Category Archives: Kanji

Avoid Kanji Overload! And write Japanese like a native

kanji-overloadOne thing that immediately marks a Japanese language novice may surprise you.

In many cases they use too many kanji.

Yes, I know. Learning kanji is a big challenge in Japanese. Surely it is good to know as many as possible? Yes it is. And it is good to know when to use them and when not to as well.

Writing 有難う for ありがとう, 晩御飯 for 晩ご飯, 居る for いる etc. tends to look strange, stiff or over-formal, or in the case of someone who is clearly a learner, just as if she doesn’t know how Japanese is normally written.

This isn’t to say that no Japanese person ever uses these kanji, but they do so at particular times and for particular reasons and usually wouldn’t use all these in one sentence.

For example, I knew a sensei who wrote 有難う. This was because her correspondence was extra-formal and polite. Sometimes people will write, say, 居る to distinguish it from 要る, though in most cases they write いる for both.

They may also write a more-often-kana word in kanji when a sentence seems a bit too over-kana-ized. Most Japanese people find a long sentence that is nearly all kana and one that is a wall of kanji about equally awkward and prefer a balance.

You may have heard of 中二病 chuunibyou, literally “second year of junior-high disease”. Symptoms are: being overly self-conscious, believing that one has special powers, and, among other things, using far too many kanji. That last symptom is not surprising, as in junior high school Japanese children learn the second thousand joyo kanji. In other words they learn as many kanji in three years as they learned in the previous six years.

They are being crammed with kanji and they kind of want to show them off. Interestingly they are in a somewhat similar position to Western learners who started with Heisig. If you follow the Heisig method rigorously, you know nearly all regular-use kanji before you know any Japanese at all. And of course you want to use them.

In the case of chuunibyou, kanji over-use is deliberate. But of course Heisig users have less choice in the matter since they know the kanji but have very little experience of how Japanese is normally written. As you probably know, I favor learning kanji more organically along with the language itself. However, Heisig works well for some people and I would never decry it. But if one uses that approach one should be sure to use one’s shiny new kanji with caution.

There are no words that are absolutely never written in kanji (assuming they have kanji) but there are many that are almost always written in kana unless there is a very particular reason for using the kanji. There are others that are written in kana most of the time but the kanji is used between, say, 5% and 40% of the time depending on the word.

“Oh no, more to learn!”, you may say. Well, fortunately it isn’t that difficult. The real solution is massive input. Lots of reading. You will soon get the feel for when and when not to use a kanji. Massive input is necessary anyway if you are ever going to pick up real Japanese, and fortunately for us all, it makes a lot of the dry study unnecessary. So solving the kanji problem is just icing on the cake.

The super-simple solution to the kanji-overload problem

However, there is a quick-and-cheap answer to this question too, which is invaluable while you are still inexperienced..

Whenever you are in doubt, use Denshi Jisho or Rikaisama (or Rikaichan -kun -tan). All of them flag some words with “uk” or “usually written in kana alone”. If you aren’t sure where to use kanji, simply make sure to write these words in kana.

It isn’t a perfect solution, but it will make your writing look 90% more natural than just using every kanji you know.

The perfect solution comes from immersion, and you will have it in time. Immersion cures everything! Except possibly the common cold.

I will end with a few notes that you may find helpful. Please feel free to add to these in the comments below.

こと/事 is written as kanji in compounds like 出来事, but when used as a nominalizer is almost always written in kana.

Similarly, while 言う as a word is more often written in kanji, という in nominalizing and similar uses is usually written in kana.

These uses are probably somewhat related to the fact that common verbs attached to other verbs are very often written in kana. So 来る is common but it is nearly always やってくる, not やって来る;持っていくrather than 持って行く.

It is worth remembering that small, basic words when concrete, like 日, 人, 小さい, 大きい etc. are usually written with kanji. But when abstract and grammatical, like また, など, ある etc. they are usually written in kana. Again the Rikai and dictionaries flag the latter group with “uk”, so you are safer if you follow that.

Few of these rules are absolute. Japanese is quite free about when and when not to use kanji. However Japanese people make the decision on a number of grounds and on the basis of what effect they want to produce at a given time. At an early stage this is not possible to a learner and simply using kanji everywhere possible produces very unnatural-looking Japanese.

So the best advice is to begin by following the “uk” guidelines in Rikai or whatever you use and grow into a fuller understanding of kanji usage with massive input.

You are growing up in Japanese. Like a child you learn day by day, and like a child there is no short-cut to full knowledge. But luckily these little tricks can help you to write Japanese in a much more natural-looking way.

Ojousama: the Aristocratic Young Lady and Her Kanji

Ojousama: a complex character but fine when you get to know her
Ojousama: a complex character but fine when you get to know her

A lot of people consider Ojousama to be a complicated character, and if you look at her portrait to the right you can see why.

The central part of お嬢さま ojousama is 嬢 jou (the rest is simply honorific o and sama, of course).

It is one of the more complicated kanji. Its right-hand section consists of 六 six, 井 well and the regular truncated form of 衣 clothes.

(If you want to know why a well looks like 井 you may want to go to this post on the forums.)

The right section together means “soft” and is a bit obscure. So we are going to associate it with ojousama herself:

ojousama-by-the-wellOjousama is a young 女 lady in beautiful 衣 clothing who comes upon 六 six 井 wells.

If we remember this little story we can remember Ojousama and we can use her to remember the other kanji in which her right-hand element appears. The most important of these is 譲 which we find in 譲る yuzuru which means to hand over or yield.

譲 is the Ojousama kanji with a word 言 as its left, type-defining radical, instead of a 女 girl. When Ojousama 言 speaks in her gentle voice, people hand over anything she wants. It is love, not usury (sound-mnemonic).

Another word with the Ojousama kanji is 醸 which means “brew” both literally (brewing wine or beer) and figuratively, (to cause or bring about, as in English “brew trouble”). This is the Ojousama right hand with 酒 sake, alcohol (without its own left liquid-definer) its left, type-defining, radical.

In the old days, brewing wasn’t done in factories but was a woman’s job. Ojousama is a fine lady and one of her activities is brewing fine sake.

There are other kanji with Ojousama’s right-hand side. We don’t need to learn them all now. In fact we don’t need to learn any of them now unless we want to. We can just learn Ojousama, and pick up the others as we come to them (譲る yuzuru is a particularly useful one).

