In each Kanji Curiosity blog, you’ll find a main line of inquiry. On the right side of the blog, large red links will take you down separate trails. (Hypertext makes it possible to represent linked thoughts in the most satisfying way! After all, what is the Internet but a giant stream of consciousness?)
Whenever I mention some in-depth kanji terminology, I’ll link you to a glossary on my own website, in case you want to know more about ateji, kun-kun combinations, or whatever the concept might be. But I’ll cover some basics here, also letting you in on why I’ve styled text in certain ways.
A yomi is the way to pronounce a character or word in Japanese. There are two general ways of reading many characters—a “Japanese” way (a kun-yomi) and a “Chinese” way (an on-yomi). Kun-yomi correspond to the language spoken in Japan before kanji arrived from China. And on-yomi loosely correspond to the way Chinese people once pronounced the characters. (In both China and Japan, these sounds have evolved over centuries, so on-yomi give us only a rough sense of ancient Chinese pronunciations.)
Let’s look at one example. Mark Spahn’s dictionary presents 砂 (sand) as having four yomi:
SA, SHA, suna, isago
The lowercase italics are my way of telling you that suna and isago are the kun-yomi of 砂 and are very likely old Japanese words. By contrast, the italicized capital letters indicate that SA and SHA are on-yomi.
In Kanji Curiosity, I often present just one on-yomi and one kun-yomi for each character. But that doesn’t mean other yomi don’t exist! Some kanji have scads of yomi, often pronounced as differently as the ones above and sometimes having distinct meanings.
When you see a singleton (my coinage for a kanji standing alone, as in 女, onna: woman), you’ll generally read it by using its kun-yomi. And when two singletons bond to form a compound, you’ll typically read them by using their on-yomi. For instance, take this compound:
金砂（kinsha: gold dust) gold + sand
Here, the on-yomi KIN and SHA have united in the word kinsha. We can write that romanized word with lowercase letters because we’re no longer focused on individual yomi.
By the way, you can also deconstruct singletons. The “sand” character 砂 breaks down as follows:
砂 = 石 (stone) + 少 (a little)
That is, a grain of sand is a little bit of stone! But thinking this way about singletons could also get you into trouble, because all the components (the small bits of a character) contribute meaning to the whole kanji only a quarter of the time. In other cases, one part of the kanji (its phonetic) tells you how to pronounce the whole character. Because it’s hard to know which type of kanji one is dealing with, I prefer to play it safe, enjoying the wonderful, alchemical ways in which characters combine in compounds, turning sand into gold dust.
I often refer to certain authors in shorthand. Here are the full citations: