How to Ask the Unknown Pronunciation of a Kanji

Here’s a quick useful speaking technique that you don’t learn in a textbook, but is something you should really know from early on in your studies.  Sometimes if you just know the kanji to a word, you can figure out what the word is.  Other times you know the word, but it’s just not clicking.  You don’t really need to ask over and over, “what does that mean?”

Japanese people naturally use a better technique that works quite well.  They use “familiar words” to describe unfamiliar words.

You hear a word and rather than ask what it means directly, you ask how it is “spelled.”  Best examples:なんていう字 (how is it spelled)? or ~ってどう書くの (how do you write that)?

In response you will hear the following (note: I abbreviate “familiar word” as “FW” and “familiar word #2” as “FW2”)

(FW の kanji of FW) と (FW2 の kanji of FW 2)


You hear a word you don’t know: 機関 (きかん: organization, institution)

Rather than ask 機関ってどういう意味ですか (what is 機関?), you ask 機関ってどう書く or 機関ってどう書くんだっけ?(add んだっけ to act like you know it, just you are having a brain freeze)

The listener will pick 2 familiar words that most people know and use those as a base.  For example, the listener might use 機械 (きかい, machine) and 関西(かんさい, western area of Japan)

Then they will plug it into the formula:

(FW の kanji of FW) と (FW2の kanji of FW 2)

Which will look like:

(機械の機 と 関西の関)

Improper example:

The kanji must come from compound words.  The rule of thumb is that the kanji in the familiar word must have the same pronunciation as the kanji in the unknown word.  Assume you don’t know the word食事.

You would never hear it described as

(食事の食べる) と(事柄の事 )

1 proper way would be:

(夕食の食) と (事前の事)

Most Valuable Use

While this technique is used with unknown, complicated words, its most common use is with names. Japanese names often use a wide array of wild kanji, and this is a great way to explain how your name is pronounced.

Worth it?

Sounds complicated.  It is at first.  Because it assumes knowledge of familiar words that Japanese assume you to be familiar with.  It doesn’t help when familiar words are words you don’t know.  But trust me, as you get better, you will be using this and have it used on you quite often.  And this will make your Japanese sound that much more natural.

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


How to Ask the Unknown Pronunciation of a Kanji — 6 Comments

  1. I have already been used this “technique” for quite a while now! It’s a good idea to have written it.
    This technique is even more useful if you have studied the kanji using Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji”, for obvious reasons.

  2. Just wanted to point out on that んだけ that it is actually んだっけ The little tsu followed by ke is what triggers that whole, “now what/where/who was it” type thing.  例文: こん間東京で会った人はだれだったっけ?Polite of course would be… だれでしたっけ。

  3. Hmm… I’ve used the improper version before. For example, when I was just getting to know words like 学ぶ and 行う, I would say, “学生の学” and “行くの行”. I think as long as it gets the point across, it’s a start. But as you learn more vocab and kanji, I think it becomes easier to avoid the improper way.

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