When the Japanese, um, borrowed kanji from China, they got it wrong. There’s no other way to say it. According to Google, the shit came over in the 5th century, because Japanese traders needed to communicate with their Korean and Chinese counterparts. For every existing Japanese word (what we today call the ‘KUNyomi’ word), they tried to find the corresponding Chinese kanji, and pair them up. Furthermore, they decided to use the Chinese pronunciation of the words, too, but got it wrong … It’s kind of like Canada: everyone in Canada has to learn Quebeqois French, even though real French can’t understand Quebeqois-French! Anyway, the decision to force the square peg of Chinese characters in the round hole of the existing Japanese language leads to some really janky situations!
JANKY SITUATION 1: 150 words all having the same ON-yomi. Whichever seafaring trader decided to import kanji to Japan obviously couldn't speak Chinese! Duh - Chinese has tones, and Japanese doesn't. The Japanese trader was like, "It all sounds the same - KOU, SHOU, wing, wong, whatever. So let's import something we don't understand!" And the Japanese land-lubbers for some reason were heard to reply, "Here is a whole new vocabulary that adds nothing to our existing language, and which can't be understood by Chinese either! OK, we'll learn it, but only if we can keep our existing language, so now we have to learn twice as many words for thing
we already knew how to say!"
And the seafaring traders were like, "OK deal." And then, "Hey! Someone's trying to be Catholic over there!" "That's over the line - let's massacre the whole village!" That is how Japanese multiculturalism went, back in the day. JANKY SITUATION 2: Kanji which have two (or more!) ONyomi. China has hella different dialects. So one Japanese trader would come back from Shanghai, where they pronounce 青い (blue) as SEI, and he'd teach everyone in his town to say SEI. Meanwhile, another Japanese trader would come back from Hong Kong, where they pronounce 青い as SHOU, and he'd teach everyone in HIS town to say SHOU. So there's that. JANKY SITUATION 3: Duplicate kanji. Even after assigning each Japanese word to a kanji, they still had hella kanji left over. So they took native Japanese words (KUNYOMI, remember) with 2 or 3 nuances and ASSIGNED EACH NUANCE TO A DIFFERENT KANJI, WHILE KEEPING THE KUNYOMI THE SAME. The most infamous examples are the 3 katais (硬い, 固い, and 堅い), the 3 hakarus(計る, 図る, and 測る) , and the 3 tsutomerus(勤める, 努める, and 務める). As if that were not pernicious enough, they frequently picked kanji which looked as similar as their meanings: 激 - intense 極 - extreme 摸 - pattern 模 - model 傾 - incline 偏 - lean or be predisposed to Another example: to freeze is こおる, and frost/ice is こおり - both clearly came from the same Japanese word. But when they were picking Kanji to assign to the Japanese words, こおる became 凍る and こおり became 氷. So now you have to learn twice as many kanji, PLUS you STILL have to learn the original Japanese words (koori and kooru) in order to PRONOUNCE them. So nothing was achieved! Can you believe that ??? Beginner students have been known to weep openly in class when the teacher tries to explain about this.
Among linguists, Japanese is notorious for having hella same-sounding words which have totally unrelated meanings. Get out your electric dictionary and type in かく. Or しょうこう. Or こうか Or かい.
Pretty fuckin’ insane, eh?
These same-sounding words are called homophones, and they are almost all the ONyomi-usin’ jukugo. In other words, the homophones largely result from Japanese people trying to speak Chinese without tones - Janky Situation #1 of the Historical Context Rant.
Even the word “kanji” ITSELF has like 3 homophones : 漢字, 感じ, and 幹事！
Fortunately, this is mostly a problem when one is LISTENING - maybe that’s why *most JTV shows have subtitles … in Japanese! *But if you’re READING two homophones, the kanji are really helpful in clearing up the meaning - If you analyze the English keywords, you’ll see that the first “kanji” (漢字) means “Chinese + Letter” - so clearly, THAT’S the “kanji” you want. On the other hand, 幹事 breaks down to “main office + action” - in other words, it means “a secretary.”
This is actually one of the few things where the complexity of kanji makes it MORE logical and MORE handy than spoken Japanese.
Moving on to synonyms: all languages have synonyms. Some people say that synonyms lend variety and shades of nuance to a language, keeping it colorful and alive. I am not one of those people.
Most synonyms are dead-wood. They have the same meanings AND nuance. And what’s worse, you can’t even use them interchangeably - For instance, you can say, “Travel to the ends of the earth,” but you can’t say, “Travel to the ends of the globe.” You can say, “I’m going to the repair shop,” but you can’t say, “I’m going to the fix shop.” … even though repair and fix mean the same thing! Can you imagine how fucked-up that is to someone learning English??? It’s like we only keep those redundant words around to specifically to fuck up ESL goons.
The real problem comes when certain kanji are homonyms AND synonyms at the same time! These are what I call the ‘duplicate kanji’ - for instance, 硬い, 固い, and 堅い are all pronounced かたい, and they all mean HARD.