Monday, 16 June 2014

Kanji Tree

The Japanese writing system is the most complicated one in existence, possibly ever.

There are two phonetic alphabets.  Hiragana is a nice cursive one which is used for writing particles, conjugated verb endings, and things like that.  Katakana is an angular one which looks a bit like Norse runes and used for writing noises, such as onomatopoeia and foreign people's names.  These two are straightforward enough.

Then there's an ideographic syllabary called kanji, which is just mental.  No, seriously.

Readings & Meanings

Each kanji can have a variety of meanings and pronunciations depending on context.  For example, one of the very first ones you learn is :
  • 日曜日 = Sunday
The first is pronounced "nichi" and means "sun", the second one is pronounce "bi" and means "day"!

They can also have multiple pronunciations for the same meaning, take the kanji for "one":
  • 一人 = One person
  • 一羽 = One bird or rabbit
The first is pronounced "hito" the second one is pronounced "ichi".  It's the exact same character with the exact same meaning!

And, of course, they can have multiple different meanings with the same pronunciation:
  • 参る = To go (humble)
  • 参る = To come (humble)
  • 参る = To call
  • 参る = To be defeated
  • 参る = To collapse
  • 参る = To die
  • 参る = To be annoyed
  • 参る = To be nonplussed
  • 参る = To be madly in love
  • 参る = To visit a shrine or grave
These are all pronounced "mairu", you have to figure out which one given the context!


Kanji are comprised of component parts called "radicals", and some of these radicals are actually other kanji:
  •  =  + 
If you were learning , then it would be a lot easier if you already knew the other two.
  • 家 = House
  •  = Roof
  •  = Pig, hog.  (archaic term)
So, a pig under a roof is a house.  Sure, it's a little bit weird, but it's certainly a lot easier to remember than a collection of random scribbles.

Unfortunately, the order in which kanji are taught understandably pays more attention to the needs of Japanese children than it does to foreign adults.  So kanji for simple words which a five-year-old could understand are taught early on, and more complex words come later.

Kanji Tree

Faced with the daunting task of learning a few thousand kanji, I naturally turned to my computer for help.  The result is "Kanji Tree".

It's an application for mobile devices, being developed primarily on Android but I'll upload for iOS too when I can get the auto-builder outputting IPA files.  It's still a work in progress, but it's usable right now.

I'm writing it in Unity (of course) and I'll be digging into the problems and solutions I discovered on the way.

I hope someone finds it useful.


  1. I'm just glad we don't live in China where all they have is kanji, no Katakana to help us get context. Must be a nightmare.

  2. Andrew,
    this is a great app.
    Many thanks for it (allthough I can only imagine how much hard work there is to realize such a tool).

    Hope that, for a next version, you consider the possiblity to make shorter list for review or self test.



  3. Thanks for making Kanji Tree!!!!! It has helped me to see how daunting a task it might be to actually learn ALL the meanings and ALL the readings for each Kanji!!!!!!

  4. I am a japanese learner and a novice UI developer, and I cannot state enough how elegant and useful of a tool kanji tree is. Every time i open it i feel mad respect for the craftsman who made it. <3