Using Hiragana to Make the Move to Kanji

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Photo by Jeff Laitila

After learning hiragana, it can be intimidating to learn your first 100 kanji. There just seem to be so many radicals and abstract elements to these new symbols. However, learning your first kanji shouldn’t be so scary. Kanji often look like the things they represent such as 山 (Mountain) or have easy ways to remember them from their radicals such as 木 (Tree) becoming 森 (A forest).

In addition to these basic techniques, you can use your knowledge of hiragana to make your studying more efficient using a simple technique. Forgive me for sounding like a clickbait advertisement, but by the end of this article you should not just be able to read 15 tricky kanji, using only your knowledge of hiragana. How? Well let me explain.

In order to accomplish this, you first have to learn a bit of history. When Japanese scholars were creating hiragana, they didn’t simply create the shapes out of nowhere. Instead they took existing ‘manyougana’ kanji that had been adapted from Chinese characters and made them into this new syllabary. A stroke removed here or a change of angle there and most of the modern hiragana were created.

When you see a kanji like 加, one of the first things that should be obvious is that it looks incredibly similar to the hiragana character か. In fact this is more than coincidence and the two are both based on the same Chinese character. Even today, whenever you see 加 linked with another character, its reading is か.

か isn’t the only hiragana character made from kanji in this manner. Many learners also spot that the hiragana character り and the kanji 利 share a history too. Likewise せ and 世, さ and 左, ろ and呂, い and 以, and ふ which came from 不.

So what would you guess is the reading of a compound such as 不利? If you noticed that the kanji looked like the hiragana words ふ and り respectively, you would be correct in guessing that its reading was ふり!

Of course over time, some of the readings may have changed, but the original kanji remain the same. So while you may be able to spot that the hiragana す and the kanji 寸 are connected and, likewise, も and the kanji 毛, it is worth noting that their principal readings have changed to すん and もう respectively.

As a result, even if you forget to add the う to the end, you can still guess the reading of something like 不毛 (Barren) just by looking at it due to its similarities to both ふ and も in hiragana.

These are probably the easiest examples. From this point, the kanji are changed a bit more to twist them into hiragana. If you squint your eyes a bit, you can possibly see how 太 became た (These days often read as たい such as in 太陽- the Sun or 太鼓- a drum), or how 安 became あ (This has since evolved into あん such as in 安心- relief).

If you really, really squint your eyes, you may also be able to see how 比 became ひ, 由 became ゆ (Or sometimes ゆう as in 不自由- inconvenience), 礼 became れ (Usually れい these days), 己 became こ, and 止 became と. Admittedly, it may feel like looking at clouds and seeing animals at this point.

This is why hiragana is so important to learners and the reason why most textbooks drill it into your head from day one. Hiragana are the building blocks of everything that comes afterward. So, while these shortcuts don’t cover every reading of these kanji, they serve as an unintimidating way to get started in the wonderful world of written Japanese.

So now for a pop quiz. Using only your knowledge of hiragana and this article, how do you read the following words? 利己 (Self interest), 止まる (Stop), 不安 (Uneasy) and お礼 (An expression of gratitude).

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