Lessons learned from 「本当」

Hi, it’s me again with (hopefully) another great post breaking down the intricacies of the hardest language on the planet (pats myself on back). This time we are going to take a deeper look at a word that probably every hard-core anime fan is already familiar with: 「本当」.

本当?!That’s 超 Awesome!! ← (Don’t ever talk like this)

Calm down. This is not a Japanese anime lesson like, for instance “Reiko-chan’s site“, a site so cool it makes me want to cry. Instead, I’m going to look at how the individuals characters 「本」 and 「当」 are used in ways you may not be aware of. You’ll see that these characters are used quite often in Japanese that is slightly more mature than Sailor Moon.

It’s the real stuff

「本」 is so useful that it’s probably one of the first characters everybody learns. You probably already know that it means, “book” by itself and is also part of the word for “Japan” (日本). You may even know that it’s a counter for bottles, something you’ll need to know if you’re a drunkard salaryman like me.

But did you know that 「本」 also means, “the real thing”? In fact, the word 「本物」 means exactly that as it uses 「本」 with 「物」, the character for object. Other examples include words such as: 本日、本人、本来、本場、本番、本音、本格的、本気、本名. The 「本」 in all these words act like a prefix indicating that it’s the genuine thing.

Let’s take a closer look at 「本日」 and 「本人」 and the role 「本」 plays in each word.


「本日」(ほんじつ) essentially means “today”, but why have another word for “today” when you already have 「今日」? The only difference, as you can see, is the use of 「本」 instead of 「今」. In other words, as opposed to the present day, 「本日」 means, “the real day” (the only “real day” being the current one).

– Thanks for coming today.

– I would like to thank everybody for coming today.

The only real, practical difference between 「今日」 and 「本日」 is that 「本日」 sounds more official, similar to the difference between saying, “at this point in time” versus saying just “now”. While the practical difference is a bit unrelated, knowing the precise difference between the kanji will help you get a feel for where this difference comes from.


「本人」(ほんにん) is a very useful word mainly because Japanese doesn’t have any pronouns. While you can say 「自分」 for oneself, you don’t have the equivalent for himself or herself. So if you wanted to say, “Talk to the man, himself”, 「本人」 is a handy way to easily refer to the real person in question. Here’s a quick example.

– When is Tanaka-san getting married?

– How about asking the actual person, himself?

In addition, expect to see this word used often in applications such as for visas or passports that need to describe what the applicant, herself, must do.

– When getting the passport, the applicant, herself, must come to the window.

This meaning of “genuine” is related to the original meaning of “root” (hence the tree character (木) with a line across the bottom of the tree). Also derived from the same meaning, 「本」 can be used to mean “main”. Examples of this usage include words like: 本体、本館、本社、本州、本文.

It’s the stuff in question

The second character 「当」 is just as useful as 「本」 and almost as common. The character by itself describes when something hits its target. For instance, the verb 「当たる」 is used to describe winning a raffle because you were successfully targeted from the random selection. The 「当」 character is similarly used in a variety of kanji compounds to describe the targeted time or location. This is very useful for talking about the time or location in question by using words such as: 当月、当日、当時、当社、当店、該当. Here’s a simple example.

-This ticket is only valid on the day of purchase.

In the example above, you could have simply described the day that the ticket was bought by saying something like 「買った日」 but it’s not as concise or as professional-sounding as 「発売当日」.

This type of usage is very useful because no matter what the actual time is, it refers only to the time in question. That means that if it’s understood by the context, you don’t have to go through the pain of describing exactly which time that is. Here’s another example.

-At that time, I didn’t have a driver’s license so I couldn’t go anywhere.

Here’s another example using a location instead of time.

-We do not handle products that are sold with hidden names at our stores.

「この店」 would also make sense in this sentence but since there may be more than one store and you’re not specifying a store at a specific location, 「当店」 is used to refer vaguely to the store in question.


We took at look at the kanji making up 「本当」, their real meanings, and how they are used in a variety of words. I hope this will help you easily understand a whole slew of new words that use the same kanji. Getting a true sense of what each individual kanji means in this fashion often gives you important clues and mnemonics for learning new words, which is one of the great benefits of using kanji.

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

The subtler points of 「以」

」 (not to be confused with 「」)is a very useful character used in all sorts of words that compare time, space, or objects such as 以来、以降、以上、以下、以外、以内、以後、and 以前 . In all these words, the 「以」 essentially means “besides” and the second character indicates what to compare.

For instance, 「以外」(いがい) uses the 「外」 character for outside so it is describing anything outside of the thing we are comparing to.

– Is there person going, outside of Tanaka-san? (Is anybody going besides Tanaka-san?)

Notice how there is no particle between 「田中さん」 and 「以外」. While it is possible to insert 「の」 in between, in practice, it is more natural to directly attach the word to the end of the noun that is being compared. This applies to all the 「以」 words given above.

