Remember what kanji looked like before you knew any Japanese?
A pile of practically identical shapes, right?
After learning the basics of the language, you probably started seeing some differences—but it can still be incredibly easy to be fooled by lookalike characters.
The trick to mastering similar kanji—and therefore significantly boosting your language skills—is to embrace their commonalities.
By getting familiar with pairs and groups of similar kanji, you can home in on the radicals and components that comprise them and memorize their different definitions. As you compare and contrast them, you’ll begin to truly see them as individual forms and not as barely distinguishable drawings made by a deranged artist.
In fact, there are quite a lot of such pairs (or even triplets) of similar characters, and to read kanji better, it’s necessary to develop your skills at quickly identifying the differences between them. Below, we’ll explore how to do this, plus 20 similar kanji pairs and groups you’re likely to encounter.
Common Kanji Similarities to Look For
Pairs or groups of visually similar characters are confusing because most of their components are shared and completely identical, with only one or a few components that are actually different. The distinguishing components can look similar themselves, or be so small that a quick glance at the character is likely to result in misreading it.
The best way to handle visually similar kanji is to learn the main differences in the forms and get accustomed to seeing them in context. The importance of context is that you’ll gradually be able to tell which words are likely to contain which characters, and this will reduce the risk of misidentifying them.
Specifically, similarity in form between kanji is often caused by these common patterns:
- A stroke that exists in one character but not in the other. Example: 井 and 丼.
- A stroke that exists in both characters but ends at a slightly different place. Example: 牛 and 午.
- A different but similar radical. Example: 治 and 冶.
- A different but similar non-radical component. Example: 陳 and 陣.
Since reading—in Japanese or any other language—is based on scanning whole words and sentences rather than zooming in on small details in individual characters, similar forms are easy to confuse on a regular basis. By getting familiar with the common similarities listed above, you’ll have an easier time distinguishing between similar kanji as you encounter them in the wild.
Two Methods for Learning Similar Kanji
Visually similar characters can be tricky to learn on the go, and sometimes the best way is to give them some special attention that clarifies the differences between them. As always with kanji, it can be hard to know where to start—but there are actually two effective methods that can help you take on these naughty characters with confidence.
One method is to actively examine and memorize the individual components of characters that you find to be too close for comfort. When you come across such characters in your lessons, vocabulary lists or reading, look them up using a kanji dictionary that has clear, convenient stroke order diagrams or animations, such as Jisho.
Carefully study the composition of both characters in the similar pair and write them down side by side until you have absorbed their differences completely.
Another helpful method, which you can apply in conjunction with the first one, is to use mnemonic sentences in which both/all similar kanji appear. This will help you memorize similar kanji pairings/groupings as well as their individual meanings. Such mnemonic sentences have been provided in the list below, and you can easily follow their model to create your own.
Since the point of studying with mnemonic sentences is to learn the forms of the characters rather than their pronunciations or functions, the sentences should be in English or any language you’re comfortable with—not necessarily in Japanese.
Using your own language to make simple, natural sentences will reinforce the differences in your longterm memory without unnecessary distractions.
If you need more support and guidance, then you can seek help from a course like LinguaLift. LinguaLift is a particularly nice option for those looking to improve their kanji recognition, as it has its own Kanji Academy tool to train you in exactly that. Sign up for a free lesson to see how LinguaLift can get you through kanji lessons in one piece.
20 Similar Kanji Sets and How to Tell Them Apart
In the sections below, we’ll discuss a number of similar kanji pairs/groups you’re likely to encounter, while identifying their distinguishing parts and giving you some useful study hints. The pairs/groups are listed in no particular order. Following the common practice in dictionaries, the readings are given in katakana for on-yomi and hiragana for kun-yomi.
1. 甘 and 廿
This pair brings together a very common character and another one that’s quite rare, but can still be seen here and there. 甘 means “sweet.” 廿 means the number 20; it’s the single-character equivalent of writing 二十, and nowadays it’s used mostly in historical contexts.
甘: カン, あま (い)
廿: ジュウ, にじゅう
甘 has a horizontal stroke in the middle.
Eating twenty (廿) cakes for dessert can be a little too sweet (甘) for you.
2. 井 and 丼
The primary meaning of 井 is “well,” as in, a hole for drawing water from deep in the ground. It’s also part of the common word 天井 (てんじょう: “ceiling”). 丼, while a bit more specific in meaning, is no less common, especially if you’re walking around hungry on a Japanese street while looking for a place to have lunch.
It means “donburi,” a type of deep bowl that is used for hot dishes of rice topped with various other ingredients. This character is used both for the bowl itself and for the dishes that are typically served in it.
