Sino-Japanese vocabulary

Sino-Japanese vocabulary or kango (Japanese: 漢語, "Han words") refers to that portion of the Japanese vocabulary that originated in Chinese or has been created from elements borrowed from Chinese. Some grammatical structures and sentence patterns can also be identified as Sino-Japanese. Sino-Japanese vocabulary is referred to in Japanese as kango (漢語), meaning 'Chinese words'. Kango is one of three broad categories into which the Japanese vocabulary is divided. The others are native Japanese vocabulary (yamato kotoba) and borrowings from other, mainly Western languages (gairaigo). It is estimated that approximately 60% of the words contained in a modern Japanese dictionary are kango,[1] and they comprise about 18% of words used in speech.[lower-alpha 1]

Kango, the use of Chinese-derived words in Japanese, is to be distinguished from kanbun, which is actual Chinese written by Japanese in Japan. Both kango in modern Japanese and classical kanbun have Sino-xenic linguistic and phonetic elements also found in Korean and Vietnamese: that is, they are "Sino-foreign," not purely Chinese.


China's large territory and advanced culture led Chinese to exert an enormous influence on Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and other East Asian languages throughout history, in a manner somewhat similar the preeminent position that Greek and Latin had in European history. For example, the Middle Chinese word for gunpowder, 火藥 /xwa˧˥jak/,[3] is rendered as hwayak in Korean, and as kayaku in Japanese. At the time of their first contact, the Japanese language had no writing system, while the Chinese had a written language and a great deal of academic information, providing new concepts along with Chinese words to express them. Chinese became the language of science, learning and religion. The earliest written language to be used in Japan was literary Chinese, which has come to be called kanbun in this context. The kanbun writing system essentially required every literate Japanese to be competent in written Chinese, although it is unlikely that many Japanese people were then fluent in spoken Chinese. Chinese pronunciation was approximated in words borrowed from Chinese into Japanese; this Sino-Japanese vocabulary is still an important component of the Japanese language, and may be compared to words of Latin or Greek origin in English.

Chinese borrowings also significantly impacted Japanese phonology, leading to many new developments such as closed syllables (CVC, not just CV) and length becoming a phonetic feature with the development of both long vowels and long consonants. (See Early Middle Japanese: Phonological developments for details.)


Sino-Japanese words are almost exclusively nouns, of which many are verbal nouns or adjectival nouns, meaning that they can act as verbs or adjectives. Verbal nouns can be used as verbs by appending suru (する, "do") (e.g. benkyō suru (勉強する, do studying; study)), while an adjectival noun uses -na (〜な) instead of -no (〜の) (usual for nouns) when acting attributively.

In Japanese, verbs and adjectives (that is, inflecting adjectives) are closed classes, and despite the large number of borrowings from Chinese, virtually none of these became inflecting verbs or adjectives, instead being conjugated periphrastically as above.

In addition to the basic verbal noun + suru form, verbal nouns with a single-character root often experienced sound changes, such as -suru (〜する)-zuru (〜ずる)-jiru (〜じる), as in kinjiru (禁じる, forbid), and some cases where the stem underwent sound change, as in tassuru (達する, reach), from tatsu ().

Sino-Japanese and on'yomi

The term kango is usually identified with on'yomi (音読み?, "sound reading") , a system of pronouncing Chinese characters in a way that at one point approximated the original Chinese. On'yomi is also known as the 'Sino-Japanese reading', and is opposed to kun'yomi (訓読み?, "reading by meaning") under which Chinese characters are assigned to, and read as, native Japanese vocabulary.

However, there are cases where the distinction between on'yomi and kun'yomi does not correspond to etymological origin. Chinese characters created in Japan, called kokuji (国字), normally only have kun'yomi, but some kokuji do have on'yomi. One such character is (as in 働く hataraku, "to work"), which was given the on'yomi (from the on'yomi of its phonetic component, ) when used in compounds with other characters, e.g. in 労働 rōdō ("labor"). Similarly, the character ("gland") has the on'yomi sen (from the on'yomi of its phonetic component, sen "spring, fountain"), e.g. in 扁桃腺 hentōsen "tonsils"; it was intentionally created as a kango and does not have a kun'yomi at all. Although not originating in Chinese, both of these are regarded as 'Sino-Japanese'.

