Kanji Simplification 漢字の簡略化

第400課: Kanji Simplification 漢字の簡略化:「旧字体」対「新字体」

Kanji do note uniformly look the same throughout the languages they are used for. Historically, many Kanji have had various alternative forms (異体字), and many have also possessed abbreviated forms (略字).

After World War II, Japanese orthography underwent its own Kanji simplification process, which resulted in many Kanji looking different than how they appear in Chinese (traditional) or Korean (hanja). Simplification also occurred in mainland China, but this process was independent of that of Japan’s, and so the resulting character forms are often unintelligible to readers of either language. 

In Japanese, the traditional/old forms of characters are known as 旧字体, whereas their simplified forms are known as 新字体. This contrasts with the terms 繫体字 and 簡体字, which correspond to them respectively in the context of Chinese simplification. 

■A History

The simplification of Kanji was part of the literary revolution that begun during the Meiji Reformation which began in 1868. Although it took several decades for simplification to be officially enacted. In 1923, the Japanese government made their first attempt at creating a general-use Kanji list, and appended to this list was a list of abbreviated Kanji (略字). Many of these characters had already existed in handwriting for centuries. Immediately after WWII in 1946, the 当用漢字表 was first enacted and contained 131 simplified characters, and then in 1949 this was expanded to include over 500 such simplifications. By the 1950s, typefaces had almost entirely been switched over to the new forms. In 1981, the Mincho font was chosen as the standard print font and a few more simplifications were made standard. 

■Modern Use

Many 旧字体 are still commonly used. Some people, out of a spirit of cultural purism, choose not to use 新字体 and are very adamant about using traditional orthography. In this circle, 旧字体 are alternatively known as 正字 (proper characters). 

More realistically, 旧字体 are still frequently used in personal names and place names as use in them was never regulated. 

意味 旧字体 新字体 意味 旧字体 新字体
Old 舊 旧 Body 體 体
 To come 來 来 To learn 學 学
 Iron 鐵 鉄 Country 國 国
 Stand 臺 台 Gulf 灣 湾
 To bestow 與 与 Wide 廣広 
 Cherry blossom 櫻 桜 Treasure 寶 宝
 Salt 鹽 Art 藝 芸
 Prefecture 縣 県 Wisdom 惠 恵
 Vicinity 邊 Tatami 疊 畳
 True 眞 Teeth 齒 歯

■Unsimplified Kanji

As a consequence of simplification only being dictated for ‘common-use Kanji,’ which has been defined a total of four times since WWII, the goal of truly standardizing and unifying Kanji forms has not been entirely successful. After all, thousands of non-常用漢字 are still used, and whether or not to rewrite Kanji that could be simplified following the same patterns has been a debate newspapers have particularly fought about. The current government stance is that simplifications that were made along with common-use Kanji lists are the only Kanji that are to be simplified–excluding Kanji added in 2010. Any other characters may or may not be simplified based on personal preference, but the norm is not to simplify such 表外字. 

意味印刷標準字体 拡張新字体 意味印刷標準字体 拡張新字体
 Zelkova tree﨔* Lie噓*
 Seagull Blaspheme
 Bush warbler To seize
 As is Thicket

Unsimplified, non-standard-use Kanji forms are typically referred to as 印刷標準字体 “printed standard form” due to their unsimplified status being considered standard. 

※﨔 is an example of a unique simplification created by the Asahi Newspaper. In the 1950s, rather than avoiding Kanji that weren’t included into the 当用漢字表, they extended simplification to hundreds of more characters (朝日文字・朝日字体), but they reversed course in 2007 and retracted most of them from their newspaper.  

※When the 常用漢字表 was updated in 2010, some characters that had extended simplified forms (拡張新字体) actually became adopted, and when they did both their original and ‘newly simplified’ forms became recognized. 嘘・噓 is an example of this. 

※Exceptions to this is 鬱 (depression), which has the newly simplified form 欝 but did not have it included in the new 常用漢字表. Another exception is 籠 (basket), which has the newly simplified form 篭 that is also excluded.

Below are more such examples from the 常用漢字表 that can be displayed on all devices.

