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How the Simplest Kanji Can Often Trick Us

With the JLPT exams just around the corner, GaijinPot takes a look at some of the weird compounds using basic kanji that examiners can’t resist slipping into their tests.

By 2 min read

Whenever learners complain about the countless readings of some kanji, one contender with the most is almost certainly うえ . While even beginners will be familiar with its うえ reading, at the later levels — such as JPLT N3 and N2 — it also takes on others such as うわ, かみ and the のぼ of the verb 上るのぼ . It’s mercurial nature even causes あたま to have its less common ず reading (also seen in the term for a headache 頭痛ずつう) as in the word 頭上ずじょう (overhead).

Another common one that pops up a lot in exams is , the kanji for tree. Usually, this is found as き or もく. One of the popular questions — especially at the N2 level — are some of this kanji’s less common readings, especially tricky constructions such as 土木どぼく (public work), 木綿もめん (cotton), 大木だいぼく (large tree), 木工もっこう (wood work) and 木枯こがらし (withering).

Even the simple あめ (rain) can be surprisingly tough at the higher levels. It has a number of unusual readings including 梅雨つゆ (rainy season), 雨季うき (another word for rainy season), 雨戸あまど (storm door), 雨天うてん (rainy weather), 降雨こうう (rainfall), 雷雨らいう (thunderstorms) and the strange compound of time and rain 時雨しぐれ (shower).

Similarly, the kanji for child, is another mischievous one that pops up in all sorts of weird places. While its appearance in things that kids use — such as お菓子かし (sweets), 冊子さっし (booklets) and 帽子ぼうし (hats) — kind of makes sense, it’s a bit more difficult to imagine how it got into words such as 椅子いす (chair), 獅子しし (a dancing lion costume used in ceremonies), 利子りし (interest at a bank), 辛子からし (mustard), 様子ようす (appearance or state of affairs) and 原子げんし (atom) among plenty of others.

Other kanji that are familiar to even intermediate learners can take on some unusual uses. I remember being surprised by the ぞの reading of えん in 花園はなぞの (flower garden), the ぎめ reading of きょく in 月極つきぎめ (monthly), theすみ reading of the kanji in the word すみやか (promptly) and the らく reading of  (from たのしい, or pleasant) in words like 安楽死あんらくし (euthanasia), 行楽地こうらくち (tourist resort) and 楽天的らくてんてき (optimistic).

This indicates the dangers of thinking about kanji using their meanings instead of the way they are actually used. Dissecting the kanji of the words made up by combining ほん (original) おと (sound) to make 本音ほんね (one’s true self or personality) and たて (build up) plus まえ (before) becoming 建前たてまえ (the personality that we present to other people) really doesn’t help to learn them. This is especially true with shops, as both 床屋とこや (barber) and 質屋しちや (pawnshop) are two clear examples of words whose meanings aren’t immediately apparent from their kanji.

This article has covered most of the common ones that examiners love to chuck in at the JPLT N2 and N3 levels. The good news is this: because these are the trickier readings, they are often the ones that the examiners favor and therefore can be easily prepped in the weeks before the exam. By taking a little bit of time to learn them, these can be easy points if they pop up in the test.

What kanji readings trip you up? Let us know in the comments!

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