If a Standalone Kanji Looks Odd, Opt for the “ON” Reading

世界中を転戦する日本の選手達が一堂に会す”

From Baby Steps

While studying Japanese, one of the things I learned early on was that a kanji used by itself would use its “kun” reading, and two kanji used together would use their respective “on” readings. This is a rule with many exceptions. While reading manga, I discovered many two-kanji words that used their kun readings instead. These are so widespread that I think anybody who has studied Japanese would have come across many examples of this.

However, for a long while I wasn’t aware that the opposite could happen as well i.e. a kanji by itself could use the “on” reading, even though there was already a “kun” reading available. I have to admit that this revelation blew my mind. Not only could a word be expressed by a single kanji using the “kun” reading, and a compound using the “on” reading, but once more by a single kanji using the “on” reading (actually, many words can also be written using the katakana form of the English equivalent, so in theory that’s four ways to say the same thing).

The sentence at the top from the Baby Steps manga can roughly translate as “Japanese players competing around the world meet for a short time [at the all-Japan Tennis Tournament]“. The sentence uses 会す read かいす instead of the more usual 会う read あう. I guess the former sounds more formal for example in a narration. In this case, common 会 compounds such as 会議 and 集会 aren’t suitable. Another option would have been to use 集まる or the compound 集合. Here, 集 used by itself with its “on” reading means “a collection”, and so doesn’t fit the sentence.

I guess this means that Japanese, like most languages, has a certain amount of inbuilt redundancy, allowing it to express the same concepts several ways (as the English language has words of German and French origins). However for Japanese, it’s harder to make this connection since we are taught to read single kanji and compounds differently. But once we notice that the hiragana ending of the standalone kanji is different from the expected one (“す” and not “う”), or even missing, we can infer that we should use the “on” reading.

Finding the Odd One Out Among All That Hiragana

“服従するよりほかしかたがなかった”

This is a sentence taken from “The Promised Neverland“. The word at the head of the sentence is read ふくじゅう and means obedience or submission. A literal translation would give “There wasn’t any other way than to obey” although a more natural translation might be “I had to obey“, although the Japanese way makes it sound more resigned. as well as less direct.

What is interesting here is how “仕方” is how the author chose to write it in hiragana instead of kanji. Since Japanese sentences don’t use spaces between words, this makes it doubly difficult to read at a glance, even for a Japanese speaker (I did the test). This is where using the kanji would have been very helpful. This issue crops up quite often when reading manga aimed at younger audiences.

For example, at first glance Doraemon might seem a breeze but it’s a real headache, since it’s 90% kana, making it difficult to distinguish words from grammar. Kids don’t have trouble with it because they are familiar with the sounds of the words. On the other hand, manga targeting adults tend to overuse kanji, using them even for words that are typically written in kana (more on that in another post).

The trick is to be able to recognise common grammatical patterns  such as “なかった“(wasn’t) so one can quickly find the “odd word” out, hidden in the middle of all that hiragana. So when using manga as a study tool, handle these long blocks as road bumps and proceed a little more slowly – you might find something interesting.

Anki X Manga

This is some extra content, mostly unrelated to hiking. I have been studying Japanese for nearly half my life. A few years ago, I started to focus on improving my reading skills. I have always enjoyed reading manga, so I decided to use it to make Anki flashcards. First, I read purely for pleasure, quickly circling any new words with a pencil. Later on, I do a second pass, checking words with an online dictionary Finally, I type the sentence containing the word into a flashcard. This last part has several benefits. It helps me recall the meaning of the word, it allows me to see how the word is used within a sentence, and it reminds me of the scene in the manga.

Over the years, I have accumulated thousands of cards spanning dozens of manga. As the cards are spread out over days, months and even years, interesting combinations tend to pop up on a daily basis, revealing patterns that aren’t easy to notice using other study methods. Also by seeing the cards repeatedly, I became more aware of subtleties and nuances. Finally, forgetting a card after several months and having to relearn it, enabled to see nuances I had missed before. This is a space to share these observations, hoping it may help others studying Japanese.