意味印刷標準字体 拡張新字体 意味 印刷標準字体 拡張新字体
 To fill in 塡 填 Thin
  Noodle  Once 曽

Although the purpose of the 常用漢字表 was to help unify what Kanji look like, there are many more new additions to the list with variants. Some of these variants cannot be typed and displayed on all devices, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. See the official PDF of the 常用漢字表 to see the officially excepted ‘newly simplified’ forms, which are treated in the list as handwritten variants. 

The Simplification Process 簡略化の仕方

Various processes were used to simplify Kanji in Japanese. As has already been mentioned, however, these processes were not utilized across all Kanji. This is the signature difference between how Kanji were simplified in Japan versus how they were in China. The most common methods utilized include the following:

  1. Turning Cursive Form into Manuscript Form 行草書の楷書化
  2. Font Unification 字体の統一
  3. Phonetic Replacement 音符の交換
  4. Change in Radical 部首の変更
  5. Addition of Stroke 筆画の増加
  6. Removal of Complicated Section 繁雑部位の削除

I: Turning Cursive Form into Manuscript Form 行草書の楷書化

Some 新字体 were created by turning existing cursive forms back into a manuscript form. Common examples of this include the following Kanji.

意味 旧字体 新字体 意味 旧字体 新字体
Map 圖 図 Daytime   晝
Outlook 觀 観 Memorize   覺
 Ease Single   單 単

II: Font Unification 字体の統一

Prior to any simplification attempts, many Kanji had more than one variant (異体字). These variants still technically exist, but upon the standardization of Kanji use along side simplification, many Kanji had a particular variant chosen as the unified form. 

A great example is the Kanji for “island.” You will have undoubtedly learned this to be 島, but this was the ‘variant’ chosen to be official during simplification. There are also two other variants: 嶋 and 嶌. 

 意味異体字 統一後
Gratitude禮・ 礼
To steal盜・盗

※Certain unifications were minor, but not all old variations are displayable online. The radical for movement, for instance, has two forms: 辶 and 辶. The first is often thought to be the simplified form of the second, and while this is true, both had existed for some time as variants of one another. Though the radical variants themselves are displayable on all platforms, it is not possible to see them freely used with all Kanji made with them with Japanese fonts. In practice, Kanji included in the 常用漢字表 had this radical unified to 辶, but for Kanji outside the list, the choice is yours. 

III: Phonetic Replacement 音符の交換

Given that approximately 80% of Kanji are semasio-phonetic, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Kanji were simplified by substituting a ‘complex’ phonetic element for something simpler with the same reading. Examples include the following Kanji.

意味 旧字体 新字体 意味 旧字体 新字体
To steal Light燈 
To carry Proof
 To explain Swamp
 Government officeStation 

IV: Change in Radical 部首の変更

Occasionally, the simplification process of a Kanji resulted in the radical changing. In the chart below, the radical for each Kanji is shown in parentheses to the right. 

意味 旧字体 新字体 意味 旧字体 新字体
To fight鬬 (鬥)闘 (門)Voice聲 (耳)声 (士)
Doctor醫 (酉)医 (匚)Old舊 (臼)旧 (日)
Body體 (骨)体 (人)Yen圓(囗)円 (冂)

V: Addition of Stroke 筆画の増加

At times, an extra stroke was added in the ‘simplification’ process. Reasons for this include the reduction of strokes with multiple movements and adding symmetry.

意味 旧字体 新字体 意味旧字体 新字体 
 To walk Negotiation
 Volume Frequency

VI: Removal of Complicated Section 繁雑部分の削除

Perhaps the most common method of all was the removal of complicated parts of a Kanji entirely. 

意味 旧字体 新字体 意味 旧字体 新字体
Art To accept
 Bug Tatami
 Previous  Surplus

Simplifications vs Existing Kanji  新字体と別字が重なってしまうケース

During the simplification process, a handful of simplifications became identical with existing characters. Of course, the newly simplified characters are still separate from the ones they look identical too. For the most part, the pre-existing Kanji are rare, and so there is little chance of confusion in everyday writing, but there are still some words created with those pre-existing characters in which case you would need to know the semantic differences between them and the simplified Kanji.