This is a good example of how using the organic method of learning kanji, we often take the first or most striking or picturesque word that we come across using a particular kanji sub-section and then use that to remember other words with the same sub-section.

Six wells? Don’t magical things come in sevens? Actually Ojousama herself is the seventh 井 well, because she is so well-衣 dressed.

How to Learn Kanji Organically (as part of Japanese self-immersion)

Learn Kanji OrganicallyThere are a lot of kanji-learning systems around these days.

But what if the best system is no system?

Our method of learning Japanese is based on a minimum of abstract study and a maximum of immersing yourself in the language and really using and enjoying it.

But what about kanji?

Why they say you can’t learn kanji organically

On the face of it, there is a strong case against the possibility of learning kanji organically.

Children don’t learn to speak their own language out of textbooks. Their grasp of grammar and vocabulary comes from hearing it and using it. Before they learn to read, they already have a grasp of vocabulary and grammar that takes a foreign student years to acquire.

But writing is different. No one acquires the alphabet naturally. They actually have to sit down and learn it. Kanji is the same, only several hundred times bigger. Japanese children study kanji in school for years before they become fully literate. So what is this talk about learning kanji organically? Surely they have to be learned by an abstract system. Even Japanese people learn them that way.

The  answer to this is “yes, and no”. Japanese children do learn kanji as kanji. But they already know the words that they signify. They are not learning them in the abstract. The minute they learn a kanji, it attaches to a body of knowledge they already possess and becomes a living part of their language understanding.

This is why we say, “learn words, not kanji”. Which is to say, learn words with their kanji. And learn vocabulary not from vocabulary lists, but from organic encounters. We have already discussed how to build vocabulary organically. This article is tackling the question of how to learn kanji as a part of this process.

It is largely because of kanji that we recommend using Anki. You can learn vocabulary purely organically, but you do need to drill kanji, and, if you don’t need to write kanji, then Anki is in our opinion the best way to learn vocabulary and kanji at once. This gives you the basic minimum of drilling that you absolutely need, and makes it do double duty for kanji and vocabulary.

However, we aren’t going to talk about Anki here, but about the actual strategy for breaking down and remembering the kanji.

Remembering the Kanji (without the system)

James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji has been hugely influential in showing people how to see kanji as picture stories rather than abstract patterns of strokes. Some people seem to think Heisig-sensei invented this technique, but as he makes clear in his introduction, he didn’t. What he did was to systematize and popularize it.

Since then other people have made systems with the same general principles. What we do is to de-systematize it.


Well, it depends on how you learn and what you want to do. Some people want to spend a long time systematically learning kanji. We wanted to spend that time acquiring Japanese by immersing ourselves in it, with kanji as one of the things we pick up as we go along.

How to Learn Kanji Naturally and Organically

So without more ado. This is how to actually tackle kanji.

From early on you will be aware of the pictographic nature of some of the simpler radicals and kanji, and how they combine to form concepts. For example:

早 quick/early (a kanji in itself)
⺾ plant (not a kanji but a common kanji element)
草 grass (⺾ plus 早), which is the earliest, most basic, (and quickest growing) of plants

When you look at the most common kanji elements in Wikipedia, you learn that 30 of them make up 70% of the common use kanji (this figure seems a little exaggerated to me, but the principle is true).

So what you are going to do with kanji is work out what they are made up of, and see how the elements fit together. Sometimes you will see a very logical and obvious meaning. Sometimes you will be making up a far-fetched  mnemonic story to tie the elements to their meaning.

So how do you know what elements a kanji is made up of?

There are various methods you can use. You may indeed want to browse books such as Heisig-sensei’s or other kanji memory books. There are lots of resources online such as Kanjialive’s list of the 217 traditional radicals (traditional names and meanings) and Toufugu’s kanji radicals cheat sheet (somewhat fanciful). The quickest, simplest, on-the-fly tool is the search box on Rikaisama‘s toolbar (you can embed the search box on your browser without having the whole toolbar). This gives results like this (click to enlarge):

learn kanji naturally[UPDATE: Rikaisama no longer exists, but you can get the same box by pressing return when a Rikaichamp definition box is open]

As you see, this gives a breakdown of the elements in each kanji (ringed) when you look up a word. Another interesting feature is that the Heisig reference (ringed) is a link that will take you to the Reviewing the Kanji site, a user resource where people share their Heisig-based mnemonic stories for the kanji.

This latter can be useful, but I recommend using it with caution. Let me explain why, because it will make clearer how organic kanji learning works.

The Heisig system gives a unique English keyword to every kanji and kanji element. It has to do that because in this system you need to know from the keyword exactly how to write each kanji. This is done without knowing the meaning or pronunciation of any Japanese word. As a result there are some pretty strange and sometimes dubiously relevant English keywords.

Now we aren’t doing this. We aren’t associating kanji with English keywords, but with actual Japanese words.

Let’s take a complex example. When I see 蕩 I think torokeru (which is the main word in which it is used. I know it means “melt” both in the sense of a solid melting into a liquid and a heart melting (becoming charmed or enchanted). A Heisig student is simply trying to associate this kanji with the Heisig keyword “Prodigal”(!).

Now if we look at the elements of this kanji we get a clearer idea of how our organic approach works. The elements are⺡the water side-element ⺾ grass/flower 日 sun and 勿 piglets.

Now in our eclectic way I do owe something to Heisig-sensei here 勿 is in fact a diminutive of 豕 the pig element and since small pigs can be piglets, well that’s kind of cute so we borrowed it.

But here is where we diverge. When you put 日 on top of 勿 you get 易 to which Heisig-sensei gives the keyword “Piggy Bank”. (Piglets you put money in every day – 日 sun can also be day).

All right you can make stories out of this and Heisig-sensei is forced to do this sort of thing because his system demands exclusive keywords.

But 易 is actually a fundamental element which refers to the light and warmth of the sun. If you need a mnemonic just think of the bright sun warming the dear little piglets basking below.

Let’s see how 易 the sunshine-component works in some more complex kanji:

A very frequently used word for the sun is 太陽 taiyou (kanji elements: 太=great, 易=warmth/light, coming over the ⻖=hill).

陽 alone is the word for yang (which refers etymologically to sunshine as opposed to yin, shade).

湯 is hot water (⺡=water plus our 易 sun-warmth).

場 is a place – originally and still usually an outdoor place: thus a piece of earth 土 out in the sunshine 易.

