Same Kanji Compound, Different Reading

Same Kanji Compound, Different ReadingYou get it. Kanji is hard. One kanji has multiple readings depending on what word it appears in and where it appears in that word. You can learn the rules, or you can get used to them just by seeing them used in massive frequency. Eventually things get easier.

This site has a comic series about Japanese homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things). For the most part, this is all spoken confusion, because while they sound the same, their written form takes on different kanji, making them easy to tell apart in text.

But then there is the opposite of the homophone.

Kanji compound words that are written exactly the same but have different readings (and meanings). Otherwise known as a homograph. Just when you thought learning the compound was finally the way to wrap your mind around readings, multiple compound readings rears its ugly head.

Let’s look at some of the major ones. I want you to read through the following making note of what you think the reading is.

10. 明日
9. 生物
8. 最中
7. 上手
6. 下手
5. 一分
4. 一月
3. 大事
2. 利益
1. 私

Now the two (and sometimes 3) possible readings.

10. 明日 – あした、あす
9. 生物 – せいぶつ、なまもの
8. 最中 – さいちゅう、もなか
7. 上手 – じょうず、かみて、うわて
6. 下手 – へた、しもて、したて
5. 一分 – いっぷん、いちぶ
4. 一月 – いちがつ、ひとつき
3. 大事 – だいじ、おおごと
2. 利益 – りえき、りやく
1. 私 – わたし、わたくし

What does this mean to you?

Nothing really, as the reading will usually be determined based on the context, since the meanings vary.

But with words like 私 and 明日, where the meaning is nearly the same, you may occasionally tilt your head wondering which one is being used. Though formality of the situation usually gives a guiding hint.

Is this anything to worry about?

Not at all. It just shows yet another layer to the depth that is kanji. And compounds with multiple readings are not that common.

Know any other same kanji compounds with different readings?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Same Kanji Compound, Different Reading — 10 Comments

  1. A few more from my deck:
    金色 (きんいろ、こんじき)
    大人 (おとな、だいじん)
    汚れる (よごれる、けがれる)
    疾風 (しっぷう、はやて)
    手強い (てごわい、てづよい)
    退く (しりぞく、とく)

    These seem to be oddly common…

  2. Here’s a few that came to mind:

    生者 せいしゃ、しょうじゃ
    抱く だく、いだく 
    解く とく、ほどく
    今日 きょう、こんにち、こんじつ
    一行 いっこう、いちぎょう、ひとくだり
    瞬く しばたく、しばたたく、またたく、まばたく、めたたく

    瞬く is just crazy with its multitude of variations!

  3. Thanks a lot about that. At first I didn’t notice this and I was really frustrated when I mixed up the two readings, because they where on different cards.

    I am sure this article will help a lot of people.

  4. Verbs often have the same okurigana but several readings. One that always catches me out is
    避ける さける、よける

    Not quite sure how to tackle this as they’re both so similar in meaning. Perhaps I should do away with the kanji until I’m getting it right in conversation and then put the kanji back in when I’ve stopped mixing them up.

    Another one is 人気 にんき、ひとけ that might be easily mixed-up. And even 明日 can be read as みょうにち.

    Some other common ones:

    日本 にほん、にっぽん
    一昨日 おととい、いっさくじつ
    昨日 きのう、さくじつ
    明後日 あさって、みょうごにち

    • What I do is to have a recognition card where the question tells you there are 2 (or 3, etc) readings for the same word and you have to produce both readings and the meaning of each reading.

      I tend to read 避ける as さける (joyo reading) more than よける (non-joyo reading) though, as there seems to be only 1 case where it would be correct to write 避ける and read it as よける (as よける can also written as 除ける).

      After all, it seems to me that the writer would use the more unambiguous form if the context does not suggest it clearly. For example, why use 煩い instead of 五月蠅い for うるさい when the reader would likely make the mistake of reading 煩い as the joyo reading わずらい.

  5. This annoys the hell out of me to be honest, like when I get a new sentence and I search a word in an online dictionary and its has 2,3 sometimes even 4 readings what am I meant to do just guess which one to use? ARRGGHH!!!

  6. Thanks everyone for all the great additions! Hopefully this will be a helpful list for people encountering them.

  7. I remember the first time I saw 明日 「みょうにち」, I just about flipped a table… Three readings, same kanji, same meaning…

    Don’t even get me started on 私.

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