■「舊」 vs 「旧」 

旧 had been used as an alternative form of 臼 (mortar) for quite some time. As such, its ON reading had already been キュウ. Given this affinity, there was already precedent for 旧 to be used as the abbreviated form of 舊 (old) despite the two characters possessing different meanings. However, because simplifications based on ‘sound’ were already implemented, 旧 became the official simplified form of 舊. Additionally, characters with 臼 were also visually changed to 旧. Ex. 稲 → 稲, 兒 → 児.

■「萬」vs 「万」
The original meaning of 萬 was “scorpion” whereas 万 represented various tribal names. Over time, the meaning of “scorpion” was taken over by 蠆 and the meaning of “10,000/myriad” became predominant. At that point, it also represented various tribal/surnames, and it’s this commonality that likely resulted in it merging with 万. In Japanese, both characters are read with the ON readings マン・バン and they are solely treated as the non-simplified and simplified form of each other respectively.  

■「體」 vs 「体」

Traditionally, 體 is the character for “the body,” with the ON reading タイ and KUN reading からだ. 体, on the other hand, traditionally has the ON reading ホン with a meaning of “coarse.” However, even in ancient times, 体 had been used as an abbreviated form of 體, which then became codified as the standard Kanji for “body” given that hardly any words using the original meaning of 体 have survived to the present. One exception to this, however, is the word 体夫(ホンプ), an archaism for pallbearer. 

Traditionally, 芸 had the ON reading ウン with the meaning of “rue (the herb),” originally an alternative form of 蕓. However, as the meanings and readings of 藝 and 芸 are entirely different, there is no true risk of using the latter as a simplified form of the former. Incidentally,  芸 may be found in the name of the first public library of Japan–芸亭. 

Originally, 台 possessed various meanings including but not exclusive to being archaic Chinese for “to be happy” as well as being a first-person pronoun. It also represents the surname Yí 台. Even in China, however,  台 has for a long time been also used as the simplified form of  臺 (tower/lookout). Consequently, in Japanese, this has become the sole purpose of 台.

The Kanji 豫 has the meaning of “beforehand” and is traditionally seen in words like 豫定(予定). However, 予 traditionally represents the ancient, literary first-person pronoun ヨ.


The Kanji 餘 has the meaning of “surplus/excess” and is traditionally seen in words like 餘分(余分). However, 余 also represents the ancient, literary first-person pronoun ヨ.

Traditionally, 糸 had the ON reading ベキ and specifically referred to thin threads, whereas  絲 had the ON reading シ and referred to threads in general. Using 糸 as the simplified form of 絲 is unique to Japanese and is not seen in mainland China. In fact, newer loans from Chinese which contain this character retain 絲 so as not to confuse it with the still traditional use of 糸. 


豐 is a semasio-phonetic character with the phonetic element, 丰, which here is read as ホウ. However, 豊 traditionally means “ceremony” has the ON reading レイ. This means that the 旧字体 for 礼 is in fact 禮, the right-hand side not being 豐. With the meaning of ceremony being taken over by the Kanji 礼/禮, no confusion is ever made by using 豊 as the simplified form of 豐, but it has resulted in making it impossible to properly guess the ON readings of compound Kanji that utilize these components.    


Traditionally, 虫 had the ON reading キ and possessed the meaning of “viper.” Over time, this meaning was largely taken over by 虺 and 蝮 as a consequence of it being used as an abbreviated form of 蟲 meaning “bug” with the ON reading チュウ. However, as indicated by the word 爬虫類, 虫 now possesses both the meaning of “viper” and “bug.” 

Traditionally, 缶 has the ON reading フ, retaining this reading in the radical name 缶部. The original meaning of this character is “unglazed earthenware pot.” Its use to mean “can” is slightly complicated. Simply put, it is the simplified form of 罐, but the ON reading カン comes from the phonetic on the right, not 缶 itself. Since its history as the simplified form of 罐 is so longstanding, and because the original meaning of 缶 had already been lost, the similar meaning and sounding English word “can” became written as 缶. Now, the original meaning of 罐 is “boiler,” but since boilers tend to be made out of metallic substances, extending its meaning, and therefore 缶’s meaning, to anything can-like was not that much of a semantic stretch. Unlike many 旧字体, however, 罐 is frequently seen in the company names of can manufacturers (ex. 日本製罐). 


As a consequence of simplification, 缼 was simplified to 欠, but 欠 already existed with the ON reading ケン with the meaning “yawn.” This can be attested with the word 欠伸. However, 欠 also had the meaning of かける (to lack), which paved the way for it to be used as the simplified form of 缼. For the most part, this simplification causes no problems, but embarrassingly, there had already existed a legal word in which both 缼 and 欠 are used together. This should not come as a surprise because combining Kanji of similar meaning to create words is a fundamental word making process of Sino-Japanese vocabulary. 欠缺 means “inadequacy” and is read as ケンケツ. If written strictly according to 常用漢字表 guidelines, the word would be written as けん欠, but the traditional spelling has remained supreme. In recent years, though, this word has become obsolete due to legal reforms, ending any confusion between the two characters. 

Traditionally, 亙 means “to extend” and has the ON reading コウ,  and 亘 means “to request” and has the ON reading セン. Even in ancient times, however, 亘 has been used as the simplified form of 亙, which has resulted in 亘 standing for both. In Japanese, both character forms are used interchangeably, and both forms are useable when naming children. 


Traditionally, 弁 existed as a rather rare character with various meanings such as “cap (from the Zhou Dynasty)” and “low-ranking military officer.” In Japan, it was adopted as the official simplified form of three characters of the same ON reading ベン, but functionally, it became the simplified form of five characters. All five characters look alike with the radical in the middle being what defines them. 

辨: This Kanji means “discrimination” 弁証= 辨證 (demonstration/proof)

辯: This Kanji means “debate/argue/discuss” as well as “dialect.”  弁舌= 辯舌 (eloquence)

辦:  This Kanji means “to manage/handle.” Ex. 辦理=弁理 (management)

瓣: This Kanji means “petal.” Ex. 花弁=花瓣 (petal)

辮: This Kanji means “to weave.” 弁髪=辮髪 (pigtail)

More Examples

意味 旧字体 新字体意味  旧字体 新字体
Both  To equal
  To rideDisorder
 Asia Buddha
 Dispute Temporary
 To transmit To join
 Price Scorn
 To deceive Frugal
 Monk Political party
InsideVolume (books)
  Copy  Place
  Evil  Sabre
 Imperial orderTo recommend
  MeritPressure壓    圧 
To comePair
To obtainTo confer
NumberWu China
  GroupTo encircle
BasesTo descend
To increaseInk
To destroySoil
To sellTo change
InteriorTo encourage
  LeniencyTo sleep
To exhaustTo deliver
To belongStratum
ObiTo return
Paper streamerTo abolish
DiameterTo obey
PlumTo repent
Wretched 慘Discreet
BosomTo chastize
To fightTo frolic
To returnTo pay
To extractTo select
To worshipFoothold
To broadenBehavior
To pinchTo insert
To searchTo hoist
To shakeTo carry攜・擕
To absorbTo shoot
To teachTo count
To severePreviously
Glossy Clause
Hinge  Prosperity
To remainTo hit
To killHusk
IceTo fall into
To purifyShallow
ThirstTo settle
AstringentMountain stream
LacquerTo submerge
PointTo do
To burnSacrifice
To halt畱・畄To alienate
To overseeTo polish
To smashShrine 社
To prayWelfare
AncestorTo celebrate
Good fortuneSecret
TitleRice plant
Grain穀・榖・糓Ear (grain)
CalmTo thrust
To competeJoint
PictureTo sever
To inheritTo continue
To trainAffinity
Government officeTo flutter
PersonTo decrease
To listenGall bladder
To undressMind
To seeTo see
To touchTranslation
To readMany
HumblyTo turnover
PresentTo tread
To revolveLight
To resignTo relay
To evadeSlow
CapitalTo be drunk
To brewOre
CoinTo mint
To refineTo record
BarrierTo fight
To collapsePrecipitous
ProsperityAt the mercy of
To hideSlave
SortTo drink
Black Silence
TurtleTo peel