By the same token, that a word is the kun'yomi of a kanji is not a guarantee that the word is native to Japanese. There are a few Japanese words that, although they appear to have originated in borrowings from Chinese, have such a long history in the Japanese language that they are regarded as native and are thus treated as kun'yomi, e.g., uma "horse" and ume. These words are not regarded as belonging to the Sino-Japanese vocabulary.

Words 'made in Japan'

Main article: wasei kango

While much Sino-Japanese vocabulary was borrowed from Chinese, a considerable amount was created by the Japanese themselves as they coined new words using Sino-Japanese forms. These are known as wasei kango (和製漢語, Japanese-created kango); compare to wasei eigo (和製英語, Japanese-created English).

Many Japanese-created kango refer to uniquely Japanese concepts. Examples include daimyō (大名), waka (和歌), haiku (俳句), geisha (芸者), chōnin (町人), matcha (抹茶), sencha (煎茶), washi (和紙), jūdō (柔道), kendō (剣道), Shintō (神道), shōgi (将棋), dōjō (道場), and seppuku (切腹).

Another miscellaneous group of words were coined from Japanese phrases or crossed over from kun'yomi to on'yomi. Examples include henji (返事 meaning 'reply', from native 返り事 kaerigoto 'reply'), rippuku (立腹 'become angry', based on 腹が立つ hara ga tatsu, literally 'stomach stands up'), shukka (出火 'fire starts or breaks out', based on 火が出る hi ga deru), and ninja (忍者 from 忍びの者 shinobi-no-mono meaning 'person of stealth'). In Chinese, the same combinations of characters are often meaningless or have a different meaning. Even a humble expression like gohan (ご飯 or 御飯 'cooked rice') is a pseudo-kango and not found in Chinese. One interesting example that gives itself away as a Japanese coinage is kaisatsu-guchi (改札口 literally 'check ticket gate'), meaning the ticket barrier at a railway station.

More recently, the best-known example is the prolific numbers of kango coined during the Meiji era on the model of Classical Chinese to translate modern concepts imported from the West; when coined to translate a foreign term (rather than simply a new Japanese term), they are known as yakugo (訳語, translated word, equivalent). Often they use corresponding morphemes to the original term, and thus qualify as calques. These words include 科学 kagaku ('science'), 社会 shakai ('society'), 哲学 tetsugaku ('philosophy'), 電話 denwa ('telephone') and a host of other basic words. Despite resistance from some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, many wasei kango were "back-borrowed" into Chinese around the turn of the 20th century. Such words from that time are thoroughly assimilated into the Chinese lexicon, but translations of foreign concepts between the two languages now occur independently of each other.[4] These "back-borrowings" gave rise to Mandarin kēxué (from kagaku), shèhuì (from shakai), zhéxué (from tetsugaku), and diànhuà (from denwa). Since the sources for the wasei kango included ancient Chinese texts as well as contemporary English-Chinese dictionaries, some of the compounds—including 文化 bunka ('culture', Mandarin wénhuà) and 革命 kakumei ('revolution', Mandarin gémìng)—might have been independently coined by Chinese translators, had Japanese writers not coined them first.[5] A similar process of reborrowing occurred in the modern Greek language, which took back words like τηλεγράφημα telegrafíma ('telegram') that were coined in English from Greek roots.[6] Many of these words have also been borrowed into Korean and Vietnamese, forming (a modern Japanese) part of their Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies.

Alongside these translated terms, the foreign word may be directly borrowed as gairaigo. The resulting synonyms have varying use, usually with one or the other being more common. For example, 野球 yakyū and ベースボール bēsubōru both translate as 'baseball', where the yakugo 野球 is more common. By contrast, 庭球 teikyū and テニス tenisu both translate as 'tennis', where the gairaigo テニス is more common. Note that neither of these is a calque – they translate literally as 'field ball' and 'garden ball'. ('Base' is rui, but 塁球 ruikyū is an uncommon term for 'softball', which itself is normally ソフトボール sofutobōru).

