Japanese has three writing systems which are combined and used everyday: Katakana, and Kanji. Kanji was brought from China around 5th century A.D., and at that time only men were allowed to learn and use it because men had a higher status than women. They said it was too hard to learn for women with their intelligence level, and women were allowed to use only Hiragana. Yes, Kanji is hard and there are many characters to learn, but if you learn them step by step, learning is doable for anyone. Also, knowing Kanji helps you read faster because each one letter has meanings!
In this article, I would like to introduce you to 10 basic Kanji characters that you will encounter in your daily life in Japan.
1. Big and Small – [大 and 小]
You often see these on food menus and at toilets as well. If you go to a fancier restroom with TOTO (or equivalent brand) Washlet toilet, nowadays they don’t even have a handle bar to flush, but instead you will see two buttons for 大 and 小 on the top of a little screen for controling the Washlet. 大 on toilets represents “number 2” and 小 is for “number 1”. This is just a difference of the amount of water used when flushed. If you had only “number 1”, you can push the button of 小 so that you can save water for the environment. Some toilets are automatic, so when you are finished, it automatically flushes. These two Kanji are only used for more modern sit-down toilets so this doesn’t apply to men’s stand-up urinals.
For food sizes, especially for drinks, these are also used. For example, beer sizes are written 大 or 小 for bottle beer or draughts, and many times they have the medium size with the Kanji 中. Draught beer is called 生ビール (nama biiru) or more commonly called just 生 (nama). When you want to order a big draught beer, you can say 大生(dai-nama), or for medium size 生中 (nama-chuu). This is a very casual and local way of ordering beer in Japanese. As for food, espeacially at fast food restaurants, these size Kanji are not used normally but they use S, M, or L (for small, medium, and large) instead. For example, when you order small fries at Mc.Donald’s, you can order saying “ポテトのS (poteto no esu)” or “ポテト のSサイズ (poteto no esu saizu)”.
2. Man and Woman – [男 and 女]
You see these Kanji for onsen/public bath or sometimes at restrooms as well. You don’t want to get confused by which one to enter, otherwise you will receive a weird glance from other people!
The 男 kanji is made of two different characters. The top one is 田 and this means rice field. The bottom one is 力 and this means power. As you probably know, the main diet of the Japanese is rice, and rice cultivation started long time ago back to sometime in the mid-Jomon period (Jomon period is from 145 B.C. to 10 B.C.) The people who worked at the rice field were mainly guys, since it was physically demending labor. This is how the kanji 男 was created. For 女, here is a story about ninja. Mostly ninja are male, because they have to be phisically fit for their spying duties, and sometimes they had to fight against samurai soldiers. However, there were some female ninja also. They were called くの一(kunoichi), since the Kanji for woman 女 can be broken down with three strokes of 1) Hiragana “ku” く, 2) Katakana “no” ノ and 3) Kanji “ichi” 一.
I hope that these stories will help you remembering these gender characters, but don’t worry too much. Usually there are color coordination for male and female – blue/black and red/pink. At onsen facilities, usually the entrance is covered with “noren” curtains, and they are usually in those colors for each gender!
3. Enter and Exit – [入and 出]
Most of the time, the same doors are used for entrance and exit, but sometimes, there are designated doors only for entrance or exit purposes. For example, public buses and street cars can have separate doors for entrance and exit, because one side has a payment system. When to pay is depending on the bus/tram companies. Usually, if the line is for the flat rates, you pay as you enter. If not, you pay when you exit because the price would vary depending on how far you go. The kanji meaning “to enter” and “to exit” are 入and 出, and for entrance and exit, they add 口 after them. 口 literally means “mouth” but in this case it means like “gate”. So entrance is written as 入口 (iri-guchi) and the exit is 出口 (de-guchi).
By the way, 入 Kanji is very similar to 人Kanji for “person”. It’s almost same and hard to see the difference especially in the computer fonts, but here is the tips to see the difference. The Kanji for enter is with the longer right stroke and it’s over the shorter left stroke. The person Kanji is with the longer left stroke and it’s over the shoter right stroke. These two Kanji are a little bit confusing, but this small difference makes totally different meanings, so watch out!
4. East, West, North, and South – [東西北南]
You usually can find these Kanji at Shinjuku station in Tokyo has 8 exits/entrances. Two biggest exits are 東口 (higashi-guchi) and 西口 (nishi-guchi). JR Shinjuku station also has Central-East, Central-West, South, New-South, South-East, and Southern-Terrace exits. This massive station is one of the most confusing station with so many exits (especially because it is a massivle conbination of the JR, subway/metro and other private train companies) – if you are not too familiar with the station, I would suggest NOT to meet up with your friends at the Shinjuku station and choose somewhere less confusing.
These directional Kanji are also used for names of places. For example, Tokyo is written as 東京. The second Kanji is from 京都 (Kyoto), which means “the capital”. Since the original capital was in Kyoto (in the Japanese history, the capital of Japan started from Nara, Kyoto, then moved to Tokyo), and since Tokyo is the new capital which is in the east Japan, it’s written as 東京, meaning “east capital”. As another example, the two biggest regions in Japan are called Kanto (関東) and Kansai (関西). Kanto incudes Tokyo, Yokohama, Chiba, Saitama, etc. and Kansai includes Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, etc. As you can see in the map, Kanto has the 東 Kanji in it because it’s located in the east Japan, and Kansai with 西 because it’s in the west.
Another example is that the northern island is called Hokkaido, and it’s written as 北海道. Now you can see why it has 北 kanji in it.
By the way, going back to the capital kanji (京), do you know whether there is any northern capital or southern capital in Japan? The answer is NO. But there are places with those Kanji in China! 北京 for “northern capital” is the Kanji for Beijing, and 南京 for “southern capital” is for Nanjin. For some reason, there is no 西京 – but there is a Chinise city called 西安.
These are some of the Kanji I recommend you to learn to make your daily life easier. Kanji are pictorial characters – once you know more characters, you will become much quicker reader because you can get the meaning right away by even looking at one character! There are many more to learn but it will help you to remember many of them by connecting them with daily life or stories of the Japanese history.