Saturday, May 1, 2010

Kanji is a 4 letter word

"Kanji muzukashii ne?" translates to: "Kanji is difficult, huh?" and is referring to Japan's Chinese Character based writing system. You will hear this phrase every time someone in Japan sees you studying Kanji. Even when you're not studying, someone will most likely say this out of the blue. They might just call you up to mention this. Japan's literacy rate is, like my homeland's, at 99%. So obviously Kanji can't be difficult, right? Unless this is an entire nation of geniuses, but I doubt that. That life sized Gundam they made couldn't even fly . To me, every time a Japanese person mentioned the difficulty of Kanji to me I assumed they meant "-difficult for foreigners." I was always quick to dismiss their statement as some sort of underhanded boast while thinking to myself, "Why would it be difficult for us foreigners? Are we not all the same inside regardless of where we come from? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you give us sake do we not drink?" But, I was wrong. I made a mistake. The Japanese have something on us when it comes to Kanji, and that is a decade of schooling and a lifetime of experience. Grade school for them consists of studying Kanji. Me being able to read and write English feels more like a byproduct of going to school. I never had to write a word a hundred times to make sure I knew how to spell it. But that's how it works with Kanji, with classes dedicated to just that. I had been consistently denying the difficulty of Kanji for about a year. It wasn't until I seriously started studying that things changed.

I had been sitting next to a new Japanese co-worker for about two weeks; both of us barely saying more than "Good morning" and "Goodbye". During my break I was studying some Kanji in despair. She noticed, leaned over, and obligatorily said in stuttering English, "Kanji is difficult… for foreigners… isn't it?" Never having heard this said so blatantly I stopped, looked at my paper covered in my chicken scratch hieroglyphs, and finally admitted that "Yes, it is." This acceptance was long in coming, but it set me on the right path. A journey of discovery to find the best way to study and actually remember these crazy runes.

The main problem stems from how the most common way to study (i.e. the Japanese way) doesn't work. Maybe it works when you're a young Japanese boy or girl in your tiny shorts with an empty brain that is happy to be filled with anything; even Kanji. As for my full to the brim half-middle-aged mind, memorizing anywhere from 10 - 20 random lines for every new word is impossible. That space is already taken by all the lyrics to Skee Lo's "I wish (I was a lil' bit taller)". Let's take a simple word like "hot" for example: 熱. Holy crap! It looks like you just hit a bunch of keys on a typewriter at once. I had given this way of studying a shot more than once; writing each new Kanji 20 times or so but I always ended up forgetting them the next day. This way is too time-expensive. I needed a way to save some time-money. If I invest everything that I have from my Time and Effort bank into Kanji, I'm going to go time-broke. Which I guess equals death or hypothermia or something.

But, boy, do I have an investment opportunity for you. One day you'll realize, like I did, that studying Kanji stroke by stroke is a bad deal. Have you wasted time-money and real-money on expensive Kanji textbooks and study cards? Well, do so no longer! I'll let you in on a little secret. Your job is just to share it with your friends. This will all go down like a Kanji pyramid scheme.

Go here for salvation. I talked in another article about how Japanese textbooks fail. Learning stroke after senseless stroke only brings tears, yet it is how every Kanji textbook I've seen has been set up. What you have to do is break every Kanji down into its simpler parts. Let's go back to "hot": 熱. Break that down and you get: 土, 儿, 九, 丶, 灬. There, not so bad now is it? Just put them together like you would put together letters in a word, but kind of mixed all around.

But wait! There's more!

These little symbols are called "radicals". There's over 200 of them, but they're fairly simple to learn and a lot of them are whole Kanji in themselves, almost like how "A" is a letter and a word. You get twice the usefulness for half the studying time. Now you're buying in bulk! It's like 2 gallons of Kanji mayonnaise for the price of one.

My Kanji reading and writing has shot up since I started studying this way. I gave each of those 200 my own name: "丶" is "The Touché". "屮" is "zombie hand". So when I write a Kanji like "逆" I'm just thinking, "double touché-line-zombie hand on a water slide." Simple!

That website I linked up there explains everything more in detail. I'm just letting you know that it does indeed work. So call today!