Finally, quite a few words appear to be Sino-Japanese but are varied in origin, written with ateji (当て字)— kanji assigned without regard for etymology. In many cases, the characters were chosen only to indicate pronunciation. For example, sewa ('care, concern') is written 世話, using the on'yomi "se" + "wa" ('household/society' + 'talk'); although this word is not Sino-Japanese but a native Japanese word believed to derive from sewashii, meaning 'busy' or 'troublesome'; the written form 世話 is simply an attempt to assign plausible-looking characters pronounced "se" and "wa". Other ateji of this type include 面倒 mendō ('face' + 'fall down' = 'bother, trouble') and 野暮 yabo ('fields' + 'livelihood' = 'uncouth'). (The first gloss after each character roughly translates the kanji; the second is the meaning of the word in Japanese.)

Phonetic correspondences between Modern Chinese and on'yomi

At first glance, the on'yomi of many Sino-Japanese words do not resemble the Modern Standard Chinese pronunciations at all. Firstly, the borrowings occurred in three main waves, with the resulting sounds identified as Go-on (呉音), Kan-on (漢音), and Tō-on (唐音); these were at different periods over several centuries, from different stages in Historical Chinese phonology, and thus source pronunciations differ substantially depending on time and place. Beyond this, there are two main reasons for the divergence between Modern Standard Chinese and Modern Standard Japanese pronunciations of cognate terms:

  1. Most Sino-Japanese words were borrowed in the 5th - 9th centuries AD, from Early Middle Chinese into Old Japanese. Both languages have changed significantly since then, and in different ways. This has resulted in the respective pronunciations becoming more and more divergent over time.
  2. Middle Chinese had a much more complex syllable structure than Old Japanese, as well as many more vowel and consonant differences. Many sounds and sound combinations had to be approximated in the borrowing process, sometimes with significant differences (e.g. final /ŋ/ was represented as /u/ or /i/).

Nonetheless, the correspondences between the two are fairly regular. As a result, Sino-Japanese can be viewed as a (transformed) "snapshot" of an archaic period of the Chinese language, and as a result is very important for comparative linguists as it provides a large amount of evidence for the reconstruction of Middle Chinese.

The following is a rough guide to equivalencies between modern Chinese words and modern Sino-Japanese on'yomi readings.

Unless otherwise noted, in the list below, sounds shown in quotation marks, such as "h" or "g", refer to Hanyu pinyin romanization for Mandarin Chinese and Hepburn romanization for Japanese. Symbols shown within square brackets, such as [ɡ] or [dʒ], indicate IPA transcription.

