The Oxford English Dictionary defines kanji as “the corpus of borrowed and adapted Chinese ideographs which form the principle part of the Japanese writing system.” The same dictionary defines ideographs as “a character or figure symbolizing the idea of a thing, without expressing the name of it.” In this sense, the OED definition of kanji is only partially correct. Because of their history and contemporary use, kanji occupy a troublesome position within Western semiotic scholarship. For example, The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary does not once call kanji ideographs. Instead, the preferred term is character or unit. This essay seeks to analyze kanji against C.S. Peirce’s theories of semiotics to establish what attributes of the different signs kanji possess.

C.S. Peirce in Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs writes about the formation of signs. “A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” (PP, 99) That sign is in a triadic relationship with an Object and an Interpretant. “I define a sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its interpretant, that the later is thereby mediately determined by the former.” (EP2, 478, as cited online). As part of the triadic relationship of the Sign to its Object, the Interpretant translates the sign and thus explains the object. “The Sign determines an interpretant by using certain features of the way the sign signifies its object to generate and shape our understanding.”

Peirce constructs “three trichotomies” of signs from the triadic relationship. Under the ‘first trichotomy’ a sign is called a qualisign, sinsign, or a legisign, “according to the sign itself as a mere quality (qualisign), in an actual existent thing or event (sinsign), or is a general law (legisign). (PP, 101) The ‘third trichotomy’ outlines three different types of signs with relations to their Interpretants. A rheme sign “is a Sign of Qualitative Possibilities,” or understood to be capable of expressing certain categories of Objects. (PP 103) A Dicent sign describes an actual existence, and necessarily includes a rheme sign to show how it is indicating that actual existence. An argument sign is interpreted as representing its Object as the Object’s character as a sign. The above two trichotomies become clearer with an explanation of the ‘second trichotomy.’

The ‘second trichotomy’ describes signs called an icon, an index, or a symbol. This final trichotomy is useful in exploring both the polyvalent nature of kanji and the complex organization of Peirce’s Sign/Object relations.

Kanji as an icon:
When kanji become a representamen to a reader of Chinese or Japanese, the context of its relation to the viewer may determine how fully it is understood as an icon. Suppose the kanji is seen illuminated against a Tokyo night sky, standing by itself. Suppose that kanji was a 1,000 ft tall neon ‘大’ or ‘手’. For the right viewer, these signs are icons.

In Prolegomania to an Apology for Pragmaticm (1906), Piece defines icon signs as “partaking in the characters of the object“ (CP 531) From a 1904 paper, he says that icons are fit to be used as signs if they possess the quality of the signified. (EP, 307) Peirce’s most confusing and potentially useful “An Icon is a Representamen whose representative quality is a Firstness of it as a First. That is, a quality that it has qua thing renders it fit to be a representamen. Thus, anything is fit to be a Substitute for anything that it is like.” (PP 104) So a sign is a successful icon if the first impression upon viewing it brings to mind the character being expressed by the sign.

Let us examine how the neon 大 and 手 are icon signs in the sense of the above definitions. 大 is the kanji which means ‘great’ or ‘big’ in Japanese and is pronounced ôkii or dai. A 1,000 ft. tall 大 is an icon in that the characteristic bigness is directly translated from the object to the sign. The first impression of the viewer, even before recognition of the symbol’s meaning sets in, is that this 大 is huge. Some may argue that the sign was produced unto the viewer under circumstances that force the sign to correspond its meaning of bigness to the bigness of its place in nature. The sign, however, is substitutable for anything that it is like, which clarifies that its size makes it an icon sign and not an index sign.

The iconic nature of 山 does not come from its size, but from its possession of the qualities of the object it signifies. 山 is pronounced yama and means ‘mountain.’ The origin of the kanji is from a pictograph, a pictorial sign. The three prongs represent peaks and the flat bottom orients the readers who can determine the meaning without any phonetic references. While 山 has evolved within the Japanese language to be neither a pictogram nor an ideogram, it still retains value as an icon sign from the characteristic shape of a mountain that makes it intelligible to some non-Japanese readers.

