The Four Types of Kanji

象形・指事・会意・形声

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.


1

象形文字

しょうけいもじ

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.


2

指事文字
しじもじ

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


3

会意文字
かいいもじ

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

「信」は「人」と「言」
Trust (Person + Speak) … Word is bond.

「相」は 「木」と「目」
Physiognomy (tree + eye)

「休」は「人」と「木」
Rest/Take Off/Take break = Person + Tree

「男」は「田」と「力」
Man = Field + Power

「即」は「皀」と「卩」
Namely = Fragrant + Seal

「赤」は「大」と「火」
Red (Big + Fire)

「香」は「黍」と「甘」
Fragrance (Millet + Sweet)

「髟」は「長」と「彡」
Hair hanging long (Long + hair)

形声文字
けいせいもじ

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.

「漢字の約9割が形声文字であるといわれている。」

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.

形声文字は、音を表わす文字(音符)と、意味を表わす部分(意符)で構成されています。

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.

紙(シ)
= 糸+氏(シ)
町(チョウ)
= 田+丁(チョウ)
姉(シ)
=女+市(シ)
理(リ)
=王+里(リ)

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.


  1. https://www.weblio.jp/wkpja/content/%E4%BC%9A%E6%84%8F_%E4%BC%9A%E6%84%8F%E3%81%AE%E6%A6%82%E8%A6%81
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanji#Types_of_kanji_by_category
  3. https://shinyuzemi-niigata.wixsite.com/index/single-post/2017/12/06/%E3%80%90%E6%BC%A2%E5%AD%97%E3%80%91%E2%91%A0%E8%B1%A1%E5%BD%A2%E3%83%BB%E6%8C%87%E4%BA%8B%E3%83%BB%E4%BC%9A%E6%84%8F%E3%83%BB%E5%BD%A2%E5%A3%B0%E6%96%87%E5%AD%97
  4. https://okjiten.jp/19-keiseimoji.html
  5. https://katekyo.mynavi.jp/juken/9182
  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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