The Four Types of Kanji


Kanji, ideograms that constitute a bulk of the Japanese written language, come in four rough types. Pictographs, Indicators, Combographs, and Meaning-and-Sound Borrowers.

The first type is pictographs which stand in for the actual thing they represent. Some researchers claim fewer than 4% are actually pictographs.




人 biped (human)
女 woman
手 hand
田 ricefield
子 child
日 sun
月 moon
門 gate
山 mountain
川 river
弓 bow (as in “bow and arrow”)
火 fire
戸 Japanese style door
口 mouth, entranceway
水 water
雨 rain
竹 bamboo
木 tree, wood, timber
本 roots (origins)
麦 wheat, barley, oats
目 eye
牛 cow
羊 sheep
馬 horse
鳥 bird
足 Leg/foot
母 Mother
All these are nouns which really limits their applicability in the realm of human affairs.



Indicators. Visual stand-in or pointer for a concept. Here are some examples

上 Up/above
下 Down/below
中 Middle/between
一 One
二 Two
三 Three
乃 「の」
音 Sound
天 Heaven
立 Stand up
引 Pull
公 Public
今 Now
世 Society
面 Face, facet
共 Together
仲 Relationship
末 Top end, tip
片 one of a pair



Combographs, kanji composed of two or more kanji to create a third meaning.

“A meeting of meanings” to forge a new alloy with different properties.

武 is composed of 戈 and 止
Military arts = Spear + Stop

Trust (Person + Speak) … Word is bond.

「相」は 「木」と「目」
Physiognomy (tree + eye)

Rest/Take Off/Take break = Person + Tree

Man = Field + Power

Namely = Fragrant + Seal

Red (Big + Fire)

Fragrance (Millet + Sweet)

Hair hanging long (Long + hair)


Semantics and Sound Borrowers, meaning and sound borrowers, soundalikes inherit a phonetic value (pronunciation / reading) from one of their subkanji, and inherit meaning from another.

Meaning inherited on the left, Reading on the right.

Meaning and Sound Borrowers make up 90% of Japanese Kanji.


Roughly 90% of Kanji glyphs used in Japanese are classifiable as Meaning and Sound Borrower kanji.
[Reference 3: shinyuzemi-niigata.wixsite ]

This amazing fact, that 90% of kanji inherit their sound value (phonetic value / reading) from a subkanji has been explored in great detail in the book The Kanji Code. Likely inspired by a dictionary of kanji from Ancient China that contained 6 groups, although the sixth group only has 1 kanji in it, and many scholars prefer to stick to 4 groups for comprehension rather than divide one of the remaining groups in two.

Natalie Hamilton’s Kanji Code superimposes katakana and kanji to make recall of their meanings easy, and she breaks them into helpful meaning-categories according to subkanji [“radicals”]

Natalie Hamilton’s The Kanji Code is a great resource in learning the phonetic readings constituting over 90% of the kanji.


Sound and Meaning Borrower Kanji have a phonetic helper subkanji and a meaning helper subkanji.

An exhaustive list of these “Soundalike” kanji, that usurp meaning from one and phonetic reading from another, can be found in Reference 4 where they also show derivations like the image above.

= 糸+氏(シ)
= 田+丁(チョウ)

In the kanji characters above we can see that the phonetic reading is inherited from the right-hand side (Reference 5).

形声文字 do they mean what they say, or say what they mean?

Here’s a graphical synopsis of the four kinds:

Roughly speaking, we can put a coarse approximation to the number of kanji in each category:

  1. Pictographs (3-4%)
  2. Indicators (1%)
  3. Combographs (5-6%)
  4. Meaning-and-Sound-Borrowers (90%)
    also called Shape-and-Sound-Borrowers.

Thanks for reading, we hope that you’ll use this new knowledge to master the kanji swiftly!

Master kanji like never before with the lessons specially crafted for long-term retention at Japanese Complete. Join the online course today.

  6. Types of Kanji (Originally 6) are largely derived from Xu Shen’s work from 100 CE, presented in 121 CE.

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