We really don’t need to bring Piggy Banks into any of this. It may be necessary for producing a unique English keyword, but it disrupts the natural conceptual symbolism of the kanji element.

To return to 蕩, we can now see how hot water  (湯) may melt many solids, but it leaves everything with the loving, enchanted scent of flowers (⺾). We don’t need keywords, but we do need the right concepts.

So if we don’t verbally associate kanji and their elements with keywords, what do we associate them with? Usually with the first word we learned them in, or the word we most commonly associate them with. I think of 正 as “the kanji of tadashii” (right, proper, correct) although it is used in many other places with related meanings but other pronunciations (for help with those pronunciations, meet the Sound Sisters and discover that 正 is a sei/shou sister).

We also tend to remember elements by the word we first or most often encounter them in. So, for example the left side of 優 (the kanji of yasashii, gentle) is actually 愛 (the kanji of ai, love) with the ⺤ replaced by ⾴ (head, page. Bottom element merged). So we have a person with head as well as a loving heart. This kanji as well as meaning gentle, can also mean actor/actress or superior/best. You see how a single keyword is not entirely adequate!

As we develop our knowledge of the kanji by meeting it in other words, we develop also our mnemonic associations. The person with loving heart as well as a good head on her shoulders is not only gentle, she is the best. And having both intelligence and warmth makes her a great actress.

Sometimes actual mnemonic stories are helpful. For example, do you know why human bodies float? When the first child fell in the water she sank like a stone, but was pulled up by Tsume-chan, the kind crane-game-type claw. Ever since then, the invisible claw has always made human bodies float. 浮くuku, to float, is made up of water, claw and child.

You will be making your own meanings out of the kanji elements. Incidentally, after hand-holding through the first few hundred kanji, Heisig-sensei also leaves students to make their own stories out of his keywords, and rightly so, as the mnemonics we make for ourselves stick best.

The difference is, that instead of using artificial, and often eccentric, keywords, you will be learning kanji not as abstractions but as part of the living language as you make friends with words and their symbols and build your vocabulary organically.

On and Kun readings in Japanese and English

Kun reading "see". On reading "vis" (-ible, -ion)
Kun reading: “see”.
On reading: “vis” (-ible, -ion)

People sometimes find the concept of on and kun readings of kanji difficult to grasp, and consider them terribly complicated and foreign. However, they have a rather exact parallel in English.

What I am about to explain does not directly assist us in learning Japanese, but some people have told me that it makes the whole concept of on and kun readings much more friendly and graspable, so I am presenting it to you in case you too find it helpful.

The truth is that differing readings are not unique to Japanese. Something  very similar can be found in English, and it came about for very similar reasons.

Kun readings represent the original Japanese pronunciation of a word while on readings represent the more “learned” Chinese word that came into Japanese so long ago that it is now a completely naturalized Japanese word. On readings are more usually found in compounds and more “learned” or abstract words.

Exactly the same is true of English. English “on readings” are not Chinese but Latin (sometimes Greek), and because English doesn’t use kanji it is less immediately obvious, but when we take a few examples it becomes very clear:

見 see
Japanese: Kun reading mi(ru). On reading ken/kan (ex: 見物  kenbutsu = watching, sightseeing
English: Kun reading see. On reading vis (ex: vision, visible)

手 hand
Japanese: Kun reading te. On reading shu (ex: 手動 shudou = manual, by hand)
English: Kun reading hand. On reading man (ex: manual)

星 star
Japanese: Kun reading hoshi. On reading sei (ex: 火星 kasei = fire-star = Mars)
English: Kun reading star. On reading stell (ex: stellar, constellation)

犬 dog
Japanese: Kun reading inu. On reading ken (ex:犬舎 kensha = kennel, doghouse)
English: Kun reading dog. On reading ken/kan (ex: canine, kennel)

Sometimes, of course, there are several readings in both Japanese and English. English words sometimes have on readings from both Latin and Greek. For example book has the on readings bibl (as in bibliography, Bible) and libr (as in library).

Of course this is somewhat fanciful, since English does not have kanji and therefore we do not really have the concept of “readings” in English. However, if Greek/Latin had had “kanji” (ideograms) and English had adopted them (as Japan did Chinese characters) we would probably have had an exactly parallel situation.

In many ways kanji make things easier. It is clear to see how the concepts expressed in a kanji are in fact the closely related despite pronunciation differences. The foreign learner of English is forced to learn book, library, bibliophile etc by “brute force” as unrelated words. Kanji  make such relationships clearer.

But, as you see, on and kun readings are not actually something that is very foreign to English even though they work somewhat differently in the two languages.

I hope this makes them feel a little more approachable.

How to Write Kanji—a free kanji tutor (for people who don’t write kanji)

how-to-write-kanjiKanji Recognizer as a self-teaching tool

How to write kanji is a question that Cure Dolly would precede with another question, namely whether to write kanji. As a matter of fact, I am largely of her school. Like Cure Dolly, I hand-write maybe two dozen words a year in English. So why do I want to learn to do in Japanese what I don’t even do in English?

The arguments over whether you need to learn how to write kanji in order to learn kanji at all are discussed by Cure Dolly, and I am broadly in agreement. It depends on who you are, what your needs are, and how you learn best.

But let’s say you are like Cure Dolly (and I am). Let’s say you don’t need to write kanji (for exams or whatever) and you only need to recognize them for purposes of both reading and (electronically) writing. Is there any need to learn to write them at all?

I really don’t see any value in sitting down to write kanji hundreds of times. I have heard people complain about doing this and still finding the kanji to be strangers to them in a week or so.

I actually am learning a tiny bit to write kanji, but none of them are strangers to me. I know the kanji. I am familiar with their components. That isn’t the point of writing them to me. So what is it?

One thing I have realized is that while my recognition is reasonably good, my ability to picture shapes is (perhaps abnormally) terrible. I can read hiragana with no problem, but I recently realized that I could no longer write several of them. I did learn them in the beginning and could write them easily. I found that a year or so later, even though I had no trouble at all recognizing them and reading them, I don’t actually remember how they are made up. I can’t picture them in my head. I only know them when I see them.

I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Personally I don’t want to lose my ability to hand-write kana, so I did a little practice with a kana-writing app just to get it back. If I wrote anything by hand—shopping lists, anything—I would do it in Japanese just to keep my hand in. But I don’t. I am a near-total non-writer.

