When you’ve just started learning kanji, they pretty much all look complicated.
Then you’ll find that some kanji are simple and friendly enough, while others look like terrifying, vicious, thousand-toothed beasts.
How can you decipher those extra complex kanji, no less learn them and reproduce them from memory alone?
First, you can start by identifying what it is that makes the most difficult kanji so freaking difficult.
I remember when I had just moved from America and started middle school in Japan, when my level of Japanese was equivalent to that of the average second-grader. I was sitting with my group during science class, and had asked my group members how to write the kanji 班 (はん), meaning group. A boy sitting diagonal from me picked up his pencil and scribbled the character on his sheet of paper, turning it towards me. I copied it down and as my group mates watched, they all agreed that 班 was a difficult kanji to write.
I looked at them, perplexed. As far as I knew, all kanji was hard. But 班 did not look as complicated as other kanji I had to memorize, and I immediately wondered what it was about certain kanji that makes them particularly difficult.
After years of struggling through Japanese classes and kanji tests, I finally understood that there were kanji that were more difficult than others, and why that was so. (As for 班, my classmates probably thought it was difficult simply because they had just learned it a year before.) In a few, I’ll share a little bit of what I’ve learned through those years, divided into three different categories.
But first, here are a few links to help you on your continuing journey to becoming the next kanji master!
Online Tools for Learning How to Read and Write Kanji
- KanjiDic2 — This dictionary site has a Japanese and English version. In the Japanese version, you’ll just type in or copy and paste the character you’d like to look at more closely in the white box at the upper left hand corner of the top page. Keep in mind that they only allow you to look up one character at a time. On the English version, look up words by meaning and pronunciation to find their kanji equivalent. You can also closely examine hiragana and katakana.
- Elementary school kanji — A simpler tool for those looking to build a solid kanji foundation first. This is a list of all the kanji Japanese kids have to learn in elementary school, color-coded by grades one through six. Don’t underestimate their difficulty—there are many that even adults tend to forget.
- Imiwa — A Japanese dictionary for iOS devices, this app gives you all the basic information you need about kanji and more. It even contains entries in German, French and Russian, so if you’re more comfortable learning in, say, French, this is a must-have!
- 毎日漢字.com (まいにち かんじ.com) — A website that’s used by many Japanese speakers when preparing for the 日本漢字能力検定 (にほん かんじ のうりょく けんてい), or the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test. This is for the more adventurous learners who want something seriously challenging. The entire website is in Japanese only, but you’ll find practice tests on writing (updated daily), reading, 四字熟語 (よじじゅくご, or four-character idioms), and other components of kanji.
- For even more great learning options, check out this FluentU article on 6 free kanji apps to download on your iPhone.
FluentU can help you even more, with the Japanese learning program, which takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Pick up on new kanji by seeing them in context, then test yourself through adaptive quizzes that learn as you do. It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Japanese the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
Now, on to the kanji!
The 8 Most Complicated and Unknown Kanji Japanese Learners Should Know
Kanji Most People Think They Can Write, But Can’t
Like any language, there are words in Japanese that are used profusely in both conversation and writing. It turns out that some of these words that native Japanese speakers assume they can write are rather tricky.
When asked to write them, they’ll probably pick up their pens and, just before the tip of their pen meets paper, will suddenly freeze, confusion taking over their faces. They’ll actually be surprised they don’t know how to write them. Some might act like they forgot, but chances are they’d never taken the time to ever examine these common words and burn them into their memories.
1. 挨拶 (あいさつ)
Stroke Count: 19
This is a word you’ll hear often in Japan at school and work, mainly because the Japanese do so much of it on a daily basis. Considering its prevalence in day-to-day conversation, you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know how to write the kanji for it.
What makes this kanji so complicated is the uncommonness of the individual kanji characters. The characters 挨 and 拶 are almost exclusively paired with each other, meaning that there’s no other kanji pairing (or at least not to my, nor the Internet’s, knowledge) that includes either of the characters in 挨拶. These characters were clearly meant for each other, but that just makes it all the more difficult for us to memorize them.
2. 醤油 (しょうゆ)
Stroke Count: 25
Definition: Soy sauce
Despite soy sauce being an indispensable condiment in Japanese cuisine, writing the word in kanji is not as easy as it may seem. This kanji, along with many others that are difficult and unknown to many Japanese speakers, has another pair of kanji that’s sometimes used instead.
The simplified version of 醤油 is 正油 (しょうゆ).
Although the traditional form 醤油 is much more frequently used, you might see the simplified 正油 on menus at ramen restaurants for the 正油ラーメン (しょうゆ らーめん). With that said, it isn’t really recommended that you use this simplified form in place of the more complicated, original form. Though not necessarily incorrect, simplified forms of kanji are usually limited to note-taking and other unofficial pieces of writing for personal use. So, when in doubt, a better alternative would be to write the word in hiragana, or in a mix of hiragana and kanji, しょう油.
3. 贅沢 (ぜいたく)
Stroke Count: 25
Definition: Luxurious, expensive, spoiled
Much like 挨拶 and 醤油, this all-too-common bit of Japanese vocabulary is also one that everyone can read, but most cannot write. Perhaps it’s this omnipresence that gives people the false illusion of being able to write the kanji when, in reality, they can’t.
