In 1997 I obtained my master’s degree in Japanese Language and
Culture from Leiden University in the Netherlands. Subsequently, I
received my master’s degree in law from Leiden University and a law
degree from Oxford University. I decided to pursue a career as a finance
lawyer and worked for nearly eight years in lawfirms doing banking and
international capital markets transactions. I enjoyed working as a
lawyer, but the “mystery” of Japanese characters, especially the
question how to pronounce a character, remained to intrigue me.
Let me first write down a few words about Japanese characters. Many
books have been published about Chinese or Japanese characters. An
impressive book is “China: Empire of Living Symbols” by Cecilia
Lindqvist. Also “A guide to remembering Japanese characters” by
Kenneth G. Henshall, “A dictionary of Chinese Symbols” by Wolfram
Eberhard and “Chinese characters; Their Art and Wisdom” by Rose
Quong are worth reading.
Originally, the characters in Chinese texts were brought into Japan via
Korea. The Japanese adopted the Chinese characters and their Chinese
reading, but modified the pronunciation to the Japanese phonetic
system.1 Chinese characters were also given Japanese readings. Most
Japanese characters therefore have both one or more Chinese (on)
readings and native Japanese (kun) readings.2
Japanese character dictionaries, like Chinese character dictionaries, are
generally based on the system of the 214 basic elements or radicals and
not on a system of phonetic elements.3 A radical is part of a character
Kanji & Kana, A handbook and dictionary of the Japanese writing system, Wolfgang
Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Japan, 1992 (“Kanji & Kana”),
pages 18, 48 and 51.
Kanji & Kana, page 51.
Please also see the New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, completely
revised by John H. Haig, Tuttle Publishing, 1997 (the “Nelson Dictionary”), page 1233 as
well as the Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary, revised American edition, Harvard
University Press, nineteenth printing, 2000 (the “Mathews Dictionary”).
and indicates the field of meaning to which the relevant character
Many Japanese characters also contain a sound-indicating part for the
Chinese (on) reading which is helpful in guessing this Chinese (on)
reading and I agree with W.E. Soothill that the persevering study of both
the radicals and phonetics will in the long run save, not waste, the
student’s time. 5 6 I believe that a good knowledge of phonetic elements
will enable the student to (i) easier recognize and memorize the Chinese
(on) reading of Japanese characters and (ii) more quickly use (electronic)
Japanese-English (or any other language) dictionaries for the translation
of Japanese characters and Japanese character combinations.
In this study 7 of Japanese phonetic elements I have selected 349,
mainly jōyō8, characters or elements of a character which in my opinion
serve as a sound-indicating part or “phonetic element” for the Chinese
(on) reading of certain Japanese characters (the “Phonetic Elements
List”).9 The selection is based on the comparison of certain characters
that have the same or nearly the same Chinese (on) reading.10 I have
added, if listed therein, the number assigned to the relevant phonetic
element as Japanese character in the Nelson dictionary.
Kodansha´s Elementary Kanji Dictionary, Kodansha International, Japan, 2001 (the
“Kodansha´s Elementary Kanji Dictionary”), page xx.
Kanji & Kana, page 51. Please see also Kodansha´s Elementary Kanji Dictionary, page
The Student’s Four Thousand 字 and General Pocket Dictionary, W.E. Soothill,
American Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai, 1914 (the “Soothill Dictionary”), page
iv. The Mathews Dictionary refers to Soothill by stating that “those who desire to study
the combinations of Radical and Phonetic will find Soothill’s Pocket Dictionary
invaluable”; please see the Mathews Dictionary, page vi.
A first copy of this study was deposited with a civil law notary in The Netherlands on 2
Please see Appendix 13 of the Nelson Dictionary.
The characters mentioned in The Table of Daily Used Chinese Characters by Do Thong
Minh, Tokyo, 1993 were used as a starting point for this comparison. Please note that
the Phonetic Elements List is not an exhaustive list of phonetic elements in Japanese
I have not performed any other (including etymological) research.