  1. Can't believe you didn't mention the Heisig method. It beats the tar out of everything else.

  2. Kanji is difficult for Japanese people as well, though they don't tend to admit it readily. Most of my students (who are all adults - the youngest is 22 and the oldest is 68) say they can't remember difficult characters and when they read newspapers, they just gloss over the ones they don't recognize. I've also noticed that you see more and more furigana these days (on packaging and signs) than 20 years ago, so there may be some recognition that people really do start to forget more complex or obscure kanji, particularly now that people read less than they used to (thanks to cell phones).

    It takes Japanese kids two years longer to reach equivalent literacy rates as compared to Western kids because of the laborious learning of kanji. They put a lot more into becoming literate than we do in their formative years. It's a monumentally inefficient method of written communication. I understand it is their culture, but the education ministry might do well to slowly streamline the process and perhaps try to focus more on hiragana expression through many generations. With computers and the time it takes to add in steps for kanji input, the whole process is just bogging the Japanese down relative to other developed cultures in the world.

    Personally, I recognized a long time ago that Japanese people are always going to be better at learning English than I will be at learning Japanese. Learning over 2000 characters will always be rougher than their learning 26. Competing in a job market with a bilingual Japanese person (who will also likely accept lower wages) is really not for me. I would always be better off polishing someone's English than trying to read and write Japanese. Perhaps that is not so for other foreigners, but that's the way it is for me.

  3. Nice article, Joe. Yeah, kanji is a challenge. Right now I'm more focused on being able to read than write, but I certainly admire those who can do both well.

  4. Yeah, Heisig. I know some people use that. I'm not a huge fan. If that works for you, go for it.

    Orchid 64, interesting! I didn't know it took Japanese people two years longer reaching equivalent literacy rates. All I had known going into writing this was that literacy rates are based on age 15+ and Japan's and America's are both 99%. I guess I should have looked into it more deeply :).

    Paul, definitely being able to read is far more important. Learning how to write helps me to remember how to read but mainly I'm just doing this to give me something else to switch up in my studying routine. If I study the same way every day I get bored.

  5. Both studying Kanji and English words are difficult for me and need to study hard. When I was in school (many many mannny... years ago), we had Kanji sho-test(漢字小テスト) and Tango sho-test (単語小テスト) every week. Before the tests I copied the new words (漢字・英単語) over and over again on a piece of paper until I memorized them. This was how I remembered new words, and I think other students did the same way. So now it's super difficult for me to spell out any words of my brain. I even need to write the words in the air to make sure if I'm right. It's amazing to see small English-speaking kids at the competitions to spell out such difficult words. Are you good at it????

  6. As writing systems go, Kanji is hard. Obviously it's much more difficult than kana, and the kana syllabaries in turn are several times more difficult than most alphabets. (Although, the English writing system is substantially more complex than most alphabetic systems, due to the large number of phonetic patterns we use. Arguably, it's harder to learn than kana. It's still got nothing on kanji, however.)

    Really, though, the hardest part of learning any language is learning tens (or hundreds) of thousands of vocabulary words. In that respect Japanese isn't any harder than any other language, except insofar as it's more *different* from your native language (say, English) than something more closely related (such as, for instance, almost any European language). Fewer cognates, more differences in the grammar, less shared cultural background, of course there's more to learn.

    > I'm more focused on being
    > able to read than write

    No fooling. I have scarcely ever written *English* by hand since high school, and when I do it's usually just chicken-scratched notes to myself. My handwriting is bad, and I don't care. I have word processing software and I'm not afraid to use it. "My ergonomic keyboard never leaves me bored."

    Why would I need to write beautiful ornamental Japanese (as opposed to merely legible Japanese, which you can do with kana in a pinch) _by hand_? That's what Anthy is for, yo. I mean, if you're really into caligraphy, sure, but I'm not.

    So yeah, for kanji I focus on recognition (see the kanji, know the basic meaning and major readings), using an SRS. And yeah, breaking them down into their largest components helps. Most kanji can be divided into two or three major parts. Often these have a mnemonically useful relationship (either phonetically or in meaning, occasionally both) to the larger kanji.