20 Similar-Looking Kanji

I, personally, am a huge fan of kanji (the Chinese characters used in written Japanese). They fascinate me to no end. Their presence makes a sentence more vivid, more interesting and more personal. It brings meaning to life, and gives the sentence visual flow. Each of these seemingly countless glyphs is as mysterious as they are magical, with history and nuance stretching back further in time than the entire English language.

However, I do understand the plight of the Japanese learner (I was once one, too, and in all honesty I still am), and admittedly, unless you’ve studied them for a long time, it can be hard to understand kanji’s beauty and allure.

  • There are too many of them.
  • They’re unnecessary for communication.
  • They’re too hard to write.
  • They have several pronunciations.
  • They have multiple meanings.

All of the above are common complaints made by Japanese language students, and each of them is quite true. But despite their fundamental shortcomings, you can’t learn Japanese without them, you can’t live (well) in Japan without them, and they aren’t going to just magically disappear.

So you need to push and discipline yourself, but once you learn them, you’ll learn to love them.

For this post I’ve collected 10 pairs of kanji that to untrained eyes might look almost or exactly the same. My intent is not to discourage learners by highlighting the difficult points of kanji (though there are certainly difficulties…), but rather to spark an interest in kanji by introducing just how subtle and delicate they can be. Hopefully reading this will also save Japanese learners a mistake or two down the line.

1. 人 vs 入

If all you had to rely on to learn these kanji was printed text, you might think that the difference between these kanji is the little spike at the top; you would be wrong. Computer fonts render the character this way, but the true difference between these kanji is which stroke becomes the smaller, supporting leg. (the numbers indicate the stroke order)

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

2.  千 vs 干

These two kanji highlight not only the difference in stroke direction, but stroke type. The top of 千 is a slash, you lift your writing tool as you end the stroke. The top stroke of 干 is a stop. You stop your brush/pen/pencil completely then lift it and move on to the next stroke. (arrow shows direction of the stroke)

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

3.  土 vs 士

Occasionally in Japanese the length of a stroke can change the meaning. This particular pair are often used as components of more complex kanji and should definitely be learned early, so that you can be conscious of which one is being used as an element in harder kanji (for example: 売る 圧力 志 堅い)

comparision of similar Japanese kanji

4. 未 vs 末

Like #3, this pair is also differentiated only by the comparative length of the strokes.

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

5.  辛 vs 幸

The difference is not quite as subtle as a single stroke direction or stroke length, but keeping this pair straight in your mind (especially when writing) takes some extra effort.

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

6. 比 vs 北

Like #5, the correct reading and meaning is typically easy enough to figure out from context, but be careful when writing.

comparison of similar kanji

7.  綱 vs 網

These two higher level kanji are tricky because the meanings of these two kanji are pretty close.  Exercise caution.

comparison of similar kanji

8. 瓜 vs 爪

The special shape of this kanji can lure you into a false sense of security with your knowledge. Make sure you know that there are two kanji like this, and which one you’re using.

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

9. 微 vs 徴

With high stroke-count kanji, there is a tendency to look just long enough to read it and move on. Remember to review this pair from time to time otherwise you will forget which is which.

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

10. 日 vs 曰

Okay, so 曰 isn’t even a Joyo kanji. But isn’t this amazing? In a nice clean, crisp font you can see a difference, but if handwritten (compare the additional “handwriting” style forms), there is no surefire way to tell them apart without context! Fortunately, 曰 is only used in very high level written Japanese and pretty much always followed by the hiragana く, so I don’t expect that you’ll ever have any problems with their similarity.

comparison of similar Japanese kanji

If there are any look-alike kanji that you find interesting/frustrating/puzzling, please leave a comment!

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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