This post provides a comprehensive list of similar-looking Japanese kanjis with very different meanings, such as 大 (big)/犬 (dog); 人 (person)/入 (enter); and 木 (tree)/本 (book). For each group, there is one example sentence which uses all the similar-looking kanjis simultaneously.
大 (big)/太 (fat)/犬 (dog)
- 大 means “big” and reads “おお/だい”, e.g. 大きい (おおきい, “big”); 最大 (さいだい, “maximum”)
- 太 means “fat” and read “ふと”, e.g. 太い (ふとい, “fat”); 太麺 (ふとめん, “thick noodles”)
- 犬 means “dog” and read “いぬ/けん”, e.g. 飼い犬 (かいいぬ, “a pet dog”); 野犬 (やけん, “a wild dog”)
a big fat dog
人 (person)/入 (enter)
- 人 means “person” and reads “ひと/にん/じん”, e.g. 人前 (ひとまえ, in front of people); 人形 (にんぎょう, doll); 日本人 (にほんじん, Japanese people); 人生 (じんせい, one’s life); 人口 (じんこう, population). It is used as a counter for people like ３人 (さんにん, three persons).
- 入 means “enter” and reads “はい/にゅう”, e.g. 入る (はいる, enter); 入国 (にゅうこく, to enter a country).
Before entering a toilet cubicle, make sure no one is there.
- 矢 means “arrow” and reads “や”, e.g. 弓矢 (ゆみや, “a bow and arrow”)
- 失 means “lose/failure” and reads “うしな/しつ/しっ”, e.g. 失う (うしなう, “lose things/people”), 失恋 (しつれん, “break up/get rejected in romance”), 失敗 (しっぱい, “failure”).
I tried making a bow and arrow and failed.
木 (tree)/本 (book)
- 木 means “tree” and reads “き/もく”, e.g. 大きな木 (おおきな き, a big tree); 木材 (もくざい, wood). 木 is also used as an abbreviation for 木曜日 (もくようび, “Thursday”).
- 本 means “book” and reads “ほん”, e.g. 絵本 (えほん, picture book); 本棚 (ほんだな, bookshelf). It also means “root/fundamental”; 基本 (きほん, basic), 本来 (ほんらい, originally)
read a book under a tree
水 (water)/氷 (ice)
- 水 means “water” and reads “みず/すい”, e.g. 水 (みず, water); 水中 (すいちゅう, under water). 水 is also used as an abbreviation for 水曜日 (すいようび, “Wednesday”).
- 氷 means “ice” and read “こおり/ひょう”, e.g. 氷 (こおり, ice); 氷山 (ひょうざん, iceberg). 氷山の一角 (ひょうざん の いっかく, “the tip of the iceberg”) is a common phrase in Japanese, too.
氷(こおり)の入(はい)った水(みず); 氷水 (こおりみず)
water with ice
休 (rest)/体 (body)
- 休 means “break/rest” and reads “やす/きゅう”, e.g. 休む (やすむ, take a rest); 休日 (きゅうじつ, holiday/off day); 休暇 (きゅうか, vacation)
- 体 means “body” and means “からだ/たい”, e.g. 体 (からだ, body); 体内 (たいない, inside a body).
持 (have)/待 (wait)/侍 (samurai)
- 持 means “have/hold” and reads “も/じ”, e.g. 持つ (もつ, have); 支持 (しじ, support)
- 待 means “wait” and reads “ま/たい”, e.g. 待つ (まつ, wait); 待望 (たいぼう, long-awaited)
- 侍 means and reads “samurai (さむらい: warriors in premodern Japan)”.
wait for a samurai who has a sword.
王 (king)/玉 (ball)
- 王 means “king” and reads (おう), e.g. 王様 (おうさま, king)
- 玉 means “ball” and reads “たま/だま”, e.g. シャボン玉 (しゃぼんだま, soap bubble); 玉ねぎ (たまねぎ, onion)
- 王子 (おうじ, prince) and 玉子 (たまご, an egg for food) are one of the most similar-looking kanji words with very different meanings.
Play kendama with the king. (* Kendama is a traditional Japanese skill toy with a ball attached.)
井 and 丼
- 井 means “a well” and reads “い”, e.g. 井戸 (いど, “a well”). It’s used in many Japanese surnames, including 井上(いのうえ), 井口 (いぐち), and 井川 (いがわ). It also reads “じょう”, but only in the word 天井 (てんじょう, “a ceiling”); according to one theory, 井 illustrates the cross shape of dowels used in a ceiling (and hence has nothing to do with the original sense of 井).