However, kana is not the point here. The point is kanji. What I have found there is similar. Since I didn’t know how to write kanji, I didn’t really know how they were made up. I didn’t really know the difference between 家 and 象, for example. I tended to recognize them by context rather than their actual differences. I don’t think learning to write kanji is the only way to overcome this problem. One could just familiarize oneself more firmly with the components of each and make up little stories around them, which is how I learned them in the first place.

One of my problems with writing is a pathological fear of paper. I really can’t manage the stuff. If you start allowing it into the house it gets everywhere—but you can never find the bit you want. I really can’t start toodling around with bits of paper. For me it would open the door to nameless chaos.

But I did start to feel it would be worthwhile to write kanji. Not hundreds of times—just a few times each. Not in order to learn them—the kanji I write I already know by sight—but simply in order to clarify my mind on their exact composition.

And it works. But you really need the right tool. Fortunately I found it. It is called Kanji Recognizer. It is an Android app. You can write the kanji with a stylus on your tablet or keitai. Although this is not the purpose of the software, what it does is both allow you to write kanji (without all that scary paper) and act as an instant tutor at the same time.

Let me show you how:


You write the kanji freely, and as you can see, Kanji Recognizer tries to work out what you wrote and places its top ten guesses along the top. The higher you come in the top ten, the more accurately you have written the kanji. This in itself is very, very useful.

The software also numbers your strokes, so you are able to check your stroke order. It puts the number at the start of each stroke so you can also check the stroke direction (this comes into its own later as you will see).

The two buttons ringed in mizuiro (pale blue—I don’t know why there isn’t an English word for the “pink” of blue, but there isn’t) are 画削除 kakusakujo (delete stroke) and クリア (clear). 画削除 is very nice as it allows you to get rid of strokes you messed up. Paper is just mean about that sort of thing.

The app is free, though ad-supported. If you have your device in Japanese (and you should) the ads will tend to be Japanese too, as you can see at the bottom of the screenshots.

Once you have written your kanji, you can tap the correct one at the top to get a screen of information about it:

how-to-write-kani-2This, of course, is immediately useful for making sure the kanji is what you thought it was! The most important thing here for our purpose is the button we have ringed: 書き順 kakijun (writing order—or stroke order, as they tend to say in English). This gives you, as you might expect, an image of the kanji (written with an enviably steady hand) with its correct stroke order marked:


However, the really useful thing here is the (ringed) button labeled 動画 douga (animation). Press this and the app will clear the kanji and re-draw it for you, so you can watch it forming stroke by stroke and see how it is done.

You can then click the home button (ringed) which will take you back to the page where you wrote the kanji originally. It will still be there, just as you wrote it, so you can check whether you had the stroke order and direction right. If you didn’t make number one in the top ten, you can hit クリア and try again.

If you have an idea of the general rules for stroke order, you will get it right a lot of the time. The surprises will tend to impress themselves on your mind. The animation is particularly useful for this, I find. What you will also start to find instinctively is a lot of kanji-order sub-rules. They aren’t taught and rightly so, as they are fiddly and have exceptions, but they do start to make a kind of sense in practice, I find.

I am still not really trying to learn how to write kanji. I know hand-writing is never going to be a part of my real life. Actually, I would like to learn Japanese calligraphy one day, but that is something of another matter. What I am finding is that this gives me a better feeling for how the kanji work, how they hang together.

My method is perhaps unusual. I have never in my life “learned a kanji”. I learn words as I go along, and I make friends with the kanji that form them. People have occasionally asked “how many kanji do you know?”. I have no idea how to answer. How would I know? Maybe some people go through a book from Kanji 0001 to Kanji 2500, but I really wouldn’t even know how to do that, and I am sure it wouldn’t stick that way.

When I write kanji on my little slate, I am already friends with those kanji. I have known them for some time. Now I am taking tea with them and learning their funny little ways. I am a horribly inattentive friend, and there are so many things about them I never noticed. I love them so I want to learn.

If you love something, you should pet it. Kanji recognizer was essentially made to be a dictionary, not a tutor. It works as a tutor, and (for me at least) as something else too. It is my favorite Virtual Pet game!

A Key to Japanese Kanji Pronunciation: Meet the Sound Sisterhoods

sound-sisters-japanese-kanji-pronunciationJapanese kanji pronunciation is one of the difficulties learners have with Japanese.

Since kanji are not phonetic symbols it can be difficult to know how they are pronounced. And unlike their Chinese cousins, most kanji do not have a single reading. They will be pronounced differently in different words.

One important aid in coming to grips with this are kanji elements (or “radicals”) that are actually there to indicate the pronunciation. These seem to be little taught, but they are in fact very useful.

Learning all the sound elements can help you with around 65% of kanji. They aren’t all here, but a lot of the main ones are. The 80-20 rule works in your favor here, and by learning the ones on this page you will have sound keys to a surprising proportion of words you are likely to encounter.

Update: We now have a free Complete Sound Sisters Anki deck containing most of the regular sound-elements

One of the problems with them is that they are not consistent. There are exceptions to the pronunciation “rules”. I actually prefer to think of certain kanji-elements as “dominant genes”. If you see a kanji that includes one, it is pretty likely to be pronounced in a particular way.

Since it is not absolute, is it really useful? I would say from experience that it is very useful. As we have said before, if you are writing on electronic devices (as most of us are most of the time) kanji recognition is the vital skill in both reading and writing.

If you know (as you often do) the pronunciation of a word but are unsure of the kanji, you type it, see a group of kanji and the one that has the correct sound element is very likely to be the correct one.

If you see a two-kanji word you are unsure of, and one (or both) have the sound kanji, you can try sounding it out and as likely as not you will remember it.

This method obviously cannot teach you things you really don’t know. But it can be a huge mnemonic for things you do, or half-do, even if only vaguely.

Also it helps in subtler ways with seeing how Japanese words fit together and work.  The more hooks you have to hang things on the more everything comes together in your mind. So, for example, when you meet a new two-kanji word and the pronunciation of one half is governed by one of these sound-elements, you say “ah yes”. The more times you say “ah yes”—the more pegs there are to things you already know—the more likely you are to remember the word. That is how the mind works.

One other problem that may make the use of this knowledge difficult and therefore less used than it should be is that it would tend to involve learning lists of sound readings that look pretty random and unconnected.

That is what this page is really here for. We are going to put the sound-elements together into little families that will make them much easier to learn.

One point to bear in mind is that while some people talk about “sound elements” and “meaning elements” in kanji, implying the sound elements do not also carry meaning, in fact they most often do. If they didn’t there could be a standard element for each sound.

