Recognizing Kanji: The Building Blocks of Language and a Good Meal

What’s the difference between a takoyaki and a taiyaki? What about teriyaki? And have you ever even heard of teppanyaki?

For non-native speakers learning Japanese, it can be hard to distinguish between words at first. It gets easier with time, but in the beginning, the second noun starting with shu sounds an awful like the first one you learned. Sometimes these sound similarities are a coincidence, but sometimes, they’re because both words contain the same kanji. This can make them harder to distinguish, but also gives a hint that the words are related. This is true in the case of all of the above –yaki words.

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Takoyaki

Yaki as a suffix comes from the verb for baking or grilling, 焼く (yaku). It becomes 焼き (yaki) when added onto a noun. That should already tell you what all the words using it have in common—they’re all types of grilled food. Takoyaki (たこ焼き ) is often described as grilled octopus balls, but without seeing them, you wouldn’t really know what that means! They’re little balls of savory dough with a piece of octopus tentacle inside each one. Tako means octopus, and because they’re cooked on a specialized griddle, they earn the suffix –yaki.

Taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste or something similar. Again, tai is the kind of fish it’s modeled after, and -yaki comes from the way it’s cooked. There are many foods that are named similarly, such as okonomiyaki and monjayaki – both different types of grilled savory pancakes. And even though yaki is used as a prefix in the case of yakisoba, it still clearly describes a grilled noodle dish. Teriyaki and teppanyaki are more general terms describing the flavor and cooking method of dishes that are prepared on a flat grill. They’re all connected!

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Yakisoba being cooked teppanyaki style

For another example, take 食 (tabe). Since 食べる (taberu) means “to eat,” you know 食 has something to do with food. If you also recognize the kanji for morning, noon, and evening, even if you’re seeing them for the first time, you will be able to understand the following words:

  • 朝食 (choushoku, breakfast)
  • 昼食 (chuushoku, lunch)
  • 夕食 (yuushoku, dinner)

And later, when you learn the kanji for “hall,” you’ll immediately know how to write “cafeteria,” 食堂 (shokudou). From then on, you’ll be on your way to recognizing even more food-related Japanese words in no time.

There are other words that came to be in similar ways. Take nabe, for instance. When a word has nabe in it, it usually means some type of boiled or stewed dish. There are exceptions, of course: don’t go to Minabe, Japan and expect a city of hot pot!

The real benefit of noticing patterns like this is that it applies to more than just food. The Japanese language is built on kanji, which act like building blocks inside words. Once you know that flower shop is hanaya and bookstore is honya, you can guess that a bakery is panya. The connection between them is obscured in English, but becomes clear via a shared suffix in Japanese.

As you pay attention to these patterns, it becomes easier to guess the meaning of a word and remember it. Once you learn the kanji for the repeated suffix or prefix, you can even read words you’ve never heard before. The path to fluency isn’t memorizing every word in the Japanese language, but rather, learning how to work around what you don’t know.

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