  1. A major sound-shift has occurred in Mandarin since the time of modern contact with the West. Namely, the sounds written in Pinyin as "g" [k] or "k" [kʰ], when immediately preceding an "i", "y" or "ü" sound, became "j" ([tɕ], similar to English "j") or "q" ([tɕʰ], similar to English "ch"). This change is called palatalization. As a result, Peking (北京) changed to Běijīng, and Chungking (重慶) to Chóngqìng. This shift did not occur in Sino-Japanese. Thus, Mandarin (, 'breath, air, spirit') corresponds to Japanese ki. In some other varieties of Chinese, it is still pronounced as 'ki'. For example, in Southern Min is khì (POJ romanization). This is similar to the way the Latin C, once always pronounced like an English K, became closer to an English CH in Italian words where the C is followed by an E or I, changing centum [kentum] into cento [tʃento].
  2. Old Japanese did not have an "-ng" or [ŋ] syllable ending, which is very common in Chinese. This sound was borrowed as either /i/ or /u/. The combinations /au/ and /eu/ later became "ō" and "yō", respectively, in Japanese. Thus, the Mandarin reading of "Tokyo" (東京; Eastern () Capital ()) is Dōngjīng; this corresponds to Japanese Tōkyō, with sound history for 京 being supposed approximately *kiæŋ -> kyau -> kyō (for comparison: Southern Min (colloquial) is kiaⁿ with a nasal diphthong). Another example is 京城, former name for Seoul, which is Keijō in Japanese and Gyeongseong in Korean (which, did and does have syllables ending in [ŋ]). is read "kei" (*kiæŋ -> kyei -> kei) in this case.
  3. As in the case of , the same character sometimes has multiple readings, e.g. "kyō" (Go-on) vs. "kei" (Kan-on) vs. "kin" (Tō-on). These stem from multiple phases of borrowing, which occurred at different times and from different source dialects and were carried out by different groups of people possibly speaking different dialects of Japanese. This means that the same word may have had different Chinese pronunciations, and even if not, the borrowers may have chosen different strategies to handle unfamiliar sounds. For example, the character 京 seems to have had an approximate pronunciation of /kjæŋ/ at the time of both the Go-on (5th - 6th century AD) and Kan-on (7th - 9th century AD) borrowings; however, the unfamiliar vowel /æ/ was represented by /a/ in the former case and /e/ in the latter. (This may also indicate different source pronunciations of the vowel.) In addition, the unfamiliar final /ŋ/ was represented by /u/ in the former case but /i/ in the latter, agreeing in frontness vs. backness with the main vowel. By the time of the Tō-on borrowing (post-10th century), the pronunciation in Chinese had changed to /kiŋ/, and by this time Japanese had developed a syllable-final "n" /ŋ/; hence it could be borrowed directly as "kin".
  4. The vowels of Chinese sometimes correspond to Sino-Japanese in an apparently haphazard fashion. However, Mandarin "ao" often corresponds to Japanese "ō" (usually derived from earlier Sino-Japanese [au]), and Chinese empty rime [ɨ] (represented in pinyin with a "i") often corresponds to [i] (a different sound, also represented with a "i" in Hepburn) in Japanese.
  5. The distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants ([d] vs. [t] or [b] vs. [p]) has been lost in modern Mandarin and many other varieties of Chinese. The key exception is in Wu dialects (呉語, e.g. Shanghainese). The Shanghainese voiced consonants match the Japanese go-on (呉音) readings nearly perfectly in terms of voicing. For example, 葡萄 (grape) is pronounced "budo" in Shanghainese and "budō" (< "budau") in Japanese (preserving the voiced consonants [b] and [d]), but "pútáo" in Mandarin. Incidentally, the rising tone of the Mandarin syllables may reflect the earlier voiced quality of the initial consonants.