The sound element will often be obviously connected with the meaning, and where it isn’t it is likely the case that the connection is just not obvious and lost in the mists of time.

This is important because sounds do have meanings, or at least meaning-tendencies in Japanese. It is a subtle phenomenon—generally too subtle for the highly quantitative approach of Western scholarship to take much notice of. But meeting the sound-sisterhoods will help you to understand this a little more and deepen your intuitive grasp of Japanese.

Some of our associations are, of course, purely fanciful mnemonics, but we think you will find them useful.

This is not a full list but it contains a lot of the more useful and regular kanji sound elements. As you start to use them you will find that you discover others, including some small-but-useful one-off associations—for example 早 fast/early has the on-reading そう for example 早々 can be either hayabaya or sousou. 草 grass also has the on-reading そう as in 草原 sougen.

What to look for

When using these sound-elements, remember that they do not usually apply to kun-readings. That means if you see one of these kanji on its own with okurigana (following kana) it will most likely not have the pronunciation listed here. For example, the kun-reading of 照る to shine is てる, not しょうる. You will mostly find the pronunciation as listed below when the kanji is part of a two-kanji word.

All righty. Let’s meet the girls:

The Show Sisters 召 肖 昌  尚 (Shining SHOWgirls)

The four Show sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation しょう

They are bright, shiny, and seductive.

One is a shining moon 肖. One is a shining face with smiling mouth open wide and eyes crinkly-closed so you can’t see them. Note that the “shine” is really a miniature of 小, small, whose on-reading is also しょう as in 小学).

One is two suns, 昌 meaning “shine”. Three suns 晶 meaning sparkling, clear, or crystal also contains this radical and is pronounced しょう in combinations.

The last sister is which has the root-meaning of “seduce” or “summon”.

So there we have the four Show sisters: shining moon, shining suns, shining face, and seductiveness. We hope you will get to know them.

The Show sisters in some of their Shows:

肖 (しょう) → 宵, 消, 硝
尚 (しょう) → 常, 裳, 掌
昌 (しょう) → 娼, 唱, 菖, 晶
召 (しょう) → 招, 沼, 昭, 紹, 詔, 照

The Ka Sisters 化 可 果 過 (KAwaii Flower-Girls)

The four Ka sisters give the Japanese Kanji pronunciation か.

They are the flower-girls.

One is 化, the ka of 花 flower, whose on-reading is ka (the root-meaning of 化 is “change”— in the case of 花, grass that changes from mere green into beautiful forms).

One is 可, the ka of 可愛い kawaii.

The third Ka sister 果 means fundamentally fruit—abundant fruit—look, there is a whole field’s-worth of fruit growing on that one tree. It can be fruit either literal or metaphorical (a result).

The last Ka sister means 過 “excess”. When you think of the abundance of that fruit you can see why.

The Ka sisters are the grass-type Pokemon of the Japanese kanji pronunciation universe.

The Ka sisters in their flower-shows:

化 (か) → 花, 貸, 靴
可 (か) → 河, 何, 荷, 苛, 呵, 歌
果 (か) → 課, 菓, 踝, 顆
過 (か) → 渦,  堝, 鍋, 蝸, 窩, 禍

The Ki Sisters 几 其 奇 己 (KEEpers of the KEY)

The Ki sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation of き.

Where is the key?

The first Ki sister hides it in plain sight on her desk 几.

The second Ki sister hides it on a table loaded with sweets 其 (甘い sweet).

The third Ki sister 奇 keeps hers in a very strange place. We don’t even ask where, but we do note that when the ka of kawaii 可 has something big on top of it, it stops being ka and becomes 奇 ki. I think it is squeaking because of the sudden weight.

The last Ki sister 己 keeps it to herself. She is actually a snake who swallowed it.

The Ki sisters in their key positions:

几 (き) → 机, 肌, 飢
其 (き) → 期, 欺, 棋, 基, 旗
己 (き) → 起, 記, 紀, 忌
奇 (き) → 崎, 埼, 椅

The Sei Sisters 生 正 成  青 (SAInts and SAges)

The Sei sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation せい

Sei can mean “holy” in Japanese, and the Sei sisters are connected with purity, righteousness, and fundamental things.

The first Sei sister is 正. We probably first meet this kanji in the word tadashii—correct, just, perfect.

The second Sei sister is 生  meaning life and purity.

The third Sei sister is 青 blue, the color of heaven.

The fourth Sei sister is 成 wearing a knightly helm and armed with a ceremonial sphere. She is actually the kanji for the very common word なる to become—though it is usually written in kana. She does a lot of work in compounds though.

NOTE: It is worth remembering that sei has a strong tendency to become shou/jou.
性 which means a thing’s nature or sex is sometimes sei and sometimes shou.
The usual on-reading of 城 shiro, castle, is jou.
情動 is pronounced joudou.
正 is sei in 正義 but shou in 正直。

The Sei sisters doing some of their good deeds:

正 (せい) → 征, 政, 症, 整, 性, 牲
生 (せい) → 姓, 性, 星, 牲, 惺
成 (せい) → 盛, 誠, 筬, 城
青 (せい) → 清, 靖, 精, 晴, 請, 情, 鯖, 静

The Shi Sisters 士 司 次 (She-Knights)

The three Shi sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation し。

The first Shi sister is a she-samurai 士.

The second Shi sister 司 wears a knightly helmet with a mouthpiece and eye-slit (the left side is left open so she can get into it).

The last Shi sister 次 is not one actually of the knights but their dependable follower.

The Shi sisters on their knightly errands:

士 (し) → 仕, 志, 誌
司 (し) → 伺, 詞, 嗣, 飼
次 (し)  → 姿, 諮, 資

The Kou Sisters 工 交 光 (The COÖperative of Makers and Scene-Changers)

The three Kou sisters give the Japanese kanji pronunciation こう

The first Kou sister is 工, craft or making.

The second is 交 change, alternation.

The third is 光, the basic kanji for light but in combinations often refers to a scene or watcher.  As you see in the list below, the third sister doesn’t do a lot of work in compound kanji, but you’ll often see her on her own. For example in 光景 koukei, scene or spectacle, 観光 kankou, sightseer.

