Photo:-あゆみ-魑魅魍魎 on Wikimedia Commons

The 5 Most Difficult Japanese Kanji

There are some super difficult kanji out there. I know that learning kanji can seem daunting at first, but after a few years one can learn the 1600–2000 main kanji needed for fluency. Beyond those kanji though, there are 4000+ more kanji that even the average Japanese native might not either know how to write or even be able to read. There’s a whole multi-tiered test, the Kanji Kentei, dedicated to knowledge and mastery of kanji. The highest level is 1級 (1-kyuu) and at this level one would need to know 6000 characters and their various readings and meanings to pass. Below, I’ve listed five really difficult kanji from the top four tiers of the Kanji Kentei (1-kyuu, jyun-1-kyuu, 2-kyuu, and jyun-2-kyuu) to give an idea of how awesome and difficult these characters are.


When learning kanji or trying to decipher their meaning by their parts. For example, one might not know how to read the word 吠える put from the parts mouth (口) and dog (犬) we can infer the meaning "bark", in this case the verb to bark. Looking at the kanji above (and the ones below) this method doesn't really help. What I see is a variation of rain (雨), ball (玉), and maybe no/not (不), so it's not raining on the ball? Nope, this character is read as "ji" and refers to the emperor's seal in words like 璽書 (a document with the emperor's seal) or 璽符 (imperial seal).


Photo by Mike Cohen on Flickr

This is a character I actually see sometimes, but writing it is something else. All the other kanji on this list can kind of be separated by their parts, but to me this one is kind of weird. Tree (木), can (缶), ... and then some other stuff. This character is read as "utsu" and means gloom, meloncholy, and luxuriant. Words including this character include 鬱陶しい (gloomy mood or cloudy weather), 鬱病 (depression), and 鬱金 (turmeric spice). I don’t like this kanji because the balance is off, but since it represents sadness I guess it's appropriate.


Photo by Martin Pettitt on Flickr

For the parts, there are two shellfish (貝), a bird (鳥), and a woman (女). Usually, words with the bird kanji in them indicate the type of bird, so I would guess some kind of seagull? Wrong! This character, pronounced as "ou", is for parrots and parakeets used in words like 鸚鵡 (Parrot or cockatoo), 鸚鵡貝(Nautilus), and 鸚鵡返し (parroting back). The kanji also generally refers to birds that can mimic human speech.


I have two characters from the hardest kanji test. The first, 30 strokes and the second longest stroke number in the hardest test, is made of string (糸), say (言), and bird (鳥), but there’s no guessing this one. This character is pronounced as "ran" or luan in Chinese and is for a heavenly mythical bird and also refers to the bells attached to the chariot of angels (hence the string and bird "speaking"). This kanji is in words such as 鸞輿 (imperial conveyance) and 鸞鏡 (a mirror with the mythical bird carved on the back).

The last entry on this list is not an emperor’s seal, a chambered nautilus, or a mythic bird. This character, read as san, sen, or kashi, just refers to cooking rice (爨ぐ). The simpler kanji 炊 is used in place of this one, but personally I like the balance between the two trees (木) and flame (火) better, even if it is 29 stokes long.

To paraphrase a character in a Japanese drama I like, there’s a mysterious power in characters. Take the 火 meaning flame and add more flame, 炎, and now there’s a raging inferno, but sprinkle some water and now you have 淡 (fresh water). Learning kanji, from the simplest (一) to the hardest (鸞) we come to more deeply understand and appreciate the Japanese language along with our own native language and via those characters we tap into that mysterious power of human language and spirit.

READ MORE : 10 Useful Kanji For Everyday Life

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