  6. In modern Mandarin, all syllables end either in a vowel or in one of a small number of consonant sounds: "n", "ng", or occasionally "r". However, Middle Chinese, like several modern Chinese dialects (e.g. Yue, Hakka, Min), allowed several other final consonants including [p], [t], [k], and [m], and these are preserved in Sino-Japanese (except for -m, which is replaced by -n, as in 三, san, "three"). However, because Japanese phonology does not allow these consonants to appear at the end of a syllable either, they are usually followed in Sino-Japanese by an additional "i" or "u" vowel, resulting in a second syllable (-tsu or -chi if from -t, -ku or -ki if from -k, and -pu if from -p, although -pu became -fu and then simply -u). As a result, a one-syllable word in Chinese can become two syllables in Sino-Japanese. For example, Mandarin tiě (, 'iron') corresponds to Japanese tetsu (). This is still pronounced with a final [t] in Cantonese: /tʰiːt˧/ (Vietnamese thiết). Another example is Mandarin guó (, 'land'), from Early Middle Chinese /kwək/, corresponding to Japanese koku.
  7. The consonant "f" in Mandarin corresponds to both "h" and "b" in Japanese. Early Middle Chinese had no /f/, but instead had /pj/ or /bj/ (in other reconstructions, /pɥ/ or /bɥ/). Japanese still reflects this ("h" was /p/ in Old Japanese). For example, Mandarin (, Buddha) corresponds to Japanese butsu (); both reflect Early Middle Chinese /bjut/ from a still older form /but/. In modern Southern Min Chinese, this character is still pronounced as [but].
  8. In addition, as in the previous example, Old Japanese /p/ became modern "h". When a Middle Chinese word ended in /p/, this produced further complications in Japanese. For example, Middle Chinese /dʑip/ "ten" (Standard Mandarin "shí", Cantonese /sɐp/) was borrowed as Old Japanese /zipu/. In time this went through a series of changes: /zipu/ > /zihu/ > /ziu/ > /zyū/ > "jū". Note that in some compounds, the word was directly borrowed as /zip-/ > "jip-"; hence "jippun" "ten minutes" (or "juppun", influenced by "jū"), rather than "*jūfun".
  9. More complex is the archaic dento-labial nasal sound: The character (strife, martial arts) was pronounced "mvu" in Late Middle Chinese. The sound is approximated in the Japanese pronunciations "bu" and "mu". However, that sound no longer exists in most modern Chinese dialects, except Southern Min "bú", and the character is pronounced "wǔ" in Mandarin, /mou˩˧/ in Cantonese, "vu" in Hakka, Shanghainese, and Vietnamese.
  10. The modern Mandarin initial "r" usually corresponds to "ny" or "ni" in Japanese. At the time of borrowing, characters such as ('person') and ('day'), which have an initial "r" sound in modern Mandarin, began with a palatal nasal consonant [ɲ] closely approximating French and Italian "gn" and Spanish "ñ". (This distinction is still preserved in some Chinese varieties, such as Hakka and Shanghainese, as well as Vietnamese.) Thus Mandarin Rìběn (日本, Japan) corresponds to Japanese Nippon. This is also why the character , pronounced /ɲin/ in Middle Chinese, is pronounced "nin" in some contexts, as in ningen (人間), and "jin" in others, such as gaijin (外人)— approximating its more modern pronunciation. In Wu dialects, including Shanghainese, ('person') and ('two') are still pronounced "nin" and "ni", respectively. In Southern Min (especially Zhangzhou accent), is "jîn" (literary pronunciation) which is practically identical to Japanese On'yomi.
  11. In Middle Chinese, ('five') and similar characters were pronounced with a velar nasal consonant, "ng" ([ŋ]), as its initial. This is no longer true in modern Mandarin, but it remains the case in other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese (/ŋ̩˩˧/) and Shanghainese. Japanese approximates the Middle Chinese "ng" with "g" or "go"; thus becomes "go". In Southern Min, it is pronounced as 'go' while in Fuzhou dialect it is still pronounced "ngu". In addition, Japanese g is pronounced as [ŋ] anyway when medial.
  12. The Mandarin "hu" sound (as in "huá" or "huī") does not exist in Japanese and is usually omitted, whereas the Mandarin "l" sound becomes "r" in Japanese. Thus, Mandarin Huángbò (黄檗) corresponds to Japanese Ōbaku, and Rúlái (如来) and lamian (拉麵) to Nyorai and ramen respectively.
  13. Mandarin "h", usually from Middle Chinese [x] or [ɣ] will often correspond to "k" or "g" in Japanese. Old Japanese lacked velar fricatives: Modern Japanese [ɨ] is derived from Old Japanese [x], which descended in most cases from a Proto-Japonic */p/. Mandarin "z" will often correspond to Japanese "j"; these are also changes in Chinese. Thus, Mandarin hànzì (漢字) corresponds to Japanese kanji, hànwén (漢文, Chinese written language) to kanbun, and zuìhòu (最後, last) to saigo.