The Kou sisters in their workshops:

工 (こう) → 紅, 空, 虹, 江, 攻, 功, 肛,
交 (こう) → 校, 絞, 狡, 較, 郊, 効, 咬
光 (こう) → 恍

Hit Singles

Next we look at some pronunciation elements that don’t have groups, but they are pretty regular and well worth knowing:

分 ふん / ぶん(粉, 紛, 雰)

白 はく(伯, 拍, 泊, 迫, 舶, 狛, 柏, 箔, 珀)

中 ちゅう(忠, 沖, 仲, 虫, 狆)

長 ちょう(張, 帳, 脹)

及 きゅう (吸, 級, 扱)

寺 (じ)  (侍, 持, 時, 塒, 峙)  (But wait! note thatwait is not pronouncedin modern usages).

And others

Look, two hans! 半, 反 very useful, common and quite regular han/ban pronunciation.

The Kan sisters 干 官 (見)They are in the canning business, which was originally, before the invention of cans, the drying business. 干 means drying or dried while 官 is an official (as in 警官 keikan, police constable). Originally this meant the officer who held an umbrella over the Empress to keep her dry. 見 is only a half-member of this group as she is either kan or ken (more often ken). Ken, in English is to know – a concept always conceptually connected with seeing while can is a dialectical variant of ken, as in canny.

The Hobo Sisters 方(ほう、ぼう) 亡(ぼう、もう) There are only two Hobo sisters and as you might expect they are a slightly raggedy pair. 方 is pronounced either hou or bou (of course using the voiced version can occur with other sounds as well) while is pronounced either bou or mou. The b/m slither is not uncommon in Japanese—as in さびしい / さみしい。The root-meanings of the sisters are direction and death respectively. Whatever direction these hobos wander they are always going in the direction of death. But then, aren’t we all?

The Shin Sisters 申 辰 Interestingly these two sisters are both Chinese zodiac signs, the monkey (saru) and the dragon (tatsu). For our purposes we just remember that when the wheels fell off the chariot 車 someone hurt her shin. Occasionally the top of the axle falls off too 押 and it still gives the reading shin.

There is another dominant-gene sound-radical we may like to consider here: 立 – its dominant on-sound in complex kanji is りゅう ryuu. Interesting because the regular word for dragon is りゅう, while the kun-reading of 立(つ) is たつ tatsu – which should make 立 as りゅう quite memorable. Note that the 立 radical appears in the kanji for dragon 竜 (りゅう, ryuu)  itself. (But be aware that the on-reading of 立 when not part of a complex kanji is more often りつ).

The Hi-men 皮 非  The pronoun “he” is of course 彼 in Japanese and its right-element 皮 usually gives the reading ひ hi or は ha in complex kanji. 非 as a prefix is hi, and means un- or not- (as in 非常 hijou, unusual) or adds a generally disadvantageous or unfavorable aspect to what follows. It can also give the reading ひ hi in complex kanji.

Note: Bear in mind that common kanji may have their own on-readings that override the Sound Sisters. For example 士 is usually shi, but 売 “sell” is regularly on-read as buy (bai) and 声 “voice” as say (sei) as in 声優 seiyuu.

We now have a free Complete Sound Sisters Anki deck containing all the elements on this page plus many more, featuring mnemonics and audio.

You can also see Cure Dolly’s retrospective assessment of the Sound Sisters after two years of using them in the second half of this interview.

Do you need to write kanji?

is-it-necessary-to-write-kanjiIs it necessary to be able to write kanji? I mean, actually write it with one of those marky-sticks on the flat white stuff?

The conventional wisdom is that you have to write out each kanji by hand hundreds of times in order to actually learn them. Some people claim that with the proliferation of digital devices this is no longer necessary, while others say that without writing them you will never learn them. Which is true?

Let me start by saying that there is no way around knowing the kanji. If you don’t know them, you can neither read nor write them, even with digital devices. Actually reading them is more possible with things like Rikaichan, but your reading will be very slow and painful. Rikaichan is a good aid when needed, but it is no substitute for learning the kanji.

Writing will be next to impossible since while any decent digital device will automatically make the kanji for you, you have to know which kanji you mean. You can type K+I to get き, but did you mean 木 ,気 or 器?

The question is, can you know them without the physical act of writing them? There are arguments on both sides but let’s sum up the situation.

Writing kanji is not a magical key to knowing them. Some people complain about writing out kanji hundreds of times and still forgetting them quite quickly.

The old way of learning them, practised by Japanese schools and, following them, most Western teachers of Japanese, is simply to write them without analyzing them – pure rote- and muscle-memory. In my mind there is no doubt that this is a very bad way to learn kanji.

Also while Japanese children may not explicitly learn the parts of kanji and how they fit together, they are aware of radicals (you can’t use a kanji dictionary without being) and I cannot imagine that they are actually blind to the beauty, logic and poetry that goes into the structure of kanji.

Whether you are writing kanji by hand or not, you really must learn to identify their component radicals. Not doing so is like trying to learn the shapes of words without noticing their component letters (actually we do read both romaji words and kanji like this when we are very familiar with them, but whenever there is any uncertainty – and all the time during the learning process – we need to be able to identify the parts or we are making the job far more difficult than it needs to be).

One problem of not learning to write kanji is that you may never be fully aware of their exact structure. Confession time. Even kanji I know very well I could not, in many cases reproduce exactly. Not just because I haven’t practised writing them, but because I don’t know exactly how they look. I know them when I see them.

How bad is that? In practical terms, not very bad. Because the only time I need to know them is when I see them. I either see them in reading, or I see them on a list of possible kanji when I am typing them.

One objection to this is as follows: “Some kanji are very similar. If you only know them on a ‘facial recognition’ basis, you won’t be able to tell them apart”.

This is very true, and it is a serious objection if you are going to be taking Japanese language exams, where you will often be presented with out-of-context similar kanji side by side and asked which is which.

In real life, however, that does not happen. In real life you are either reading or writing. You have context. Even if you can’t tell the two kanji apart when you see them side by side, you actually know that “I kissed my ___” is more likely to be “mother” than “Andromeda galaxy” (no, those two things don’t actually have similar kanji. Just funnin’).

In cases where similar-looking kanji do mean similar or confusable things, the non-writing learner has to look at them together and clarify in her mind what distinguishes them. But she does not need to know the exact formation of every kanji she is familiar with – or even the confusable minority. She just needs to know enough to tell them apart in practice.

“But – you won’t be able to write. With a pen.” No, you won’t. How far is that a problem?

