Some of these are so long they may require a friend to help say them.

What exactly is a kanji reading anyway? If you’ve studied Japanese then you know that most kanji have at least two readings: the Chinese reading and the Japanese reading. Take the kanji for “to eat” for instance (食). Its Chinese reading is shoku (which comes from shi in Chinese), and its Japanese reading is taberu (which is how you say “to eat” in Japanese).

But would something like, say, kuchi ni ireru (“to put in your mouth”) be a reading for that kanji? Probably not; that’s just a definition of the kanji, not a reading for it. That’d be like reading the abbreviation “etc.” as “there are other similar things but I’d rather not list them” instead of just “et cetera.”

The reason I’m going into all of this linguistic babble is because separating readings of kanji from definitions of kanji can sometimes be kind of hard. In fact, considering the tens of thousands of kanji in existence, it’s too hard a job for me, and I’ve decided to defer the responsibility to one of the most trusted sources for all things kanji: the Morohashi Daikanwa Jiten, a twelve-plus volume behemoth of a dictionary that contains over 50,000 kanji that we’ve used before on the W.T.F. series.

So with all that out of the way, today we’re counting down the top five kanji with the longest readings. If the Morohashi dictionary says it’s a reading, then we’re going to take their word for it, because they have a heck of a lot more experience working with weird and obscure kanji than we ever will.

So let’s get to it! Starting off with…

Honorable Mention: The urban myths


The way that the Morohashi dictionary “confirms” a reading for a kanji is via the index volume (yes, the index is an entire volume… sometimes more, depending on the edition). If the kanji’s reading is in the “Japanese reading” index, then I say it’s fair game to label it a “reading.”

My library’s 15-volume Morohashi. The third and second volumes from the
right are indexes, and the last one is a supplementary volume for MOAR KANJI!

The beginning of the “Japanese reading” index.
We’ve already got an eight-syllable-long kanji just on the first page!

However, when you search online for “kanji with the longest reading,” there’s a lot of people with other opinions for what counts as  a “reading” out there. Some of them treat “definitions” as “readings” and it all gets mixed up a bit.

But we would be remiss not to at least mention some of the kanji with absurdly long readings that come up in these online conversations, despite them not technically being “readings” by most accounts.

One such mythological kanji is this 17-syllable one: tora ga hito wo
kamou to suru unarigoe (“the growl of a tiger about to bite a person”).

But unfortunately that reading isn’t in the “reading index.” The index’s reading
for this kanji is tora no unarigoe (“growl of a tiger”), only eight syllables.

The mythological reading does show up in the kanji’s definition proper though,
so we classify it as a “definition” instead of a “reading.”

Another kanji discussed in whispers, the 15-syllable: kyuu ni tobidashite hito wo
odorokaseru koe
(“the voice of jumping out suddenly and surprising someone”).

Again, that’s a definition and not a “reading,” but I love how this kanji’s two halves
(“gate” on the left, “person” hiding on the right) come together for its meaning.

And one last thing before we go into jungle-kanji territory, it should go without saying that all of these are extremely rare kanji, and probably no Japanese person you show them to would be able to read them, unless they were some sort of historical kanji otaku.

#5. The ministry of silly walks

All right, so we’re out of the land of kanji tall-tales and back into the super-serious world of the Morohashi readings index.

Although there is one problem: there was a four-way tie between the next kanji on the list, as all of them have 12 syllables. So to divvy them up, I had to do apply a bit of kanji-science.

Let’s take a look at that word for “to eat” again: 食べる. It’s pronounced taberu, but the second and third characters are just phonetic hiragana. The kanji itself at the very beginning is only pronounced ta. So technically this kanji would not be a 3-syllable kanji (taberu), it would only be a 1-styllable kanji (ta),

I applied that same reasoning to the four-way tie. If these kanji were to actually be written out, based on conventions from other kanji, some of them would technically be fewer syllables. So let’s take a look at this first one, which is listed as 12 syllables but if actually written out would probably be only 8 syllables.

This guy’s reading is arukikata ga tadashikunai (“the way of walking is
not correct”). Seems like an accurate representation of that meaning to me.