Kanji as Index Signs:
Index signs represent only by their real connection to their Object and not by any resemblance to them. (EP 460) “By being really and in its individual existence connected with the individual object, when I call the sign an Index.” (CP 531) The connection, spatial or temporal, to its object is important for an index sign. The connection links the object with the “senses or memory of the person” for which it serves as a sign. (PP 109)

How kanji work as index sign requires an investigation of the internal elements of the characters. Kanji are composed of different internal units called radicals. The kôki jiten (康熙字典; Chinese: Kāngxī Zìdiǎn), a character dictionary compiled in China in 1716, diagrams 214 radicals. (Kodansha 958) The number of radicals increases when you factor in the variants, slightly modified versions of the parent radical. For example, the parent radical “hito” (person) is written: 人. The variant radical of hito is hitoben (亻). Radicals are the ideographic units from which kanji are built.

There are two ways that the physical presence of radicals act as index signs to a kanji: semantically and phonetically. Kanji with semantic readings of radicals will resemble ideographs in that their meaning can be guessed by the connection of the radicals to each other. The kotoba radical, 言, can be found in kanji like 証, 詩, and 議. 言 (kotoba) means ‘word’ and when juxtaposed against 正, (sei; correct), produces 証 (akashi; evidence). The kotoba radical placed next to 寺 (tera; temple) produces 詩 (uta; poem) from the connotation of poems sung at a temple. When connected to 義 (gi; righteous), the product is 議 (gi: deliberation) because a righteous debate is a deliberation.

The physical presence of radicals may also determine the connection of the kanji character to its phonetic sound. Phonetic radicals, regardless of the different meanings of the internal radicals paired against each other, determine the kanji’s phonetic reading. 義, 議, 儀, 嶬, and 曦 are all pronounced gi because the 義 gi radical is used as the phonetic radical. Whether or not a radical will be the phonetic radical is usually determined by its placement in regards to right/left or top/down orientation, size within the kanji character, or prominence as a reading radical.

Kanji as Symbol Signs:
All of spoken and written language can be argued to be symbol signs under Peirce’s trichotomy. “Symbols, which represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of their interpreters insure their being so understood.” (EP, 460) A symbol always needs the reader’s interpretation since it does not resemble the object nor is it possible to pick up additional information from the event. Instead, the interpretation needs to be fixed by habit. “A Symbol is a Representamen whose representative character consists precisely in its being a rule that will determine its Interpretant. All words, sentences, books, and other conventional signs are Symbols.” (PP 112) Education systems, through instruction on reading and writing, establish the habits that determine the interpretation of symbols.

Kanji definitely play a role with the modern Japanese language. The evolution to their current form is a complex history of acculturation and reformation. As language units, and thus symbols, they have undergone a specific selection process. On November 16, 1946 the Japanese Ministry of Education released an official tôyô kanji list of 1850 characters to be taught in Japanese schools and used in official documents. In 1989, the Japanese government approved an expanded list called the Jôyô Kanji List, with 1,945 characters. On that list: 737 characters have only on readings and 40 only kun readings. This leaves 1,168 (60.5%) with both types of readings. As can be seen, only a select few of the many thousands survived to be used in the modern Japanese educational system and thus find a place within the reader’s habit formation. According to Sachiko Matsunaga, only 11.7 percent of kanji on the tôyô kanji list originate from pictographs used in China from 1200 – 1045 BPE.

Kevin Mulholland


Peirce, C.S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1-6, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, vols. 7-8, ed. Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958.

Peirce, C.S. The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 1 edited by Nathan Houser & Christian Kloesel, 1992, vol. 2 . Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, C.S. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Edited by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary. Edited by Jack Halpern. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1999.

Matsunaga, Sachiko. “The Linguistic Nature of Kanji Reexamined: Do Kanji Represent Only Meanings?” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 30, No. 2. (Oct., 1996), pp. 1-22.