井: ショウ, い
丼: ショウ, どんぶり (also appears in the shortened form どん)
丼 has a short dot stroke in the middle. By the way, this stroke is actually the radical of the character!
My donburi (丼) has fallen to the bottom of the well (井).
3. 鳥 and 烏
This is another one of those cases where a small, hard-to-see line can make a difference. 鳥 encompasses anything that goes under the title of “bird.” 烏, on the other hand, only designates a very particular kind of bird: a crow or a raven.
鳥: チョウ, とり
烏: ウ, からす
鳥 has a horizontal stroke in the upper rectangular enclosure.
Big crows (烏) have taken over this tree and scared away all the other birds (鳥).
4. 牛 and 午
Here are two four-legged animals separated by the different length of a single stroke. 牛 refers to cattle, whether female or male (cow, bull, ox, etc.). 午 is mostly seen in the meaning of “noontime,” but also means “horse.”
How so? The period of time that corresponds to noontime was traditionally called the Hour of the Horse. Japanese learners are better off memorizing 午 as “noontime,” which is the most practical and common meaning.
牛: ギュウ, うし
午: ゴ, うま
The vertical stroke in 牛 crosses the top horizontal stroke. In 午 it merges with the horizontal line without going above it.
I usually feed my cow (牛) around noon (午).
5. 陳 and 陣
These characters are among the more easily confused, due to the fact that they not only look very similar, but are also close in one of their meanings. 陳 means “align,” “give a statement” or “old; stale.” 陣 means “array,” “formation” or “encampment.”
As you can see, “align” and “formation” aren’t all that far apart and this makes it necessary to pay close attention to the forms of the characters to avoid confusing them.
陳: チン, の (べる)
陣: ジン, じんだて
The right component of 陳 is 東; the right component of 陣 is 車.
The battle formations (陣) are perfectly aligned (陳) facing each other.
6. 緑 and 縁
These are two very common characters in everyday Japanese. 緑 means “green” or “greenery.” 縁 means “connection” or “edge” and also refers to the traditional veranda around a Japanese house, which is called 縁側 (えんがわ).
緑: リョク, みどり
縁: エン, ふち
The component in the lower right quadrant of each character is different. Take special care with this one, as the two components are themselves quite similar, especially in small print.
I’m sitting on the edge of the veranda (縁) and gazing at the lush green (緑) lawn.
7. 酒 and 洒
The common character 酒 has the broad meaning of “alcoholic beverages.” 洒, a rarer character, means both “rinse” and “refreshing.” Its most common appearance is in the word 洒落 (しゃれ: “witticism” or “stylishness”), but this is actually an ateji, or a kanji spelling associated with a preexisting word.
酒: シュ, さけ
洒: シャ, そそ (ぐ)
酒 has a horizontal stroke inside the square enclosure, parallel to the bottom line.
When you drink alcohol (酒), you’d better rinse (洒) your mouth to feel refreshed (洒).
8. 矢 and 失
矢, “arrow,” and 失, “lose; misplace,” are very similar but are used in quite distinct contexts, so it’s fairly easy to distinguish them. Between the two, 失 is much more common in everyday Japanese.
矢: シ, や
失: シツ, うしな (う)
In 失 the middle vertical stroke (which slants to the left) begins above the top horizontal stroke and crosses it. In 矢 the same central stroke begins precisely on the horizontal stroke.
If you shoot your arrow (矢) too far, you’ll lose (失) sight of it.
9. 挙 and 拳
挙 is one of the series of kanji that have the general meaning of “raise; rise.” One of the common words that include it is 選挙 (せんきょ: “election”). 拳 means “fist,” so the two characters can be readily associated with each other in a mnemonic sentence, as you’ll see below.
挙: キョ, あ (げる)
拳: ケン, こぶし
The uppermost component. In 拳 there are two horizontal lines and the slanting strokes begin above the top line.
The protesters were raising (挙) their fists (拳) while shouting angry chants.
10. 治 and 冶
治 has the general meaning of “oversee; control; rule,” and is a very common character, for example in the word 政治 (せいじ: “politics”). 冶, which means “to cast metals,” is rarer, making it difficult to notice the difference from 治 whenever 冶 does pops up.
治: チ, おさ (める)
冶: ヤ, い (る)
The radical on the left. 治 has the three-stroke water radical, while 冶 has the two-stroke ice radical.
Dictators believe that ruling (治) a country is like casting metals (冶) in whatever shape they want.
11. 旬 and 句
句 means “phrase; verse.” 旬 has two distinct meanings: “season,” as in the peak time when certain foods are produced and consumed, and “a ten-day period.”