- 丼 means “rice bowl” and reads “どん”, e.g. 牛丼 (ぎゅうどん, “beef rice bowl”), 天丼 (てんどん, “temupura rice bowl”)
井戸水 (いどみず)で牛丼 (ぎゅうどん)のタレを作ったら、とても美味しかった。
I cooked sauce for a beef rice bowl using well water, and it tasted very good.
内 (inside)/肉 (meat)
- 内 means “in/inside” and reads “うち/ない”, e.g. 内と外 (うちとそと, inside and outside/in-groups and out-groups); 室内 (しつない, indoors)
- 肉 means “meat” and reads “にく”, e.g. 牛肉 (ぎゅうにく, cow meat/beef), 豚肉 (ぶたにく, pig meat/pork)
名 (name)/各 (each)
- 名 means “name” and reads “な/めい”, e.g. 名前 (なまえ, name); 署名 (しょめい, signature). It also means “fame/honour”, e.g. 有名 (ゆうめい, famous); 名誉 (めいよ, honour).
- 各 means “each” and reads “かく”, e.g. 各自 (かくじ, each one of you/yourself). It is often combined with a noun, like 各チーム (かくちーむ, each team), 各店舗 (かくてんぽ, each shop).
remember the names of each student.
崇 (revere) and 祟 (divine punishment)
- 崇 means “revere/worship” and reads “すう”, e.g. 崇拝する (すうはいする, revere/worship)
* 崇 (or 崇史) also reads “Takashi“, a common Japanese name (there are also a lot of other kanjis for it, such as 隆). In fact, my name is Takashi and written as 崇史 in kanji. So please don’t confuse it with the following kanji 祟, which has a very bad meaning!
- 祟 is a very rare kanji and used in the word 祟り (たたり) meaning “divine punishment/curse”.
If you wrongly write 崇 in 崇史 (Takashi) as 祟, it’s very rude so be careful.
挙 (raise/select/list) and 拳 (fist)
- 挙 means “raise/select/list” and reads “あ/きょ”, e.g. 挙(あ)げる (lift/list/raise) and 挙手 (きょしゅ, raise a hand)
- 拳 means “a fist” and read “こぶし/けん”, e.g. 拳 (こぶし, fist) and 酔拳 (すいけん, drunken boxing/fist)
(Trivia) These kanjis are so confusing that they were typoed in the world history exam question of 共通テスト (The Common Test for University Admissions) in 2023, which was taken by about 0.5M students in Japan — in the world history exam, 科挙 (かきょ; 科舉 in traditional Chinese), the civil-service exam system in Imperial China, was misspelt as 科拳.
When you raise your hand, please don’t make a fist and open your palm.
雲 (cloud)/雪 (snow)/雷 (thunder)
- 雲 means “cloud” and reads “くも/うん”, e.g. 積乱雲 (せきらんうん, cumulonimbus)
- 雪 means “snow” and reads “ゆき/せつ”, e.g. 大雪 (おおゆき, heavy snow); 積雪 (せきせつ, accumulated snow)
- 雷 means “cloud” and reads “かみなり/らい”, e.g. 避雷針 (ひらいしん, lightning rod; literally “avoid thunder rod”)
After it snowed, the clouds got dark and it started thundering.
門 (gate)/問 (question)/間 (during)/聞 (hear)/開(open)/閉(close)
- 門 means “gate” and reads “もん”, e.g. 門 (もん, gate).
- 問 means “question” and reads “とい/もん”, e.g. 問１ (といいち, Question No. 1); 問題 (もんだい, question/problem).
- 間 means “during/between/for” and reads “あいだ/かん/ま”, e.g. 間隔 (かんかく, interval/distance); 昼間 (ひるま, during a day). It is often combined with words that describe the length of time, like ３日間 (みっかかん, for three days), ２時間 (にじかん, for two hours).
- 聞 means “listen/hear” and reads “き/ぶん”, e.g. 聞く (きく, listen/hear); 伝聞 (でんぶん, hearsay)
- 開 means “open/start” and reads “あ/かい”, e.g. 開く(あく, open) and 開始 (かいし, start).
- 閉 means “close/end” and reads “し/かい”, e.g. 閉まる(しまる, close) and 閉店 (へいてん, a shop is closed)
While I was reading the question, I heard the gate being opened and then closed quickly.
凸 (とつ) and 凹 (おう) mean “protruded” and “dented” (as shown in the kanjis) See the following post for details:
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