Also like 醤油, of which the second character, 油 (ゆ、あぶら – oil), is easily written, the second character, 沢 (たく、さわ – marsh), in 贅沢 is also a kanji which most people can write. Open a Japanese novel, magazine or newspaper and you’re bound to see this word repeatedly. Yet still, the complete kanji for this phrase seems to elude many.
Kanji Nobody Bothers to Memorize
Some kanji are just too complicated to even begin to memorize. Learn these and you’re sure to be deemed kanji master.
4. 鬱 (うつ)
Stroke Count: 29
鬱 (うつ) is the epitome of complicated kanji. When the Japanese compete with their friends on who can write the most difficult kanji, this one will definitely be one of the first they’ll ask their friends to write. If by some miracle someone does know how, they’re usually met with astounded rounds of “すごーい！” (amazing!).
The word is used pervasively, especially next to the character 憂 (ゆう、うれ(える)、うれ(い)、う(い)) in the word 憂鬱 (ゆううつ), meaning sad, gloomy or melancholic. When handwritten, as well as when typed, it’s often written in hiragana. With 29 strokes in just one character, not only is it difficult to memorize but it’s quite a feat trying to write it beautifully and well-balanced.
Due to its common usage, it’s a highly recommended kanji to learn how to read, even if learning how to write it is too difficult.
5. 薔薇 (ばら、しょうび、そうび)
Stroke Count: 32
Like 鬱 (うつ), 薔薇 is another notoriously difficult kanji that’s very commonly used and most people can read. But just like with 鬱 (うつ), most people only know the gist of what the kanji looks like and cannot replicate it on their own.
The characters themselves have a curious composition, especially the first character 薔 (しょく、しょう、そう、みずたで) meaning persicaria hydropiper (water pepper). This character has all the components of the top half sitting on top of 回 ( かい、え、まわ(る) – turn), which is quite unusual for a kanji.
Not to say the second character is at all easier—薇 (び、ぜんまい、のえんどう) meaning flowering fern, contains one stroke underneath 山(やま、さん – mountain), which is pretty much hidden and thus very easy to leave out. Though often written in kanji or katakana, you’ll also see it frequently written in hiragana, making whatever form you decide to use solely up to your personal preference.
Stroke Count: 35
Almost always written in its katakana form レモン, this bad boy has 35 strokes and, when written in small print, the details of the strokes become very convoluted and hard to make out. I bet you’re squinting to read these characters on your phone or computer right now.
You may see this kanji form being used on labels for relatively posh products that utilize the rather unusual kanji to convey a certain aesthetic to whatever is being sold or branded.
In fact, using the kanji 檸檬 instead of simply writing レモン gives off a sense of regality and localness to the product because the word is written in kanji as opposed to katakana (which is essentially used for foreign, imported words, and therefore not “truly” Japanese).
For example, simply substituting the katakana form with the kanji form might help to give consumers the sense that the lemons being used in the product were grown locally, that the product is or reflects a tradition of the local area, that the product was made by using traditional Japanese techniques or that the product is simply of a higher quality. Although not always the case, it’s definitely a clever marketing tactic.
Kanji Most People Don’t Know Exist
“There’s a kanji for that?” will probably be the response you get when you tell somebody about these characters.
Stroke Count: 30
This isn’t so much a complicated kanji as a virtually unknown one. Who in Japan would ever think to write “flamingo” in kanji, anyway? Always written in the katakana form フラミンゴ, the kanji form isn’t difficult in terms of the individual characters themselves.
紅 (べに、くれない、こう、く) meaning crimson and 鶴 (つる、かく) meaning crane, are both taught in elementary school and thus are pretty basic characters. But aside from the fact that no one knows that the kanji for “flamingo” exists, what makes this kanji so complicated is that it also places itself in the category of 当て字 (あてじ).
当て字 is what you would call any kanji whose pronunciation has virtually nothing to do with the traditional sounds of the characters themselves. In this case, the traditional pronunciation would be べにづる, while the 当て字 pronunciation would be フラミンゴ. But because べにづる is not a word we would ever use to indicate a flamingo in modern Japanese, it can be assumed that the kanji 紅鶴 essentially reads フラミンゴ.
当て字 is usually used for words in the Japanese language that were imported from other languages and therefore are devoid of a kanji, and are instead written in katakana form. Although it can’t be said that all katakana words have also a kanji form, chances are there exist kanji equally elusive as the one we have just examined here.
8. 橄欖 (かんらん、おりーぶ)
Stroke Count: 42
Last but not least, here’s a kanji whose existence is unknown by most Japanese speakers out there, and is extremely difficult to memorize. Like our previous word, “olive” in the Japanese language is always written in the katakana form オリーブ.
Note that this kanji also has two different ways to read it: かんらん when staying true to the traditional sounds of each character, and オリーブ when reading the kanji as 当て字. However, かんらん and オリーブ are not two disparate pronunciations for the same word. Rather, かんらん is a completely different plant altogether, a plant native to the tropics of the Burseraceae family. But somehow its kanji has come to be used for another word, which is frankly a bit confusing. Perhaps this is why no one knows that it can also read オリーブ.
Now that you’ve been introduced to some of the most complicated kanji in the Japanese language, hopefully everything else will begin to look a little less daunting.
Good luck, and happy learning!
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