句: ク, あ (たる)
旬: シュン, ジュン
The central component, which is 口 in 句 and 日 in 旬.
Every ten days (旬) he comes up with a new phrase (句).
12. 免 and 兔
The common character 免 can mean either “evade” or “allow.” The somewhat less common kanji 兔 means “rabbit.”
免: メン, まぬか (れる)
兔: ト, うさぎ
兔 has an additional dot stroke in the lower right quadrant.
Rabbits (兔) can run fast, so they’re very good at evading (免) their duties.
13. 又 and 叉
These characters not only look almost the same, but also share an identical kun-yomi reading, making them all too easy to confuse with each other.
Despite all that, their meanings are distinct enough. 又 means “again” or “more.” 叉 has the general meaning of “splitting point,” and usually stands for a fork in a road, river, etc. 叉 also means “a crotch in the human body” but 股 is more commonly used.
又: ユウ, また
叉: サ, また
叉 has an additional dot stroke in the middle.
This road just keeps getting more and more (又) confusing; there’s a new fork (叉) every couple of steps.
14. 輪 and 輸
This is about as similar as two different kanji can get. 輪 means “circle; ring; wheel.” 輸 means “to haul; to transport.” The meanings are distinct but not completely unrelated, which isn’t surprising considering that both characters share the vehicle radical (車).
輪: リン, わ
輸: ユ, いた (す)
The bottom component on the right side of each character.
While hauling (輸) goods, the truck’s wheels (輪) suddenly came off.
15. 賃, 貸 and 貨
This group has to be the most pesky triplet of the joyo kanji list, with both forms and meanings being irritatingly similar. 賃 means “to hire; rent; usage fees.” 貸 means “to lend; loan.” Meanwhile, 貨 stands for “goods; valuables.”
賃: チン, やと (う)
貸: タイ, か (す)
貨: カ, たから
The rightmost component in the top (non-radical) part of each character. The other elements—the radical 貝 and the component 亻(meaning 人, “person”)—are shared by all three.
If you can’t pay the rent (賃), you’ll have to lend (貸) me all of your valuables (貨).
16. 科 and 料
科 means “rubric” or “category.” 料 has several different meanings: “fee; charge,” “material” and “measure.”
科: カ, しな
料: リョウ, はか (る)
The radical on the left side of the character. In 科 it’s the grain radical (禾); in 料 it’s the rice radical (米).
This course is in a different category (科), so you’ll have to pay higher fees (料).
17. 延 and 廷
延 means “extend; postpone,” in the transitive as well as the intransitive senses of those verbs. 廷 means “court,” usually in association with a courthouse or a royal court.
延: エン, の (びる), の (ばす)
廷: テイ; にわ
The right (non-radical) component. The enclosing radical is the same in both characters.
The court (廷) has postponed (延) the verdict indefinitely.
18. 態 and 熊
態, meaning “form; manner; appearance,” will be familiar to you from the omnipresent word 状態 (じょうたい: “state; condition”). 熊, on the other hand, is something much more tangible: a bear.
態: タイ, わざ (と)
熊: ユウ, くま
The radical, which in this case is the bottom component of each character. 態 has an abbreviated form of the heart radical (心), while 熊 has an abbreviated form of the fire radical (火).
Some bears (熊) act in an almost human-like manner (態).
19. 逐 and 遂
逐 has the basic meaning of “follow,” but is used most often for a specialized function of “by,” as in 逐日 (ちくじつ: “day by day”) or 逐一 (ちくいち: “one by one”). 遂 is a more common character that means “achieve; accomplish.”
逐: チク, お (う)
遂:すい, と (げる), つい (に)
遂 has two strokes above the horizontal line on the upper right side. In 逐 there’s nothing above that line.
I’m carefully following (逐) the instructions in order to achieve (遂) the goal.
20. 雲 and 曇
Apart from the similar forms, these two kanji have very close meanings, which are also reflected in their kun-yomi readings. 雲 is “cloud.” 曇 is “cloudiness; overcast sky” and you’ll see it a lot in weather-related texts. Is it really necessary to use two separate kanji in this case? Apparently, the Japanese think so!
雲: ウン, くも
曇: ドン, くも (る)
The radical, which is the top component in each character. 雲 uses the rain radical (雨), while 曇 switches to the sun radical (日), which is included as an additional component.
Cloudiness (曇) is like a blanket made of individual clouds (雲).
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Dan Bornstein is the creator, writer and translator of Reajer, a constantly expanding series of bilingual Japanese readers that develop advanced reading skills using real literature.
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