It depends how much you actually do write. Personally, I would say I write – actually by hand – in English maybe 200 words in a year. Truthfully I can’t even see how it would amount to 200, but I am being cautious. Other people write a lot more of course. So that depends on you.

“What about writing your name and things”. Silly. Of course you will be able to write your name. I am not suggesting anyone should not be able to write kana (though I confess that I write them so little I am a bit hesitant). You will write your name in katakana usually. If you do by some chance have kanji for your name, of course you will learn to write those kanji. If you have a Japanese address you will very likely want to learn to write the kanji for that. This is not some “never write a kanji under any circumstances” game.

Some people are “tactile learners” and writing may really be the right way for them. However I suspect a lot of the people who say “you can’t know them without learning to write them by hand” are somewhat (and understandably) protective of the countless hours they themselves have invested in doing it.

If you are taking written exams you have to learn to write kanji.  If you are taking exams with tricky kanji-recognition elements, the best way of learning kanji that exactly may well be to learn to write them with the correct stroke-order. If you are a tactile learner, writing may be the right path for you.

If your main use of kanji is real-life usage (whether running a company or reading manga), you probably don’t need to write them. You do need to know them.

I find that knowing and making friends with kanji is vital to seeing how Japanese words fit together and why they mean what they mean. I love kanji. I gaze at them in admiration. I love the fact that the kanji of 枯れる (kareru, to wilt or wither) is “tree” plus “old”. I adore fun things like the fact that 望遠鏡 (telescope) means hope/view+distant+mirror – actually the mirror can, I think, be a speculum or seer’s crystal which makes it all the more mysterious and lovely.

But even with regular words I am very often thinking of them in terms of their kanji. “あぁ, 審査 ー 審判の審、調査の査ですね。”

But I blush to say I don’t write them. I only blush a little though. I don’t write English either.

How to learn kanji organically as part of Japanese self-immersion→

Kanji: What the (Western) “Experts” Can’t Tell You

To anyone reasonably well versed in traditional metaphysics, the meaning of some of the basic kanji is immediately and transparently obvious. Unfortunately, Western writers on kanji origins, armed with the beloved “progress” ideology and a total ignorance of traditional thought, work hard to obscure this. Let us try to set the record straight.

monarch-kanjiThe traditional explanation of the kanji for “monarch”[right], for example, is that of the joining of the three worlds of Heaven, Earth and Humankind. But really anyone conversant with the traditional concept of monarchy would hardly need to be told this any more than she would need to be told that a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth meant “face”.

The “monarch” kanji shows the World Axis, common to all traditions, joining the three worlds  – Heavenly, (or solar/Spirtual), Human, or (lunar/psychic), Earthly, (or substantial/material) – and thus reconnecting all things with their archetypal Principles and establishing the Law of Heaven on Earth through the mediation of the Axial being (in this world, the human), headed, of course, by its principal and representative individual being, the Monarch.

This is so elementary as to be the metaphysical equivalent of ABC [more about this].

face-kanjiSuppose some scholar were to tell you that the “kanji” to our left – which means face – was actually not originally a depiction of a face, but of a shirt button with holes for the thread.

It came to mean “face” because shirts button right up to the neck, near where the face is, but the supposed resemblance to a human face is pure coincidence, though possibly useful as a mnemonic.

The correct scholarly answer to that is: “pish-tosh”. Because even if it were true that the “face” kanji were originally a depiction of a shirt-button, it is absolutely evident that in simplifying and regularizing it, the scholars who did the work were, at the very least, utilizing a “visual pun” that clearly depicts a human face. Anyone who has an elementary-school knowledge of art can see that.

Unfortunately, many modern scholars, raised (or de-educated) in a tradition of pure materialism, do not have a knowledge  even that elementary of how human beings have actually thought for most of their history.

The current kanji for “monarch” may, as we are told, have had, as one of its ancestors, a “primitive” depiction of an ax. We do not dispute that at all. The ax itself is a metaphysical symbol, and one that is actually not unconnected with the symbolism of the current “monarch” kanji – that is, its haft is a depiction of the World Axis that connects heaven and earth as well as uniting the dualities of manifest existence (and the Western hermeneutic connexion between “axis” and “ax” is by no means accidental).

In reducing the kanji to its current form, the ancient daisensei were simplifying, clarifying, and, in a sense, universalizing the metaphysical symbol to one that anyone (except a person de-educated by the modern Western ideology) can read.

In many cases, it would seem that local and particular meanings – certainly metaphysical in their primary reference , as that is the way traditional people think all over the world – were reduced to a simple and beautiful geometric metaphor (and all “abstract” thought is essentially metaphor) that reduces the metaphysical narrative to its essentials.

The fundamental error of the “scholarly” approach is to assume that the earliest local and particular form that they can find is the “real historical origin” and that therefore the later simplification is somehow “inauthentic”, or at any rate “accidental”.

This in turn is based on the idea that ancient thought was actually trying to do what modern western thought is doing (ie dealing exclusively with the accidents of the material realm), only doing it badly.

Thus the only “root” a kanji (or any other word-form) can have is merely a matter of historical accident and not of the essential metaphysical nature of the word/concept. The lack of respect for the intellectuality of the daisensei who created the current forms of the kanji is at once breathtaking in its cultural arrogance and amusingly typical of the naive provincialism of Western (and Westernized) materialistic “scholarism”.

kanji-juuTo take one more example, we are asked to believe that the kanji number ten (juu) is unrelated to the essential symbolism of the cross and is merely an “accidental” simplification of an earlier form, influenced by the kanji for a sewing needle.

It would seem pointless to ask if it is mere coincidence that the Roman symbol for ten (X) is also a cross. The grasp of why the cross would represent ten is, in the minds of the modern scholar, so tenuous that coincidence would seem almost possible. You may wish to read this article to understand a little of the intimate connexion between four and ten, and also why ten thousand (万 man) is a numerical unit in both Chinese and Japanese.

Once we learn to discount the cultural arrogance of Western scholarism and gain some respect for the traditionally established forms of the kanji, they may begin to seem a little less mysterious. Ironically it is precisely the de-mythologization and “accidentalization” of modern Western thought that makes them seem random. In order to understand, we need to re-mythologize the kanji – or rather to treat the existing mythic/iconic structure with the respect it deserves.

Japanese Kanji for World and Kingdom

The Sacred Monarch: uniting the three worlds
The Sacred Monarch: uniting the three worlds

Today let’s look at the kanji for world and kingdom.