Going on convention, that tadashikunai part of the reading is usually written like this: 正しくない. The last four characters are just phonetic hiragana, so if this kanji were ever actually written (not that that would probably ever happen, but if it did!), then we’d have to imagine the same thing would happen here, marking it down by four syllables.

So while Morohashi says that this kanji’s reading is 12 syllables long, and we will accept that without question, we will mark it down as the “shortest” of the 12-syllable kanji.

The kanji’s entry in the Japanese reading index.
The kanji’s left half means “roof” and right half means “heron…”

…yup, can’t really imagine a sillier walk than a heron on a roof.
Good job, kanji-creators!

#4. Rocks and fire


While the last kanji on our list got docked by four syllables, these next two only get a small one-syllable loss. They’re still 12-syllables each, but we’ll mark them as just beneath the “pure” 12-syllable ones.

Say hello to ishi wo funde mizu wo wataru
(“step on stones and cross over water”).

The wataru part of that reading is usually written like this: 渡る. The last character there is just phonetic hiragana, so if one were to for some reason have an inkling to actually write this kanji, we’d imagine the same would happen here, technically docking the kanji’s reading by one syllable.

Again, I love this kanji’s composition: “rock” on the left, “water” on the right.
If you’re ever writing about stepping stones in Japanese, please use this!

Next us up is shiba wo taite ten wo matsuru
(“burn firewood and worship heaven/the sky”).

Same reasoning here, the final ru in matsuru would probably be hiragana.
Don’t really get why the top part is “this” and bottom is “indicate” though.

#3. Eternal illness


And now we finally get to the “pure” 12-syllable kanji, the one where – even if you were a crazy person and actually wrote it out – the entire reading would probably be contained in the single kanji.

Ironically enough the “pure” one is this sickly fellow: hisashiku naoranai
(“illness that hasn’t gotten better for a long time”).

Yamai (“illness”), the last part of that kanji’s long reading, is typically just written by itself (病) with no hiragana after it. So we’d have to imagine the same reasoning would be applied here as well, making this one super-dense kanji.

Yet again, these kanji with long readings have some really elegant components
to them: the outer part here means “sickness” and the inner means “hard.”

#2. A satisfyingly disgusting sound


The final two items on our list are also a tie at 13 syllables each. And since both of them would probably have their full readings contained within the single kanji if they were written out, we had to go with a different tie-breaker: alternative readings.

And for one of the 13-syllable kanji, if it were actually read aloud, it might have one syallable dropped, bringing it down to 12 syllables. Let’s take a look at it:

Hone to kawa to ga hanareru oto (“the sound of bone separating from skin”).
That second to isn’t 100-percent necessary, and neither is imagining that sound.

The top half likely means “abundant/plenty” and the bottom means “stone.”
Well, we were bound to run into one that didn’t make sense sooner or later!

And the kanji with the longest reading is…











1. An offering to the kanji gods


Here we are, the kanji with the longest reading according to the Morohashi dictionary. This is the other 13-syllable kanji, but unlike other tie-breakers where we’ve had to dock syllables from kanji, this one could potentially get an extra syllable depending on how it’s read, potentially bringing it up to a whopping 14 syllables.

The king of long kanji: matsuri no sonaemono no kazari
(“decoration on an offering at a festival”).

Here is the kanji’s entry in the reading index, but…

…the definition is a bit different than the reading: matsuri no sonaemono no
(“an offering of food at a festival”). The last word is one syllable longer!

So while we’re still marking this one down as 13 syllables, the extra syllable in the definition gives it the number-one spot as a tie-breaker. In fact, we’ll go ahead and say that if you were ever to actually encounter this kanji, being able to recall either reading would be more than impressive enough.

And not only that, but there’s the fact that the right-side half of this kanji means “bean,” so the reading that refers more specifically to a “food offering” does make sense!

Plus the “bean” definition is also more appropriate for the face
someone would make if they actually used this kanji in writing.

So there you have it, the top five kanji with the longest readings. Are there any kanji with long readings that you struggle to remember? Let us know in the comments and be sure to tell us if they’re more confusing than the top five most confusing Japanese hand gestures.

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W.T.F. Japan will be back next Thursday. In the meantime, give me a follow on Twitter and let me know if there’s any topics you’d like to see covered. See you next week!