I have also included, if listed therein, the number assigned to the
relevant phonetic element as Chinese character in the Mathews
dictionary, as I generally perceived the comparison of the relevant
Japanese phonetic element and its Chinese-derived reading with the
equivalent Chinese character and its Chinese pronunciation as useful.
Worthwhile to mention is that 325 of the 349 Japanese phonetic
elements arranged in this study, are also included in W.E. Soothill’s List
of Phonetics (the “Soothill Phonetic List”)11 as phonetic elements in the
Chinese language. A reference to the relevant phonetic element in the
Soothill Phonetic List has also been included.
I trust this selection of Japanese phonetic elements will be helpful to
those who wish to master the Japanese language.
Finally, I wish to express my thanks to my parents for their invaluable
support and encouragement.
The Netherlands, 2010
Annemarie Geraldine van Dijk
Please see the Soothill Dictionary, pages xiv – xxxv.
Phonetic Elements List
Please see below for a sample entry from the Phonetic Elements List
with annotations explaining the typography.
1 2i 2ii 2iii 4
4. 韋 韋 偉 違 緯
イ イ イ イ イ
N 6601 N 6601 N 285 N 6099 N 4566
S 764 – Wei –
S N 5160
3 2iv 4
1. Each phonetic element is placed before a bar and is assigned a
2. Below each phonetic element the following information is given:
i. if the phonetic element is a Japanese character, the Chinese
(on) reading(s)12 in katakana;13
ii. if the phonetic element is listed in the Nelson Dictionary as
a Japanese character, the number assigned to it in the
Nelson Dictionary preceded by an N (“X Nelson Dictionary”
means that the phonetic element is not found in the Nelson
iii. if the phonetic element is listed in the Mathews Dictionary
as a Chinese character, the number assigned to it in the
Mathews Dictionary preceded by an M (“X Mathews
Dictionary” means that the phonetic element is not found in
the Mathews Dictionary);
iv. if the phonetic element is listed in the Soothill Phonetic List,
the number assigned to it in the Soothill Phonetic List
including the Chinese reading and English translation 14
mentioned in the Soothill Phonetic List 15 (“X Soothill
Phonetic List” means that the phonetic element is not listed
in the Soothill Phonetic List; and
Please note that a phonetic element may have more than one Chinese (on) reading. If
a phonetic element does not have a Chinese (on) reading, the annotation is N.A. (= Not
Applicable). The Chinese (on) readings mentioned are based on the (on) readings
mentioned in the Nelson Dictionary, Japanese Word for Windows, Kanji & Kana and Do
Thong Minh, Table of Daily Used Chinese Characters, Tokyo, 1993.
Please see the Nelson Dictionary, page 1250.
Please make sure to always look up the meaning of a Japanese phonetic element /
character in a Japanese-English (character) dictionary and in relation to Japanese
phonetic elements / characters please do not rely on the English translation of the
Chinese phonetic mentioned in the Soothill Phonetic List.
Only some phonetics in the Soothill Phonetic List are assigned a number (a
`numbered phonetic´) whereas the other phonetics are only indirectly numbered, i.e. by
reference to the first preceding numbered phonetic. Also, please note that the
numbering is not always sequential (e.g. there is no phonetic with number 7). For
reference purposes, in order to avoid any confusion, both the Chinese pronunciation and
English translation as mentioned in the Soothill Phonetic List in respect of the relevant
phonetic is referred to. Any other information mentioned in relation to the phonetics in
the Soothill Phonetic List has not been added.
v. if the relevant phonetic element is one of the 214 radicals,
the number of the relevant radical preceded by an R.
3. The phonetic elements are placed in katakana (a-i-u-e-o) order16 by
reference to the pronunciation derived from the relevant phonetic
element. If two different pronunciations are derived from the same
phonetic element, the phonetic element appears twice in the
Phonetic Elements List. A cross-reference to that effect is
mentioned below the relevant phonetic element.
