case, 暑い behaves like 温かい while 熱い behaves like 暖かい.

3. Pain: 痛む & 傷む

Eating too much 暑い food can, of course, cause you to feel “hurt” or “pain.” However, your physical pain may be joined with mental hurt as you try to work out whether you feel いた む or いたむ. In fact, depending on what happened, it’s possible to experience both!

… one of the fascinating things about even simple Japanese kanji is that it distinguishes between the ‘real’ and the ‘metaphorical’ sense of things.

To ease your burden, 痛む is the feeling of pain, whereas 傷む describes something damaged by an entity or force. The physical injury caused by scolding broth would be 痛む, whereas pouring that boiling broth away into a plant pot and withering the flowers would be 傷む.

4. Smell: 香り & 薫り

As you are probably starting to notice, one of the fascinating things about even simple Japanese kanji is that it distinguishes between the “real” and the “metaphorical” sense of things. Take かおり and かおり, for example. In the first instance, 香り is the actual smell of something as perceived by the nose — such as the scent of flowers or perfume.

On the other hand, 薫りis a more metaphysical idea indicating that something leaves an impression on your senses — Zen notions such as the impressions that one feels in early summer 初夏しょかの薫り or the impact left by a certain culture 文化ぶんかの薫り.

5. Attack: 戦う & 闘う

Similar divisions between the actual and the metaphoric also separate たたかう and たたかう. For these particular kanji, 戦う means to physically strike someone, whereas 闘う is to do the same — but using words or behavior to damage. A similar technique also separates める and める (both meaning “to attack”). The former is more physical than the latter, which is more psychological and therefore — arguably — more brutal.

6. Change: わる, わる & わる

Appropriately, for kanji about transformations, かわる has a number of variations, too. The first of these, わる means that objects change from one state to another — such as from color to color. On the other hand, わる means to replace something old with something new.

Fascinatingly, there is also a third かわる to learn: わる. This one means to take the place of someone or something currently in use or existence. It can often be found in sentences about the inevitable evolvement of technology or politics, such as: “電気でんき自動車じどうしゃ)ははとてもやくつのでいつかくるまにとって代わるかもしれません.” (“Self-driving electric cars are very useful, so one day they may replace regular cars.”).

These are some of the common pitfalls of “double trouble” kanji that can trip up learners. Of course, these represent just a small selection of the many two-faced characters in Japanese writing and hopefully the examples  above will give you some good ideas for how to replace your current thinking about these kanji.

Do you find yourself consistently confusing similar kanji? Let us know the ones that deceive you the most — and your tricks for handling them — in the comments!

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