One of the things that confuses new Japanese learners is the concept of okurigana.  As with everything else, we will not write an exhaustive treatise on this topic, but there are a few details we think it would be beneficial to understand.

First, let’s define okurigana:  Okurigana are the characters that trail the kanji in a word.  For example, the word 好きな (sukina, meaning “like”, as in “I like you” or “I have like for you”) has two okurigana.  the first character, 好, is the root kanji.  The other two characters, きな, are the okurigana.  These are syllables added to the end of the kanji.

There are a few things to note about okurigana.

The first thing is that they are absolutely required for the word.  One might ask why you can’t just use the kanji 好 to mean like?  That’s because that’s not a word.  It’s the root of a word.  It provides the core of meaning that the okurigana provide context for.  So 好 means “like”, but 好きな is a na-adjective meaning “to have like for”.  But the really important concept is that 好きな is a word.  Not the kanji, not the okurigana.  Both together create a word.

The second thing is that a Japanese word (as opposed to a jyukugo, or Chinese word imported into Japanese) will always contain zero or more okurigana, and there can never be two kanji separated by okurigana as one word (an exception is a compound Japanese word, such as 鳴り響く (なりひびく).  Because these are two words, each with okurigana, they can be put together to make one word).  One Japanese word is one kanji and zero or more okurigana.  (Two or more kanji together with no okurigana is a jyukugo, and those follow different rules).

The third thing – and here’s the thing that we think will help you the most – is that one Japanese word – that is, one combination of kanji and okurigana – will always have the kanji be read the same.  While a kanji may have different readings, when informed by specific okurigana, the kanji reading will always be the same.  Take, for example, the word, 生まれ (birthplace).  Because of the two okurigana, you know that the reading of 生 is う.  That will never change.  In different words (生活, seikatsu, personal life) the kanji may have a different reading, but the okurigana for 生まれ inform us that the pronunciation of the kanji is う.

So when you are learning a Japanese word, don’t treat the okurigana as if they are an afterthought.  They are as much a part of the word as the kanji.