Wait, so it’s the same word but not? When does the madness end??

When I was a naive little student earnestly learning kanji with glee, I remember thinking, “Yeah, now that I learned 「見る」, I now know the kanji for 「みる」!” Ha ha, if Japanese was that easy, I would have spend all that extra time not studying on training to become a professional StarCraft player instead like all the cool Koreans. Actually, what you learn later on is that some words may have more than one kanji with slight differences in meaning such as, “This kanji means that you are feeling blue but this kanji is used when you are feeling blue and you want to sneeze but it just won’t come out. It also implies that your right index finger itches.” Ok, ok, now I’m just trying to be funny… or am I? (Waggles eyebrows) Let’s see by taking a look at some alternative kanji for some common words and when to use them. Hint: It’s when you want to look “cool” and “smart”. (Emphasis on the quotation marks) For example, let’s look at alternatives for 「見る」 (to see) and 「聞く」 (to hear/to ask).

You can see it, my child, yes, but can you see it?

While 「見る」 is fine for just regular “seeing” (whatever that means), you might see 「観る」 instead for when you are watching things such as movies and plays. I have no idea what the exact distinction is but I can tell you that 「観る」 uses the same kanji as the one for 「観光」, which means “sightseeing”. A coincidence? I think not. Actually, I can’t complain about this too much because it’s easier than trying to explain the difference between the words, “to watch” and “to see”. Why don’t we try?

No, you can’t “see television”, you can only watch it. Yes, you can “see a movie”. Huh? Why, you ask? Hmm… I think it’s because native English speakers hate you. Yes, that sounds about right.

Moving on, if a doctor is examining you, you use 「診る」 instead, which uses the same kanji from 「診断」 meaning “diagnosis”.

Ask, hear, eh, what’s the difference?

In Japanese, 「聞く」 can mean either “to ask” or “to hear”. (After all, they are so totally related.) But if you want to be specific, you can use 「訊く」, which only means “to ask” or more accurately, “to inquire”. Also, when you are listening to music, you might use 「聴く」 instead. 「効く」 is also another alternative to mean that something is “taking effect”. It is often used in the context of taking medicine (or rather “drinking” in Japanese).

How do I figure out this madness??

So how do you figure this stuff out? Well, your best bet are Japanese-Japanese dictionaries such as 広辞苑 or 大辞泉. For instance, here is the definition for 「聴く」


2 (聴く)注意して耳にとめる。耳を傾ける。「名曲を―・く」「有権者の声を―・く」

Or better yet, if you use the Windows IME, the kanji selection menu will have explanations of the differences… in Japanese.

IME, the only Microsoft software I know of that doesn't suck (until they build a vacuum).

IME, the only Microsoft software I know of that doesn't suck (until they build a vacuum).

For bonus points, see if you can figure out the difference between:
1. 速い vs 早い
2. 取る vs 撮る vs 盗る
3. 飛ぶ vs 跳ぶ
4. 熱い vs 暑い
5. 彫る vs 掘る
6. 閉める vs 締める vs 占める
7. “Japanese” vs “A tongue invented by the devil to prevent the spread of Christianity”.
8. 止まる vs 停まる vs 泊まる

8 thoughts on “Wait, so it’s the same word but not? When does the madness end??

  1. I always get a kick out of how written Japanese imparts more information than the spoken language, and maybe even more than a typical passage in a Western language. Cool article!

  2. I’d just like to comment on the “ime – only MSsoftware that doesn’t suck.” thing. It actually kind of does, but no more or less than most. I recently had a chance to check out ATOK 2006, and it pretty much kicked ass. Google it up and check it out. And for kicks, see if you can type 聯絡 (れんらく) on your ime.

    If you like, figure out the difference between it and 連絡.

    Ooo, and how about 止まる and 泊まる?

    Fun times.

  3. By “not suck”, I was thinking more along the lines of “free”, “easy to use” and “doesn’t crash”. If it had support for Osaka-ben, I would upgrade that to pretty neat.

    I heard atok was pretty good but somehow I just can’t convince myself that it’s worth paying $50-$60 dollars.

    Of course, there’s also 留まる and 停まる too.

  4. I syndicated your rss feed to livejournal as tae_kim. However, I’m having some encoding issues.

    The default page encoding is UTF-8 both on my home computer and on my work computer. At home, the Japanese characters all show up as western letters with diacritics. Shift-JIS encoding gives me what looks like non-simplified Chinese characters to my untrained eye – they’re not the correct characters, at the very least.

    At work, all but your most recent post display correctly in UTF-8, but the most recent post displays the same incorrect way as they all do at home, with diacritic vowels. Here‘s Livejournal’s copy of the post that’s not working for me.

    Any idea what’s going on?

  5. Haha, this was probably one of the first things I noticed wheen starting to read kanji. But now, I’ve gotten used to all the madness of what the kanji does.

  6. Thanks for that post. Kanji is a powerful tool when you start to learn this type of thing. Another example I am familar with is 斬る which is to cut someone with a sword. This also means we need to be careful not to press the spacebar too many times when typing a word.

  7. Actually, ATOK does support Osaka-ben, as well as quite a few other dialects.

    These are all examples of 異字同訓. They can be a pain in the ass, but are useful once you figure out the differences. 収まる・治まる・修まる・修まる
    If you study for the Kanji Kentei you will be forced to learn the difference. There is actually an official chart called the 「異字同訓」の漢字の用法 (produced in 1973) illustrating when to use which Kanji, or even just to write in kana.

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