Whenever learners complain about the countless readings of some kanji, one contender with the most is almost certainly 上 . 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 . It’s mercurial nature even causes 頭 to have its less common ず reading (also seen in the term for a headache 頭痛) as in the word 頭上 (overhead).
Another common one that pops up a lot in exams is 木, 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 (public work), 木綿 (cotton), 大木 (large tree), 木工 (wood work) and 木枯らし (withering).
Even the simple 雨 (rain) can be surprisingly tough at the higher levels. It has a number of unusual readings including 梅雨 (rainy season), 雨季 (another word for rainy season), 雨戸 (storm door), 雨天 (rainy weather), 降雨 (rainfall), 雷雨 (thunderstorms) and the strange compound of time and rain 時雨 (shower).
Similarly, 子 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 (sweets), 冊子 (booklets) and 帽子 (hats) — kind of makes sense, it’s a bit more difficult to imagine how it got into words such as 椅子 (chair), 獅子 (a dancing lion costume used in ceremonies), 利子 (interest at a bank), 辛子 (mustard), 様子 (appearance or state of affairs) and 原子 (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 園 in 花園 (flower garden), the ぎめ reading of 極 in 月極 (monthly), theすみ reading of the kanji in the word 速やか (promptly) and the らく reading of 楽 (from 楽しい, or pleasant) in words like 安楽死 (euthanasia), 行楽地 (tourist resort) and 楽天的 (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 本 (original) 音 (sound) to make 本音 (one’s true self or personality) and 建 (build up) plus 前 (before) becoming 建前 (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 (barber) and 質屋 (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!