My Japanese classes are getting serious: the more I learn about the language, the more of an effort I need to make to keep track of all the language’s homophones – words, or part thereof, that sound the same. Kanji are the core of meaning here, where written Japanese should be unambiguous, yet there are also multiple meanings for some of those, too.
A simple example: Japan.
It’s read as nihon, and its Kanji mean “sun” and “origin” – hence the description “the land of the rising sun”. However, a spoken nihon has a second meaning: two books or long things!
The first Kanji means “two”, but the second one is the same as that for “origin” – it’s a character with multiple discrete meanings. I’ll try to keep track of it mentally by remembering that a book is the “origin” of knowledge, and that books are long things.
A native speaker might not be tripped up by such a situation, since having a better grasp of the complete language means he or she has less difficulty putting the conversation in a wider context – you wouldn’t buy Japan, or go home to a pair of books, not unless you were seriously otaku. (otaku is derived from one way of describing one’s home, and came to mean someone who stayed at home a lot, reading magazines or playing on computers. Its meaning later expanded to mean geeks in general, even those who got out of the house to arcades or other geeky activities.)