Please don’t panic. Even at upper beginner level you don’t need to “learn” these. But you can get a lot from reading about them and getting a deeper understanding of the word wakaru – which is actually one of those “trap words” that makes Japanese less understandable overall if you – ahem – misunderstand it – that is, if you believe the textbooks that tell you it means “understand”.
So what does it mean? It has several shades of meaning, but let’s start off with the root-meaning, which is to “become clear”. The fundamental wakaru kanji – 分 – shows a sword dividing something in half. Literally wakaru means that something becomes clearly distinguished from other things* – i.e., understood.
Sanseido dictionary’s first and most basic definition of the word is:
Meihaku ni naru
Not “understand”. Become clear – which includes “be clear” or “be understood”. In other words (most of the time) the thing being understood is the real subject of the sentence (not the person doing the understanding as English prefers and the textbooks imply). Therefore the thing being understood is what takes the subject-marker ga-particle
(watashi wa) nihongo ga wakaru
“(in relation to me) Japanese is understandable”
Of course in English we say “I understand Japanese” and that is a valid “loose translation”. But it matters that we know what is really being said because if we don’t we will become very confused about what the ga and wa particles are really doing in this sentence and about the structure of Japanese as a whole.
This is explained more fully in Unlocking Japanese, which shows you how clear and regular the language really is, as opposed to the rather complicated and confusing way the standard Western grammar texts teach it.
All right. So what about the three ways of writing it? They are all pronounced the same and all get the same dictionary definition, regardless of which kanji is used. So does it matter which kanji is used?
Japanese texts that try to give English equivalents say
「分かる」＝know.「解る」＝understand.「判る」＝prove or judge.
However, they are following the Western translations and giving rise to the same misunderstandings. So let’s go a little deeper and see what Japanese texts independent of English tell us.
The first thing wrong with the above definitions is what I have already told you. It is important to realize that they should have said “be known”, “be understood”, “be judged or proved (to be)”.
The second problem is that it is misleading to suggest that 分かる has a separate meaning. You will see 分かる used in all three senses a lot of the time. That is why I don’t advise people who are not intermediate to try learning them. You probably won’t encounter the other two in simpler texts.
What happens – as with the different kanji for kiku (hear) and many others – is that the less common kanji are used in writing to hone the word down to a more exact meaning. Also, if you see either or both of the others used in a text, you can assume that when 分かる is chosen, it is chosen advisedly to give its particular implications. Otherwise, it very often isn’t.
So let’s look at them from the Japanese perspective.
The implication of 判る
判る easy to remember because it is really just 分かる with the sword and the halving arranged horizontally rather than vertically.
This is the kanji used in 判明 hanmei “(with suru) establish or prove”, 判断 handan “judgement” etc.
In a phrase like
han’nin ga wakaru
“It became known who the criminal is” (in English this might be “We now know who the criminal is”).
Clearly the “judgement” element is present. The “correct” – or better, the precise – form is 判る.
mimoto ga wakaru
“His background has become known” (in English probably “I/we/they now know his background”).
The implication is of having been able to form a judgement on something previously unknown – or to put it closer to the Japanese, if somewhat more awkwardly in English – something having become the subject of an accurate judgement or investigation.
Note that the “understander” is not the grammatical subject and is not even visibly present in these statements as she is in English equivalents. We will know who the understander is from an explicit or implicit wa-statement drawn from context. This may sound complicated but it really isn’t at all once you understand it. Japanese six-year-olds use it with ease. Find out how you can too in Unlocking Japanese.
The implication of 解る
If you are intermediate you certainly know this kanji from words like 解く which all have to do with unraveling or untangling. If not, you can remember it as a 牛cow in the 角corner having her matted hair untangled with a 刀sword. Note that the sword-element is common to all three wakarus.
解 appears in words like 解釈 kaishaku “explanation” and 理解 rikai “understand” (this is the word you want when you really want to say understand, not wakaru).
So when you say
Nihongo ga wakaru
“Japanese is understandable (to me)”
解 is the most exact kanji, though more often than not it will in fact be written 分かる.
Implication of 分かる
As you see, you can’t really judge the special implications of 分かる much of the time, but it does have the implication of “be(come) known” which is not appropriate to either of the others.
To give a simple example of how these kanji can sometimes be useful: if someone asks “what is the oldest a turtle has ever lived?” in Japanese and you answer “わからない wakaranai” there could be a confusion over whether you mean “I don’t know how long a turtle has lived” or “I don’t understand the question”. If you could specifically say 解らない wakaranai it would be clear that you meant the latter.
If you said 判らない the implication would be “that is not something on which (I am) able to form a judgement” and if 分からない were taken in its exclusive sense it would mean “I do not have that information” – which is probably the most likely interpretation of the spoken phrase unless there were reasons to suppose one of the others (such as being a foreigner, which might lead the questioner to be unsure that you had understood).
To sum up – you can always use 分かる in any of the senses on this page. You will never be wrong. If you use one of the others, be careful to use it correctly
* It isn’t a coincidence that the two words wakareru both mean separating.