Introduction to Japanese:
Lesson 5

By CarlKenner

Audio course:



Japan is "nihon". It litterally means "sun origin" or "sun root", or more poetically "land of the rising sun". It’s called that because it is in the far East, where the sun rises. In Japanese "sun origin" becomes "Nihon". You will also sometimes hear "nippon" instead of "nihon", it means the same thing.

How would you say "it is sushi from Japan"?

It is sushi from Japan.

Answer: Nihon kara sushi desu.
Not correct. Please try again.

You can write "sun" in the Hiragana alphabet, using the letter "ni" that you just learnt.

But much more commonly you will write it using chinese characters, also known as kanji. Chinese characters tell you the MEANING instead of the pronounciation. Japanese uses Kanji a lot, partly because so many Japanese words have the same pronounciation but different meanings. Kara can mean "empty" or "from". Ni can mean "sun" or "for". Unlike Chinese which uses a hundred thousand characters, Japanese has a law that says only 2000 chinese characters can be used in Japanese. Don’t worry, most of those characters are combinations of other characters, and you only need to know the most common characters.

But some Chinese characters are just pictures. The Chinese character for "sun" used to be a round circle with a dot in the middle. But in the Han dynasty all the chinese characters were made square or rectangular to fit into square boxes.

sun: 日

"Sun" now looks like a tall rectangle with a horizontal line dividing it across the middle.

If you change it to two horizontal lines across the rectangle, then it is the chinese character for "eye" instead.

eye: 目

"Eye" looks a picture of an eye in the Japanese Anime style.

The chinese character for person looks like a stick figure of a person, but with no arms and no legs.

person: 人

It is just two curved strokes. It means person.

If you draw the same person running forwards (to the right) with their hair streaming back to the left as they run,

enter: 入

then it becomes the character for "going in" or "entering".

But if you draw a picture of a person with their arms outstretched as though they were saying "I caught a fish this big!",

big: 大

then it is the chinese character for "big".

If you draw a picture of a person with their legs together, and their arms hanging by their sides trying to be small,

small: 小

then it is the Kanji for small.

If you draw a person being big, but with a drop of fat dripping down between their legs,

fat: 太

then it is the character for "fat".

A character that looks like "big" but with a line down the middle,

tree: 木

is actually a picture of a tree, and means "tree". It is supposed to show the tree’s shape. It’s not quite the same as "big" with a line down the middle, because the sides of the trunk start lower down, they start from the horizontal line, instead of from the top.

The character for "root" or "roots" is the same as the character for tree, but with a horizontal line crossing the bottom part of the tree to indicate the roots.

roots: 本

The opposite of the "roots" is the "tip". The character for "tip" or "end" is the same as the character for "roots" but instead of drawing a line across the bottom part of the tree, you make the top part of the tree above the branches taller, and then draw a line across the top of the tree!

tip: 末

Unlike the short line for "roots", it has to be a big wide line that stretches all the way across, wider than the branches. Then it means "tip" or "end".

If you draw the line for "tip" shorter than the branches instead of longer like it should be, then it completely changes the meaning and becomes a different character.

immature: 未

The short line becomes a line that you draw above the tree to show how tall the tree should be. The tree is immature, so the branches of the tree are NOT YET tall enough to reach that line, so this kanji means "immature", or "not yet".

You can also combine Kanji together to make a new Kanji character.

How do you write the Kanji for tree?


Answer: 木
Not correct. Please try again.

If you draw two trees side by side,

woods: 林

then it means "woods". If you add another tree on top to make 3 trees,

forrest: 森

then it means forrest.

When you combine Kanji together then you need to squish them so they fit in a square box. The trees get squished a bit to fit in the woods. When you squish the character for person, the left leg gets really short, and the right leg gets long and straight, so it looks quite different and is hard to recognise unless you know how it looks squashed.

If you draw a person on the left, leaning against a tree on the right,

rest: 休

then you get the character for "rest" or "holiday", because it is a person resting against a tree.

Be careful not to draw a person leaning against the character for "roots" instead. Person + roots means something completely different.

body: 体

It means the root of a person, which is their body. So that would be the character for "body" instead.

How do you write the Kanji for sun?


Answer: 日
Not correct. Please try again.

If you draw the sun, rising behind a tree,

east: 東

then you get the character for "East", because in the East the sun rises behind the trees. To draw it right, you need to draw the sun under the branches, and then draw the sides of the trunk directly under the sun.