100 of the Most Common Kanji Characters

Japan, Honshu, Kansai Region, Kyoto, Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, Orange-Red Torii gates
Anthony Asael/Art in All of Us / Getty Images

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. 

1. 日sun
2. 一one
3. 大big
4. 年year
5. 中middle
6. 会to meet
7. 人human being, people
8. 本book
9. 月moon, month
10. 長long
11. 国country
12. 出to go out
13. 上up, top
14. 十10
15. 生life
16. 子child
17. 分minute
18. 東east
19. 三three
20. 行to go
21. 同same
22. 今now
23. 高high, expensive
24. 金money, gold
25. 時time
26. 手hand
27. 見to see, to look
28. 市city
29. 力power
30. 米rice
31. 自oneself
32. 前before
33. 円yen (Japanese currency)
34. 合to combine
35. 立to stand
36. 内inside
37. 二two
38. 事affair, matter
39. 社company, society
40. 者person
41. 地ground, place
42. 京capital
43. 間interval, between
44. 田rice field
45. 体body
46. 学to study
47. 下down, under
48. 目eye
49. 五five
50. 後after
51. 新new
52. 明bright, clear
53. 方direction
54. 部section
55. 女woman
56. 八eight
57. 心heart
58. 四four
59. 民people, nation
60. 対opposite
61. 主main, master
62. 正right, correct
63. 代to substitute, generation
64. 言to say
65. 九nine
66. 小small
67. 思to think
68. 七seven
 69.  山mountain
70. 実real
71. 入to enter
72. 回to turn around, time
73. 場place
74. 野field
75. 開to open
76. 万10,000
77. 全whole
78. 定to fix
79. 家house
80. 北north
81. 六six
82. 問question
83. 話to speak
84. 文letter, writings
85. 動to move
86. 度degree, time
87. 県prefecture
88. water
89. 安inexpensive, peaceful
90. 氏courtesy name (Mr., Mrs.)
91. 和harmonious, peace
92. 政government, politics
93. 保to maintain, to keep
94. 表to express, surface
95. 道way
96. 相phase, mutual
97. 意mind, meaning
98. 発to start, to emit
99. 不not, un-, in-
100. 党political party