「以」 is an inclusive comparator

I think it’s important to mention that 「以」 means “besides [x]”, therefore, the thing that is being compared to ([x] in this case) is included in the comparison. For example, if we say 「三つ以上」, this means “three or more” and not “more than three”. Or when we say, 「明日以降」 this means “tomorrow or afterwards” not “after tomorrow”.

– Please select 2 or more cards.

In English, words for comparisons such as “more” and “less” implicitly exclude the thing that is being compared. People who are used to the English way of doing things need to make sure whether they need to do a little adding or subtracting before using any of the words covered here. For instance, if I wanted to say, “less than three”, I might change this to 「二つ以下」 or use some other expression such as 「未満」. Unfortunately, these comparators are not really systematic and it becomes a matter of learning vocabulary and learning when to use them based on practice.

– Children under 10 cannot go on the ride.

Here are other ways you might want to say “more than” and “less than“. Unfortunately, you can already see an inaccurate translation of 「以上」.

Sometimes, it might not be necessary to be that picky, but you should be aware of the difference for the times when it really does matter.

Finally, to prove I’m not lying, here is a similar page that explains the difference from a Japanese point of view.

The hardest kanji I know

This is a short post just for fun. Here are some of the hardest kanji I’ve run into over my years studying Japanese. If you learn these words, you can be confident in the knowledge that you’ve already tackled the hardest kanji (that I can think of).

躊躇(ちゅう・ちょ) – hesitation

朦朧(もう・ろう) – dim, hazy

憂鬱(ゆう・うつ) – depression

瀟洒(しょう・しゃ) – elegant; trim

The most difficult kanji is 「鬱」 with a total of 29 strokes. With a sufficiently small font size, it just looks like a black scribbly thing.

And here is my vote for the sneakiest kanji ever.

曰く(いわ・く) – to say

Fun stuff.

Kanji with different readings

There are a number of words that have more than one reading in Japanese. Sometimes, as shown by this webpage, it’s a matter of the reading changing over time. For example, I read somewhere that 「世論」 is supposed to be read as 「よろん」 but so many people misread it as 「せろん」 that it eventually emerged as an alternative reading. For words like this, choosing a reading is merely a matter of preference and depends on the popularity of the reading since the meaning is the same. However, some words have different readings and different meanings to go with them. We’ll look at two that I can think of right now (「頭」 and 「家」) and how you would identify the correct reading.

-I want to go home because my head hurts.

-In his house, there are 3 children, 14 being the oldest.

In the first sentence, 「頭」 is talking about the speaker’s head (the thing on your neck) and so we should read it as 「あたま」. However, in the second sentence, we are talking about the 14 year-old being at the head of the rest of the children. When we are using 「頭」 to mean “head” as in “chief”, or “the first”, we read it as 「かしら」. Amazingly, the English word for “head” also contains both meanings (though we don’t change the reading).

Finally, 「家」 can have two readings depending on whether the speaker is talking about his or her home or just a generic house owned by anybody. Your own home is read as 「うち」 which probably has something to do with 「内」(うち) meaning inside. The reading for a generic house is 「いえ」 (not to be confused with 「いいえ」).

So in order to figure out when to use which reading, 1) learn the difference in meaning, and then 2) look at the context of the sentence. So can you identify the correct readings for 「家」 in the examples sentences?

Katakana words with kanji

A small number of katakana words have kanji associated with them despite the fact that they come from a language that has never used Chinese characters. This use of kanji is called 当て字 where the reading or meaning of kanji is forced onto a word that originally didn’t have any. These words hark back to the days before katakana become the common script for foreign words and some of them come directly from Chinese like 「珈琲」. You can still see many of these 当て字 being used today such as street signs so learning them is not a waste of time.

Examples of 当て字
English Katakana Kanji
Cigarettes タバコ 煙草
Club クラブ 倶楽部
Page ページ
Coffee コーヒー 珈琲

You can see more examples of foreign words in kanji at this page.

Kanji for Countries
Many country names also have 当て字 associated with them that are rarely used. However, in newspaper headlines, the first character of the 当て字 is often used in an effort to conserve space. For instance, newspapers use words like 「訪米(ほうべい)」 for visiting the United States or 「日韓(にっかん)」 for news related to Japan and Korea. Here is a short list of the most common
country abbreviations and their full kanji versions.

Country Abbreviations
Katakana Kanji Abbreviation
n/a 日本 日(にち)
n/a 中国 中(ちゅう)
n/a 韓国 韓(かん)
n/a 北朝鮮 朝(ちょう)
アメリカ 亜米利加 米(べい)
イギリス 英吉利 英(えい)
イタリア 伊太利亜 伊(い)
ドイツ 独逸 独(どく)
スペイン 西班牙 西(せい)