You 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.
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?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.