Chart of correspondences



Place Phonation
Voiceless Voiced
Unaspirated Aspirated Obstruent Sonorant
(bilabial · labiodental)
MC 幫・非
[p] · [f]
[pʰ] · [fʰ]
[b̥] · [v̥]
[m] · [ṽ]
Pinyin b · f p · f b,p · f m · w
Go [p][x][ɨ] [b] [m]
Kan [p][x][ɨ] [b] ([m] before an original [ŋ])
Coronal stop
(alveolar · retroflex)
MC 端・知
[t] · [ʈ]
[tʰ] · [ʈʰ]
[d̥] · [ɖ̥]
[n] · [ɳ]
Pinyin d · zh t · ch d,t · zh,ch n · n
Go [t] [d] [n]
Kan [t] [d] ([n] before an original [ŋ])
Lateral MC
Pinyin l
Go [ṽ]
Kan [ṽ]
Coronal sibilant
(alveolar · palatal, retroflex)
(affricate / fricative)
MC 精・照
[ts] · [tɕ, tʂ]
[tsʰ] · [tɕʰ, tʂʰ]
[d̥z̥] · [d̥ʑ̊, d̥ʐ̊]
[ɳ] · [ɕ, ʂ]
[z̥] · [ʑ̊, ʐ̊]
Pinyin z,j · zh c,q · ch z,j,c,q · zh,ch
s,x · sh s,x · sh
Go [ɳ] [z]
Kan [ɳ]
Palatal nasal MC
Pinyin r
Go [n]
Kan [z]
Velar stop MC



Pinyin g,j k,q g,j,k,q w
Go [k] [ɡ]
Kan [k] [ɡ]
Glottal MC

Pinyin (null),y,w y,w
Go (null) or [j] or [w] [j] or [w]
Kan (null) or [j] or [w] [j] or [w]
Velar fricative MC

Pinyin h,x h,x
Go [k] [ɡ] or [w]
Kan [k] [k]


MC Pinyin Go Kan Tō-on in some compounds
/m/ n /mu//ɴ/ /ɴ/
/n/ n /ɴ/
/ŋ/ ng /u/ → see below after /e/, /i/; after other vowels, /u/ → see below /ɴ/ ?? same as not in compound ??
/p/ (null) /pu//ɸu//u/ → see below /Q/
/ɴ/ (null) /ti/ [tɕi] /tu/ [tsu] ?? /Q/
/k/ (null) /ku/ after front vowel, /ki/; after back vowel, /ku/ ?? /Q/

Later developments of diphthongs:



Character Meaning Middle Chinese Pinyin Go-on Kan-on
one ʔjit ichi < *iti itsu < *itu
two nyijH /ɲij³/ èr < */ʐr/ < */ʐi/ ni ji < *zi
three sam sān san
four sijH /sij³/ shi < *si
five nguX /ŋu²/ go
six ljuwk liù roku riku
seven tshit /tsʰit/ shichi < *siti shitsu < *situ
eight pɛt hachi < *pati hatsu < *patu
nine kjuwX /kjuw²/ jiǔ ku kyū < *kiu
ten dzyip /dʑip/ shí jū < *zipu shū < *sipu
north pok běi hoku < *poku
西 west sej sai sei
east tuwng /tuwŋ/ dōng tsu < *tu tō < *tou
capital kjæng /kjæŋ/ jīng kyō < *kyau kei
person nyin /ɲin/ rén nin jin < *zin
sun nyit /ɲit/ nichi < *niti; ni ?? jitsu < *zitu
base, origin pwonX /pwon²/ běn ?? hon < *pon
up dzyangX /dʑaŋ²/, dzyangH /dʑaŋ³/ shàng jō < *zyau shō < *syau
down hæX /ɦæ²,ɣæ²/, hæH /ɦæ³,ɣæ³/ xià ge ka


  1. As measured by the National Institute for Japanese Language in its study of language use in NHK broadcasts from April to June, 1989.[2]


  1. Shibatani, Masayoshi. The Languages of Japan (Section 7.2 "Loan words", p.142), Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-36918-5
  2. 国立国語研究所『テレビ放送の語彙調査I』(平成7年,秀英出版)Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyuujo, "Terebi Hoosoo no Goi Choosa 1" (1995, Shuuei Publishing)
  3. Baxter-Sagart Old Chinese reconstruction, version 1.0, also available at Wiktionary; see also Baxter's transcription for Middle Chinese
  4. Chung, Karen S. (2001). "Chapter 7: Some Returned Loans: Japanese Loanwords in Taiwan Mandarin". In McAuley, T. E. Language change in East Asia. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. pp. 161–163. ISBN 0700713778.
  5. Chung (2001), p. 161.
  6. Chung (2001), p. 162.

Further reading

See also

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