A friend watching Doki Doki Precure with Japanese subtitles was becoming a little confused by various words for world and kingdom, so let’s look at the basic ones. What do they mean, and how do we remember them?

As usual, let’s look at them in the light of traditional symbolic thinking.

The word for “world” is 世界 – sekai. It consists of two kanji: 世 se meaning “generation” and 界 kai meaning world.

se shows a mother holding children* – generations. It has other pronunciations and related meanings (world, society etc.) but its root-meaning is generation(s). The pronunciation is really a gift (at least in 世界) because it looks similar to せ and that is exactly how it is pronounced (it is theorized that the kana せ is actually a simplification of the kanji 世 ).

kai means world. This is a very fundamental kanji. There are two great symbols for the world (cosmos) in traditional thought. One is the house – the house is always a microcosm of the universe, with the hearth-fire as its central sun (heart). The field is the symbol of the world seen as the “field of action” (this is fundamental to the symbolism of the chess-board), or as the “place of growth”, or manifestation.

As you see, these two fundamental world-symbols, field and house, make up 界 kai. 界 only ever has one pronunciation, so if you want a mnemonic you could say “the world is not quite the (heavenly) Sky – so we cut the S off and just say kai”.

These two kanji together make the regular word for “world”, 世界 sekai.

The word for “kingdom” is 王国 oukoku.

ou means monarch. It is such a fundamental concept that it has no consonants. It is just pronounced ou. To understand the kanji we need to understand the concept of the Sacred Monarch, who occupies the middle position betwen World and Heaven, mediating between them. The Sacred Monarch (originally a Sacred Queen, later a King) carries the Mandate of Heaven and mediates it to Earth. The kanji 王 ou depicts this [for much more on this kanji and concept, please see this article (note that the kanji reading there is Chinese not Japanese)].

kuni/koku means “country”. Here we see the Sacred Monarch surrounded by what she rules. In traditional thought a realm is precisely the Sacred Center and its periphery. Without the Sacred Center there would not be a realm or country but a mere wilderness.

The kanji 玉 is actually not 王 the Monarch herself. It means ball or jewel. The Crown Jewel, and the Crown itself, is what adorns the Monarch and is often used as a synonym for the Monarch or her rule (terms like “property of the Crown” are still used in English). We could go further on the meaning of the Jewel as the Central Treasure (the Jewel in the Lotus) but that would be too much of a digression. What we should note here is that once we grasp the centrality of the Sacred Monarch we can see how Jewel and Monarch are closely related concepts. The jewel is a small-thing** that represents all the splendor and centrality of the traditional Monarchic concept. Therefore the kanji for jewel shows the Monarch 王 with a small-thing 玉. It implies both the small-thing that adorns the Monarch and the small-thing that is in itself Monarchic.

So the country, an ordered- or ruled-place (kosmos as opposed to kaos), is represented by the periphery with its central monarchic-jewel -  国.

We may also note that the kanji of 王国 oukoku, kingdom can be reversed to give us 国王 kokuou the Monarch of a country.


* While generally means world or generation, the connotation of mother-like care is not completely absent. 世話 sewa means caring-for or looking-after.

** Smallness is symbolically important, as “the Jewel in the Lotus” represents the Center that is not extended quantitatively into manifestation, but upon which all manifestation depends.

Japanese Kanji for Left and Right – why they are what they are

The kanji for left and right may, on first sight, seem slightly confusing. It is not until we understand a little about traditional metaphysics (which was how the ancient Chinese, Japanese and everyone else before the last few centuries actually thought) that they make sense.

Why is the left hand crafty?
Why is the left hand crafty?

The kanji for both left 左 and right 右 feature a hand. This is normal, as the concepts “left” and “right” are always linguistically associated with hands. In English we speak of “the left-hand side” etc. The hands are each holding something representative of their particular side. Migi (Right) holds a mouth 口. Hidari (left) holds a symbol that means craft 工.

Why is left associated with craft? In the literal-minded thinking of the modern world, this seems counter-intuitive, since it is the right hand that is dextrous (from Latin dexter = right) and most capable of making things.

Then we look at the kanji for migi (right) and that has a mouth. Why a mouth?

Why does the right hand hold a mouth?
Why does the right hand hold a mouth?

Traditionally every action has two components: Wisdom and Method. These correspond to the cosmic duality of Essence and Substance. To do anything we must know how to do it. In the modern West, this has come to mean technical knowledge alone. In Japan there is still the concept of the Way 道 — the proper way that a thing should be done within the harmony of earth and heaven.

Wisdom is the teaching – the “word” by which we know the Way. Method is the physical actions that make the Way manifest in whatever we are doing.

The kanji for the Way 道 on its own is pronounced michi which can mean a literal road or the Way. In combinations it is pronounced dou and is found in the names most of the traditional Arts, because each art is precisely a Way which correctly followed leads to a measure of enlightenment.

Tatoeba (for example):

弓道 kyuudou is the Way of Archery

剣道 kendou is the Way of the Sword (kendo)

茶道 sadou is the Way of Tea (tea ceremony)

書道 shodou is the Way of Writing (traditional calligraphy)

Wisdom is the Teaching of the Way; Method is the Following of the Way. Vital to the Way in any form is the Sensei, the Teacher of the Way.

Wisdom and method are not equal. Wisdom must always lead and Method follow or the work will be out of harmony and not in the true Way.

Symbolically the right hand (the superior hand) is the hand of Wisdom and the left hand (the supporter hand) is the hand of Method. Therefore it is natural that Right  should have a mouth symbolic of the teaching of the Way, while Left represents the physical and outward aspect of craft.

Dorje, symbol of Method, held in left hand
Dorje, symbol of Method, held in left hand

Interestingly, in Tibet, Wisdom is represented by the bell and Method by the dorje (Sanskrit vajra). The dorje [pictured right] is the same essential shape as the 工 of hidari (the dorje elaborated and 工 reduced to barest essenitals), while the bell emits sound (symbolic of teaching) like the mouth 口 of migi.

Naturally, in rituals, the bell is always held in the right hand and the dorje in the left hand.

To ring (a bell) in Japanese is 鳴る naru. This kanji also contains a mouth (sound) and also a bird. “The language of birds” is in various traditions symbolic of the language of angels, and the ringing of bells symbolic of that same angelic teaching.

Kanji do make sense read in the light of the traditional wisdom that underlies them, and the kanji for right and left, migi and hidari, are easy to understand once we are aware of the thought-world from which they emerged.