100 of the Most Common Kanji Characters

Japan, Honshu, Kansai Region, Kyoto, Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, Orange-Red Torii gates
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With three different ways of writing, the Japanese language may seem intimidating to new students. It's true that memorizing the most common kanji symbols and other scripts takes time and practice. But once you've mastered them, you'll discover a means of written communication unlike anything you'll see in the English language.

Writing in Japanese

There are three writing systems in Japanese, two phonetic and one symbolic, and all three are used in tandem:

Kanji is symbolic (or logographic). It is the most common means of written communication in the Japanese language, with more than 50,000 different symbols by some estimates. However, most Japanese can get by with using about 2,000 different kanji in everyday communication. A single kanji character can have multiple meanings, depending on how it is pronounced and the context in which it is used.

Hiragana and katakana are both phonetic (or syllabic). There are 46 basic characters in each. Hiragana is used primarily to spell words that have Japanese roots or grammatical elements. Katakana is used to spell foreign and technical words ("computer" is one example) or for emphasis.

Western characters and words, sometimes called romanji, are also common in modern Japanese. Typically, these are reserved for words derived from Western languages, especially English. The word "T-shirt" in Japanese, for example, consists of a T and several katakana characters.

Japanese advertising and media frequently use English words for stylistic emphasis. 

For everyday purposes, most writing contains kanji characters because it's the most efficient, expressive means of communication. Complete sentences written only in hiragana and katakana would be extremely long and resemble a jumble of letters, not a full thought.

But used in conjunction with kanji, the Japanese language becomes full of nuance.

Kanji has its historical roots in Chinese writing; the word itself means "Chinese (or Han) characters." Early forms were first used in Japan as early as A.D. 800 and evolved slowly into the modern era, along with hiragana and katakana. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the government adopted a series of rules designed to simplify the most common kanji characters to make them easier to learn.

Elementary school students have to learn about 1,000 characters; that number doubles by high school. In the past 50 or so years, Japanese education officials have added more and more kanji to the curriculum, and because the language has such deep historical roots, literally thousands more kanji have evolved over time and are still in use.

Common Kanji Characters

Here are 100 of the most frequently used kanji in Japanese newspapers. Newspapers give a great representation of the best and most useful kanji to learn, because you are more likely to come across these characters in day-to-day use. 

sun
one
big
year
middle
to meet
human being, people
book
moon, month
long
country
to go out
up, top
10
life
child
minute
east
three
to go
same
now
high, expensive
money, gold
time
hand
to see, to look
city
power
rice
oneself
before
yen (Japanese currency)
to combine
to stand
inside
two
affair, matter
company, society
person
ground, place
capital
interval, between
rice field
body
to study
down, under
eye
five
after
new
bright, clear
direction
section
.女woman
eight
heart
four
people, nation
opposite
main, master
right, correct
to substitute, generation
to say
nine
small
to think
seven
 山mountain
real
to enter
to turn around, time
place
field
to open
10,000
whole
to fix
house
north
six
question
to speak
letter, writings
to move
degree, time
prefecture
water
inexpensive, peaceful
courtesy name (Mr., Mrs.)
harmonious, peace
government, politics
to maintain, to keep
to express, surface
way
phase, mutual
mind, meaning
to start, to emit
not, un-, in-
political party