漢字 kanji

Like every Japanese learner, I’ve struggled over the years with the challenge of learning to read (and the secondary challenge of trying to learn the language without being able to read it). I still, after all these years, cannot read a newspaper or magazine article. Increasingly, however, I find I can decipher signs, slogans and other short texts containing kanji, and sometimes learn something new from context.

Like every Japanese learner, I’ve made use of various methods for learning kanji, found some useful and others less so. Certainly, modern technology has been a huge help, in the form of electronic flash-card and “Spaced Recognition System” (SRS) software such as Anki that can run on computers or handheld devices like my Android phone. Others are enthusiastic devotees of the Heisig system. I don’t know the answer – any system that works, and that you can maintain the discipline and motivation to stick with it, week after week, year after year, is the right method for you.

Anyway, in this post, which is probably of extremely limited interest to non-learners, I just want to mention some thoughts and early misconceptions about kanji based on my own experience as a learner.

Let’s say you’ve been learning Japanese for a year. You know the kana (or you are supposed to – let’s just say you wouldn’t like to admit that you’re a bit shaky on some of them and that you still routinely confuse さ and ち). And you’ve learned about 100 Grade 1 and Grade 2 kanji, enough for the JLPT Level N5.

At this point, I think there is a risk of some fundamental misconceptions about learning kanji and about kanji in general. This is because your early experience of learning these 100 kanji is unrepresentative of the experience of learning kanji, and because the 100 or so kanji you have learned are themselves highly unrepresentative.

1) In these early days you will typically have memorised each kanji by writing it out repeatedly until you can remember it. Each one is treated as a separate random shape that you have to imprint on your memory.

This approach doesn’t scale well, however. First, and most obviously, at this rate it will take another 20 years before you’ve learned the 2,136 kanji for everyday use. Secondly, the first 100 are mainly relatively simple shapes like 大 小 出 or 月; most kanji are more complex and less amenable to memorising in this way. And thirdly, while it may be possible to learn one or two hundred kanji as random shapes in this way, in my opinion there is an upper limit which falls very far short of 2,000 – it is simply not possible to retain this volume of information in the human brain.

Fortunately, more complex kanji are made up of simpler elements combined in various ways. If we know the 3 simple kanji 立—stand up,日—sun and 心—heart, then when it comes to time to learn the character —mind, we only have to remember that it consists of these three familiar forms stacked on top of one another. If we are using the Heisig method, we will make up a little story involving the concepts stand up, sun, heart and mind that will engage our imaginative memory.

We also find that the shapes that make up a character may give some clue as to its meaning, or its pronunciation; a kanji containing the fish radical 魚 is likely to be a type of fish, and a kanji containing the element 青 is likely to have a pronunciation sei. Combine these two and you get 鯖 mackerel, which is indeed a type of fish and has the (Chinese) pronunciation sei.

2) In learning the simplest 100 kanji, you will have formed the incorrect impression that each character represents a single unit of meaning (i.e. is an ideograph), and that once you have learned the meaning of each character you will be able to read Japanese text. This is a fundamental, and extremely widespread, misunderstanding of the Japanese writing system. In reality, most kanji characters do not stand alone, but combine to form words. In technical terms, Japanese writing is almost entirely not ideographic but logographic.*

To illustrate this point, first take the simple kanji 子, which you are taught as a stand-alone word having the sound [ko] and meaning “child”. This kanji appears in hundreds of words such as 様子 yousu—state of affairs; 帽子boushi—hat; 障子shouji—screen door; 電子 denshi—electron; 扇子 sensu—fan; and so on. It would be difficult or impossible to deduce the meaning (or pronunciation) of any of these words by reference to its two constituent characters.

Therefore to read Japanese, it does not suffice to learn each character individually. Instead you have to learn to read words.

Nonetheless, the learner persists in expecting each new kanji to have a well-defined meaning, an expectation which is simply not always borne out. Above I mentioned the kanji 意  and glossed it as “mind”. But it is not in any sense true to say that 意  means “mind”. It is merely a pedagogical convenience, with some considerable potential to mislead. What has really happened is that having looked at some words in which this character appears, words with meanings like “intention”, “will”, “meaning”, “unexpected”, “attention”, and so on, we ask ourselves “what semantic content is carried by this character in these words?” Well, in each case it seems to have something to do with the mind, or state of mind, or consciousness. So as an aid for learning, we may choose to say this character 意  means “mind”, as long as we remember to bear in mind that it is not in fact an ideograph with this meaning.

3) When starting out, it seems that we can easily keep score of how many kanji we know. But gradually troubling questions start to arise, like “What does it really mean to say that I ‘know’ a character”. In our first year we learn the kanji 生 with the pronunciation sei, mainly because it appears in the word 先生 sensei—teacher. Over time you may also learn that the same kanji can be pronounced nama—fresh, and that it is found in the verbs 生まれる umareru—to be born, and 生ける ikeru—to live. Suppose you know all of these pronunciations and meanings, but don’t yet know that it is also used in 生やす hayasu—to grow (e.g. to grow a beard). At what stage can you say that you “know” this kanji? How many kanji do you know?

 

* By the way, it’s worth mentioning that, while the Japanese writing system is logographic, so also is the English writing system. Although the letters of our Roman alphabet have phonetic values (and these are referred to when learning to read), when we actually read a text we do not sound out each word, but perceive each word as a gestalt, the shape of the word being directly associated with its sound and its meaning. This fact is missed by proponents of spelling reform, who think the world would be much tidier if “hare” and “hair” were spelt the same way. While such reforms may make it easier to learn to read, they would make it much harder to read.

Similarly, many foreigners wonder why the Japanese persist in using kanji, when the language could in principle be written entirely using hiragana. There are of course many reasons, but the main one is that Japanese written entirely in kana would be very difficult to read. Kanji are hard to learn, but once learned they convey meaning very efficiently.

Note on the word of the day:

漢字 kanji literally means “Chinese characters”. The first character refers to the Han dynasty of China (3rd century BC). The word is written in the same way in Chinese (but using simplified characters in mainland China), and is pronounced “Hanzi”.

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