sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.2.

1.2.9. Can a kanji word have more than one reading?

In the same way that some English words like "read" or "bow" can have more than one meaning, some kanji words also have more than one reading and more than one meaning as well, depending on the context. For example, 大人気 can be read either otonage (おとなげ), meaning "adultness", or daininki (だいにき), "very popular". The kanji 実 can be read either mi (み), meaning "fruit", or jitsu (じつ), meaning "truth". 本館 can be read as honkan (ほんかん), "main building", but it is also a surname, pronounced Motodate (もとだて).

In the same way that English speakers can distinguish between the bow in "bow-tie" and "a deep bow", Japanese people distinguish these readings from the context.

Here is a table of some common examples:
Kanji Readings Meanings
大人気 otonage Adultness
daininki Very popular
市場 ichiba A market selling groceries
shijō A financial market
mi Fruit
jitsu Truth
一文字 ichimonji A shape like a kanji "one".
ichimoji, hitomoji One character
一寸 issun A unit (see 12.7. What are the old Japanese units like ?)
chotto A little
大字 ōaza Used in addresses (see 15.1. How does the Japanese addressing system work?)
daiji A large character

Some people's names and place names may also be words with different pronunciations, for example
Kanji Readings Meanings
本館 honkan Main building
Motodate A surname
根本 konpon Basis
Nemoto A surname
三重 sanjū Three-layered
Mie A prefecture (see 15.1. How does the Japanese addressing system work?)
See also 9.3. How do Japanese names work?

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