What is a phonetic component?

Natalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code is a #1 Amazon Best Seller.

kanji phonetic componentPhonetic components such as 㑒 (KEN), 青 (SEI) and 亡 (BOU) are the parts of kanji characters that indicate their sound or pronunciation. In fact, 青 unlocks the ON reading of at least five kanji characters – so I call it a ‘power phonetic’. Most people know about the radicals, which give a hint to the meaning of a kanji, but phonetics are not as well known.

Some phonetics are also radicals, and some are kanji characters in their own right. Other phonetics are neither radicals nor kanji characters – these can be referred to simply as components.

For example, the following kanji all contain the 㑒 component, and they also have the ON reading KEN. So the phonetic component 㑒 can be said to indicate the ON reading KEN.

  • 検    examine
  • 険    danger
  • 験    verify

㑒 is neither a radical nor a Japanese kanji character, so it is referred to as a component. In fact, in order to write it, you need to use a Chinese font, as it does not exist as an individual character in Japanese character sets!

In Chinese, 㑒 means everyone or all. It is a simplification of the Chinese character 僉, which depicted two people under a roof, and the idea of all the people being in agreement – think of a town meeting.

ON-yomiIt may seem strange to be referring to the Chinese meaning of components when you are studying Japanese, but the fact remains that kanji were imported from China, and they still retain many links in meaning and sound. One study found that about 60% of Japanese kanji words have the same or a similar meaning and orthography as their modern Chinese equivalents.

The ON reading (onyomi /音読み ) or Chinese reading literally means ‘sound reading’, which seems to be a big hint to the phonetic nature of kanji.

Learning the phonetic components will give you an extra tool in your kanji study toolkit. The faster you can learn the kanji readings, the more time you will have to spend on all the other aspects of Japanese study, such as grammar, vocabulary and honorifics!

The Kanji Code: Japanese_phonetic componentsLearning the meaning of components is also quite fascinating, because kanji makes even more sense when you understand its origins.

Our new book The Kanji Code lists 150 phonetic components for you to learn at your own pace. Each component includes a meaning, ON reading, example kanji and kanji words that use that reading.

 Learn phonetic components with The Kanji Code book


Published by Natalie Hamilton

Natalie Hamilton received her Master of Japanese Translation in 2014 from Macquarie University and is NAATI Certified for professional translation from Japanese to English. As a JET Programme participant, she taught English to high school students in rural Japan for three years. She has also taught Japanese at the Japan Foundation and translation studies at Western Sydney University.

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