4. After each phonetic element two or more Japanese characters are
mentioned which contain the relevant phonetic element and which
have the same (or nearly the same) Chinese (on) reading (the
“Example Characters”). 17 If listed in the Nelson Dictionary, the
number of the relevant Example Character in the Nelson Dictionary
preceded by an N is mentioned. Some Example Characters have
more than one Chinese (on) reading. In this study only the reading
linked to the relevant phonetic element is mentioned (however,
please note that because of different Chinese (on) readings, an
Example Character may appear more than once in the Phonetic
An appendix with the Chinese phonetics from the Soothill Phonetic List
mentioned in this study in the order of the Soothill Phonetic List, with
Please see Kanji & Kana, page 23.
It would fall outside the scope of this study to mention all Japanese characters which
pronunciation may be derived from any one of the phonetic elements listed in the
Phonetic Elements List. The average number of Example Characters is 2 to 3;
sometimes the number is 4 or more, if it was deemed to be useful, e.g. for illustrating
the position of the phonetic element within the characters. Please see the ON-kun
indexes in the standard Japanese character dictionaries (e.g. the Nelson Dictionary) if
you wish to further verify which Japanese characters contain the relevant phonetic
element and have the same Chinese (on) reading.
the numbers assigned to the corresponding Japanese phonetic
elements in the Phonetic Elements List is attached.
How to use
This study is meant as a supportive tool, i.e. it is intended to be used in
combination with other Japanese language (study) material. Please see
below for a few suggestions on how to use this tool:
- On the first reading, mark the Example Characters you already
know and familiarize yourself with the phonetic element in these
Example Characters. You can do this by checking the phonetic
element in the Nelson Dictionary and the Mathews Dictionary (if
listed therein) and to learn its pronunciation and, if applicable, its
- Each time you learn a new Japanese character, check whether this
character is mentioned as a phonetic element or an Example
Character in the Phonetic Elements List and memorize the relevant
- Test yourself on the phonetic elements you have learned by
covering up the Chinese (on) readings in the Phonetic Elements List.
- For those who wish to study both Chinese and Japanese phonetics,
please make use of the references to the Soothill Phonetic List and
I am much indebted to the following dictionaries and literature to which
reference is made in this book, where appropriate.
- Kanji & Kana, A handbook and dictionary of the Japanese writing
system, Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn, Charles E. Tuttle
Company, Japan, 1992.
- Kodansha´s Elementary Kanji Dictionary, Kodansha International,
- the Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary, revised American edition,
Harvard University Press, nineteenth printing, 2000.
- the New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, completely
revised by John H. Haig, Tuttle Publishing, 1997.
- Table of Daily Used Chinese Characters, Do Thong Minh, Tokyo,
- The Student’s Four Thousand 字 and General Pocket Dictionary,
W.E. Soothill, American Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai, 1914.
Phonetic Elements List
1. 安 安 按 鞍 鮟
アン アン アン アン アン
N 1311 N 1311 N 2147 N 6586 N 6861
S 555 – An –
N 2460 N 2667
2. 衣 衣 依
イ、エ イ イ
N 5420 N 5420 N 191
S 367 – I –
AS PE 7
3. 尉 尉 蔚 慰 熨
イ イ イ イ イ
N 1383 N 1383 N 5181 N 1972 N 3471
S 727 – Wei
M – Pacify
4. 韋 韋 偉 違 緯
イ イ イ イ イ
N 6601 N 6601 N 285 N 6099 N 4566
S 764 – Wei
– A thong
S N 5160
5. 因 因 姻 咽 氤
イン イン イン イン イン
N 939 N 939 N 1215 N 788 N 3029
S 771 – Yin –
6. 員 員 韻 殞 隕
イン、エン イン イン イン イン
N 808 N 808 N 6611 N 2982 N 6474
S 760 –
Yüan – An
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