I embarked upon my journey to Japanese literacy fourteen years ago with a great deal of enthusiasm. After several months, however, my kanji wheels started spinning and sinking in the mud. Overwhelmed and discouraged, I had fallen victim to a self-made trap: my counterproductive desire to master every aspect--shape, multiple pronunciations, and various meanings--of every kanji I tackled before moving on to the next. My progress was too slow to allow me to even start to make sense of adult-level written Japanese.
Native-speaking Japanese fourth-graders may effortlessly absorb many of the varied meanings of a new character such as 節 (joint, season, paragraph, tune, restraint). For adult, gaijin kanji learners, however, expecting our aging, overworked memories to retain so many meanings early on is unreasonable.Fortunately, a remarkable memory aid system called "kanji core meanings" helped pull my kanji studies out of the mud. My rescuers were Jack Halpern, editor-in chief of the "New Japanese-English Character Dictionary," and James Heisig, author of the self-instructional text "Remembering the Kanji I."
For their core meanings Halpern and Heisig select a concise English word that conveys a fundamental sense of a character. This core meaning serves as a "pivot," linking the various meanings and nuances of a character into an integrated conceptual unit. Through mastery of core meanings, you can begin to develop intimacy with characters.
Later you can add other senses, in the same way that, say, British children moving into adolescence add new meanings to English words they already "know." For instance, at age 4 they are aware that the word "party" refers to a birthday party; only later do they learn that it also refers to a "political party" and "someone involved in a lawsuit."This remarkable lifelong human coping ability-- to attach additional meanings to a particular vocabulary item-- has been largely overlooked in foreigners' kanji studies.
The above-mentioned headache-inducing character, 節 (SETSU), can signal an incredibly rich variety of meanings: joint, node, knot, season, occasion, paragraph, section, melody, economize, save, be moderate, principle, fidelity, and more--over 20 different meanings and nuances are listed in Halpern's dictionary. He selects, however, "joint" (as in 関節 kansetsu, "joint of the body") and "season of the year," (as in 季節 kisetsu, "season") as the two core meanings for this semantically complex character.
Heisig narrows the chaos down even further by providing one--and only one-- "keyword" for each of Japan's 1,945 "general-use" (jouyou) kanji. For 節, Heisig focuses on its "section/joint" aspect and gives it the keyword "node," (as in リンパ節, rinpa setsu, "lymph node").
A core meaning often conveys the sense of a character as it occurs in high-frequency compounds. For this reason, knowing core meanings will frequently enable you to start making sense of compound words. If you know Heisig's keywords or Halpern's core meanings, (I recommend choosing one or the other system and not mixing the two), it should be a piece of kasutera cake for you to figure out the following popular compounds:
(1) 携帯電話 (carry in hand--belt--electricity--speak)
(2) 狂牛病 (lunatic--cow--ill)
(3) 高所恐怖症 (high-place-fear-fearful-pathological condition)
(4)自殺未遂 (self-kill-not yet-accomplished)
(Answers at end).
Even if you are not a perfectionist, your desire to conquer a character may be strong. Before seeking to memorize a mass of data about individual kanji, however, I suggest you first organize your brain's kanji workshop around a memory-assisting "pegboard" with 1,945 holes. Into each hole, insert a single hook and hang a tag on it. On each tag write a single core meaning for each of Japan's general-use kanji.
You will swiftly begin to experience the joy of taking meaning from the Japanese page. Later, when you encounter a compound requiring you to remember a new meaning for a particular kanji, you will have a safe, secure hook on which to hang it. Pretty soon, as you read widely and learn new vocabulary, your 1,945-hole pegboard will be chock full of kanji meanings and nuances, without a hint of the former mess in your kanji workshop.
Get organized with hooks for kanji core meanings today, and watch this system pay rich dividends in your long-range kanji studies.
Answers:"cell phone," "mad cow disease," "acrophobia,"
"failed suicide attempt," "medical malpractice," and
Flash quizzes on core meanings of the general-use kanji are available here.