go on


are one of the different readings of Japanese kanji. They are old pronunciations of Chinese characters, believed to be taken from China to Japan prior to the importation (by the Kenzuishi envoy to the Sui dynasty and monks studying abroad) of readings from Chang'an during the Nara period. Like kan-on readings, they are said to display the characteristics of Middle Chinese.

Introduced to Japan during the 5th and 6th centuries, when China was divided into separate Northern and Southern Dynasties, it is thought that go-on readings were imported either directly from the Southern dynasty, or through the Korean peninsula. This explanation is based mainly on historical reasoning: there was an influx of other foreign thought from China and Korea to Japan at that time, including both Buddhist and Confucianist thought. However, there is no historical documentation to conclusively demonstrate that go-on readings are actually based on Southern dynastic Chinese.

Go-on readings are used particularly often in Buddhist terms and legal terms, especially those of the Nara and Heian periods. When kan-on readings were introduced to Japan, their go-on equivalents did not disappear, and even today, go-on and kan-on readings continue to be used together. Go-on readings were also used for the Chinese characters of the ancient Japanese syllabary used in the Kojiki.


Go-on readings were formerly referred to as . The term "go-on" was first introduced in the mid-Heian period, likely by people who wished to promote kan-on readings. During the Tang Dynasty, people in the capital (Chang'an) referred to their own way of reading characters as and all other readings, particularly those originating south of the Yangtze, as , or one of many other similar names. It is thought that Japanese students studying in China adopted this practice, and, taking the position that Chang'an's readings were the correct ones, they also began to refer to Japan's previously imported kanji readings as "go-on".

Go-on readings are also sometimes referred to as and . This is according to a tradition that a Baekjean nun named Hōmei taught Buddhism in Tsushima by reading the Vimalakīrti Sutra entirely in go-on.


Go-on readings are generally less orderly than kan-on readings, but can be characterized as follows.

  • The voiced consonants and unvoiced consonants of Middle Chinese are differentiated for initial consonants.
  • The initial nasal consonants of Middle Chinese are pronounced as nasals. In kan-on, they are pronounced as voiced plosives.
  • In go-on readings of characters such as 素 ("so", "su"), 奴 ("no", "nu") and 都 ("to", tsu") otherwise equivalent "-o" and "-u" readings are both acceptable and widespread. This is thought to be due to a lack of differentiation between these sounds in the Chinese language at the time they were introduced to Japan. Because the sounds could not be distinguished in Chinese, both "-o" and "-u" were considered acceptable pronunciations upon their import to Japanese.

On readings of Kanji
character/word Go-on (呉音) Kan-on (漢音)
myō mei
kyō kei
ge ka
上下 jō-ge sho ka

Japanese and Min Nan

We can find some similarities in sound between Japanese and Min Nan language which is spoken in the southern Fujian of China and Taiwan even in modern days.

character/word Japanese Min Nan
世界 sekai se kai
新聞 shinbun shim bun
了解 ryōkai liau kai
米粉 beifun bi hun
一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十 ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, ku, jū tsit, nŋ, sã, si, go, lak, tsʰit, pəeʔ, kau, tsap


Most of the content of this article comes from the equivalent Japanese-language article, accessed on June 5th, 2006.


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