The kanji with the most strokes – you may run out of ink before you finish writing some of these.
As a Japanese tutor, I get one question from my students more often than any other: what’s the most difficult kanji ever?
That seemingly simple question has a lot of possible answers, based on what they mean by “difficult.” Do they mean the hardest to physically write? The hardest to remember? The weirdest ones? Or the ones with the most strokes?
Well, today, we’re finally going to take a crack at the answer by looking at the kanji that have the most strokes. But if we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do it right, and that means no simple Google searches, we’re going to the source, the ultimate guide to every single kanji that has ever officially existed.
▼ The Morohashi Daikanwa Jiten, courtesy of my alma mater UMass Amherst:
a 13-volume, golden-colored beast that contains over 50,000 kanji.
So let’s get to it! Starting off with…
Honorable Mention: Biang (56 strokes)
Oh god. Just look at that mess! It’s so miserable to write that it’s even used as punishment. Outside of torturing people, this character (pronounced “biang” in Chinese) is only found in one place: noodle shops in China’s Shaanxi Province that specialize in selling Biang Biang Noodles.
▼ Here’s the shopfront of one such store, where you can see the horrible truth
about this kanji: the only time you’d ever write it, you have to write it twice.
Why is this behemoth only an honorable mention? Because it’s not in the Morohashi dictionary, or pretty much any other dictionary for that matter. It was most likely created by a noodle store in some sort of publicity stunt and has stuck around to today because of its sheer insanity/hilarity.
But at an incredible 56 strokes, I’d still be remiss not to include it. With that out of the way though, let’s get to the list of officially-recognized kanji!
#5. Dō (48 strokes)
First up on the list of kanji found in the Morohashi dictionary is this 48-stroke monster: dō. This one is made up of the same kanji (“cloud” 雲) four times, and means “widespread clouds,” which kind of makes sense.
Kanji that are made up of the same kanji two, three, or four times are called rigiji (理義字), and we’ll see more of them on this list.
▼ The entry for dō in Morohashi. Here’s what it looks like when typed: 𩇔
Uh, yeah, that’s just a little hard to read.
#5. Tō (48 strokes)
Tied for 5th place is another 48-stroke abomination: tō. Like the other #5, this one is a rigiji made up of the same kanji (“dragon” 龍) three times, and means “a dragon moving,” which also kind of makes sense.
Why there have to be three dragons, and not some other part to it that means “movement” or something, is a question for the ancient scholars who – unfortunately – have been dead for quite a while.
▼ The entry for tō in Morohashi. Here’s what it looks like when typed: 龘
I mean, I guess it kind of looks like a moving dragon?
#3. Hyō, byō (52 strokes)
Number three on the list is this 52-stroke horror: hyō/byō. This one is a rigiji too, made up of the same kanji (“lightning” 雷) four times, and means, well, “lighting.”
It’s not entirely clear why you would write the same kanji four times instead of once if it’s just going to have the same meaning, but maybe this one is for when the lightning/thunder is really intense. No, like, even more than that.
▼ The entry for hyō/byō in Morohashi. Here’s what it looks like when typed: 䨻
You could probably cause a storm just trying to write it.
#2. Sei (64 strokes)
Number two and number one also have the same number of strokes at a whopping 64, but I’m using a tiebreaker here, and sei comes in second for having no meaning. Yep, that’s right; you can go through all the trouble of writing this monstrosity, and it doesn’t even mean anything.
But maybe we can deduce its meaning. Sei is yet another rigiji, made up of the same kanji (“interested” 興) four times. According to Morohashi, there’s another kanji that uses 興 three times and means “to burn”, so sei is essentially just the two put together. Maybe it means “to burn something you’re interested in?” Probably not, but you might feel like burning things you’re interested in if you ever try to write this.
▼ The entry for sei is circled, and the one that means “to burn” on the right.
Here’s what sei looks like when typed: 𠔻 …shudder
And the #1 most difficult kanji is…
1. Testu, techi (64 strokes)
Oh geez. Oh no. I can feel my hand cramping just looking at that thing.
Say hello to testu/techi, the other 64-stroke demon kanji, which actually has a definition: “many words, verbose.” We have to say that’s a pretty fitting definition, seeing as just this one kanji alone already has way too many words inside it.
Just like the others in the top 5, tetsu/techi is a rigiji too, made up of the same kanji (“dragon” 龍) four times. I have no idea why adding a single dragon to #3, which meant “a dragon moving,” suddenly changes the definition so drastically, but we’ll just have to trust the ancient scholars, who presumably knew dragons way better than we do.
▼ The entry for tetsu/techi. Here’s what it looks like when typed: 𪚥
Yup, that’s not a kanji anymore, it’s just a black box.
So there you have it, the top five most difficult kanji ever by stroke count. All of them being rigiji was a little surprising, but that just means we’ll have to venture even further into the Morohashi for more insane kanji discoveries.
What kind of kanji should we look at next? Top five most complex kanji? Top five ugliest ones? Let us know in the comments!
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