Homonyms in Japanese

Japanese is rich with homonyms—words that sound the same but have different meanings. It is known as 多義語takigo in Japanese. These homonyms can make the language fascinating yet challenging for learners. This guide will introduce you to common Japanese homonyms, providing examples to illustrate how context determines meaning.

What Are Homonyms?

Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. In Japanese, these words are particularly common due to the limited number of syllables in the language and the extensive use of kanji characters, each with its unique meaning. You would have encountered most of the below homonyms throughout your Japanese classes.

Common Japanese Homonyms

Here is a list of some common Japanese homonyms, along with their meanings and example sentences:

  1. (はし, hashi) vs. (はし, hashi) vs. (はし, hashi)
    • (, hashi) – Bridge
      • Example: 橋を渡る (hashi o wataru) – To cross the bridge
    • (はし, hashi) – Chopsticks
      • Example: 箸で食べる (hashi de taberu) – To eat with chopsticks
    • (はし, hashi) – Edge
      • Example: テーブルの端に置く (tēburu no hashi ni oku) – To place on the edge of the table
  2. (かみ, kami) vs. (かみ, kami) vs. (かみ, kami)
    • (かみ, kami) – God
      • Example: 神社に祈る (jinja ni inoru) – To pray at a shrine
    • (かみ, kami) – Paper
      • Example: 紙を折る (kami o oru) – To fold paper
    • (かみ, kami) – Hair
      • Example: 髪を切る (kami o kiru) – To cut hair
  3. 会う (あう, au) vs. 合う (あう, au) vs. 遭う (あう, au)
    • 会う (あう, au) – To meet
      • Example: 友達に会う (tomodachi ni au) – To meet a friend
    • 合う (あう, au) – To fit/match
      • Example: サイズが合う (saizu ga au) – The size fits
    • 遭う (あう, au) – To encounter (usually something bad)
      • Example: 事故に遭う (jiko ni au) – To encounter an accident
  4. 買う (かう, kau) vs. 飼う (かう, kau)
    • 買う (かう, kau) – To buy
      • Example: 新しい服を買う (atarashii fuku o kau) – To buy new clothes
    • 飼う (かう, kau) – To keep/raise (an animal)
      • Example: 犬を飼う (inu o kau) – To keep a dog
  5. (あめ, ame) vs. (あめ, ame)
    • (あめ, ame) – Rain
      • Example: 雨が降る (ame ga furu) – It rains
    • (あめ, ame) – Candy
      • Example: 飴を舐める (ame o nameru) – To lick a candy
  6. 行く (いく, iku) vs. 逝く (いく, iku)
    • 行く (いく, iku) – To go
      • Example: 学校に行く (gakkou ni iku) – To go to school
    • 逝く (いく, iku) – To die/pass away (a euphemism)
      • Example: 彼は逝った (kare wa itta) – He passed away

How to Distinguish Homonyms

The context of a sentence is crucial in distinguishing between homonyms in Japanese. Here are some tips:

  1. Kanji Characters: When written, the kanji characters provide clear distinctions between homonyms. For example, “橋” (bridge), “箸” (chopsticks), and “端” (edge) are all pronounced “hashi” but have different kanji.
  2. Contextual Clues: The context in which the word is used often clarifies its meaning. For example, if someone says “会う” (au) in a conversation about meeting friends, it’s clear that they mean “to meet.”
  3. Modifiers: Sometimes, additional words or modifiers help specify the meaning. For example, “紙を折る” (to fold paper) versus “髪を切る” (to cut hair).
  4. Sentence Structure: The structure and other elements of a sentence can also provide hints. For instance, “雨が降る” (It rains) and “飴を舐める” (To lick a candy) have different verbs that help determine the meaning.

Homonyms add a layer of complexity and richness to the Japanese language. While they can be challenging for learners, understanding their context and the role of kanji can greatly aid in mastering their usage. Happy learning!