Language Learners' Library

Because Japanese has three writing systems. Hiragana are their “alphabet”, and give you a phonetic reading of each word. Katakana are variants of hiragana, and usually used only for emphasis, loan words and certain names. Then they also have kanji, which are characters borrowed from Chinese. Because Japanese has a lot of homophones (words with different meaning that sound the same), they use kanji for a lot of writing.

The list I wrote above only has the words written out in hiragana. I have now also given the way you can write them in kanji. If you want to become fluent in reading Japanese, you’ll have to learn about 2000 of these kanji to read an average book, but that’s not something to worry about too much in the beginning.

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2000 is total official list
In fact many of them are very very rare. You never will see 碁 (Go game) unless you are Go player.
There are many popular words that use no kanji
and there are many words that use multiple combinations of popular kanji only 大丈夫(all right)
So in fact only few kanji are needed for beginner, 2000 is for top professional.

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The Jōyō kanji … a list of 2,136 characters … intended as a literacy baseline for those who have completed compulsory education

It appears to me that you are supposed to know all these kanji by the time you leave school.

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2000 is the minimum. It’s basically what people learn during primary and secundary education (in fact they learn more: there are also 800 kanji that are used for names).

Sure, you don’t need all 2000 of them to get around pretty alright, but if you want to read an average book without seeing unknown symbols just about every three sentences, you’ll need at least 2000. The kanji that are not in the most frequent 1000 are individually rare to see, but as a whole they make up quite a bit of the vocabulary.

Then there are a lot of other kanji that are not Joyo, but that you will encounter sometimes. Especially in literature, there are many many kanji that are not Joyo.

Knowing about 1000 kanji would put you at elementary school level.


If google translate is inaccurate, then what about Wikipedia? I have always heard that it is not a reputable source.

Wikipedia is pretty trustworthy nowadays. They have many experts writing and editing on there. However, you have to take care with controversial topics, which usually converge to a “safe middle ground”.

Many claims are sourced, though, so you could check yourself where the information comes from and if it’s trustworthy (often it is).

Google translate is inaccurate for an entirely different reason: that Japanese and English are very different languages. Literal translation from one language to the other results in unnatural sentences, especially since Japanese is highly context dependent (something the translating machine struggles with). As an example:

watashi wa gakusei desu.
shumi wa igo desu.

Here the first sentence translates:

I (topic marker) student am. → I am a student.
Hobby (topic marker) go is. → My hobby is (playing) go.

The second sentence does not mention “I” or “my”, because it’s clear from the first sentence that “I” is the subject of the sentences. Whenever something is clear from context, Japanese simply leaves it out. However, what happens if you change the first sentence to this:

kare wa gakusei desu.
shumi wa igo desu.

Now it becomes:

He (topic marker) student is. → he is a student.
Hobby (topic marker) go is. → His hobby is (playing) go.

So the subject of the second sentence has changed, because it’s clear from the context of the first sentence that the subject is “he” and not “I”. Try putting the latter two sentences in Google translate, and watch it struggle

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(second try, the first one I accidentally deleted)


Word Reading Meaning
盗む ぬすむ to steal
おとこ man
花瓶 かびん vase
走る はしる to run
買う かう to buy
捕まえる つかまえる to catch / capture
止める とめる to stop
商人 しょうにん merchant
打つ うつ to hit
うち inside
宝石 ほうせき jewel
隠す かくす to hide

The stealing man runs
This is a general statement about stealing men: they run.
This is a statement about a particular stealing man who is running.

盗んだ is the past tense of the verb 盗む (to steal). Japanese does not have a participle, but we can use verbs, or indeed entire sentences, as adjectives by putting them in front of a noun.

The man buys a stolen vase
Here the vase is the thing that is stolen, so we use the passive form 盗まれる of the verb 盗む, once again in past tense to get 盗まれた.

The man bought a stolen vase
Same thing as above, but with the main verb 買う in past tense.

I catch a man stealing
This sentence is apparently unnatural, but we can’t quite figure out why…
盗んでいる is the continuing form of 盗む, thus 盗んでいる男 is the man that is currently stealing. I catch him (捕まえる).

I stopped the man who had stolen a vase
花瓶を盗んだ is a sentence meaning “to have stolen a vase”, which modifies the noun 男 to get “the man who had stolen a vase”.

The merchant will not buy the stolen vase
Japanese has no future tense, so this could also mean “The merchant does not buy the stolen vase”. It does not capture the meaning of “The merchant does not want to buy the stolen vase”, which would be:

I protect the vase that will be stolen
Since the vase is not stolen yet, it is uncertain. This is why であろう is added: 盗まれるであろう means “it will probably be stolen”, “it may be stolen” or “it will surely be stolen”.

I hit the man with a stolen vase
This depends on who stole the vase. If it’s a vase stolen by somebody, then 盗まれた花瓶 is correct. However, if I myself stole the vase, it should be 盗んだ花瓶.
Also, English is ambiguous here, so I put the main verb 打つ in present tense.

The man hid jewels inside the stolen vase
Once again the difference is between whether I stole the vase or somebody else did.


Me today: “Ah, I was wrong about the participles”

Me yesterday: “Hmm, what are the right participles here?”

Me two days ago: “What the hell is a participle?”

I’m quite tempted to do a daily “What the Hell Breakdown” on big scary grammatical words. I’m lookin’ at you, supine!


I like to see a participle as a grammatical form of a verb that transforms it into some sort of adjective.

There should be a word for that temptation a Japanese-learner feels to replace modern, complicated kanji with alternatives that are simply-drawn but very archaic, that they find on Jisho :stuck_out_tongue:

“Xeno-minimalism” perhaps, lol

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Such as? Usually it’s the other way around, and I’m glad the archaic ones aren’t used since they take twice the number of strokes


Hmm, I haven’t found an example yet.

But I’ve developed an urge to use 芒

How about how 竾 has less strokes than 笛?

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Today I learnt how to write mango in kanji: 芒果.

It’s a bit of a sad kanji, its components mean “grass” and “deceased”… Dead grass.

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芒 is outside of Joyo though, right? They must be an alternative spelling of mango as well?

Like I said, there’s many non-joyo kanji that are sometimes used. However, my girlfriend couldn’t read 芒果 except for an alternative pronunciation, so it’s probably not well known. She couldn’t read 竾 either.

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I found the perfect example of xeno-minimalism.

Why use 箱…

When I could write 函!

The second one is actually in a box, therefore it’s better :stuck_out_tongue: :wink:

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She could read 函 though, as well as 筥 and 凾.

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I find the very blurry distinction between current, dated, archaic, and obsolete words to be enchanting in any language.

Take English. inflexion is dated. omnibus is archaic. provant is obsolete.

Japanese native elementary school is above what most foreigner JAPANESE LANGUAGE LEARNERS will reach

I still find unknown words in English sometimes. Its not a problem, I can always see translation in 1 click with special soft.

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I have tried clicking on my paper books, but it doesn’t really help me much

Also, I doubt most foreigners can read a book in Japanese. Which was kind of my point.