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Column #8 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, September 7, 2001
"Let your imagination run wild in Kanjiland!"

From their remote Chinese beginnings as inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells, simple kanji pictographs have told stories. Over the ensuing millennia, these pictures became more abstract and complex, but each of the thousands of kanji appears to be based upon some aspect of the human condition: religion, sex, politics and violence, as well as family, food, and nature. The kanji used in modern Japan are rooted in the daily life of ancient China.

Scholars have long struggled to explain why particular kanji are constructed as they are. To help adult learners from nonkanji backgrounds make sense of the characters, conscientious Japanese teachers (as well as writers of kanji textbooks) sometimes quote from these scholars' theories.
But there are divergent and often confusing opinions on the origins of individual characters. Kanji have been miscopied, simplified and otherwise tampered with as generation after generation used them and then passed them down to the next. Compounding the problem is the fact that components were often chosen for their phonetic--as opposed to semantic--value. The unfortunate truth is that traditional etymological studies do not provide an organized system for learning Japan's 1,945 general-use characters.

Until you have internalized the general-use characters, your attempts to plow through hundreds of etymological explanations may only serve to compound your kanji memory problems.These explanations can be helpful AFTER you have learned the shapes and meanings of the characters, because of the valuable insights they offer into the usage and connotations of kanji. (Kenneth Henshall's "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters" is an excellent resource for this purpose).

For learning the shapes and meanings of the general-use characters, I urge you to explore resources that stray from kanji etymology when it does not provide a useful memory device.You will likely benefit from "component analysis," a learning system that breaks each character down into all of its elements and gives each a specific English name. What you then need is one memory story per kanji that vividly links together all those elements.

Some foreign devotees of component analysis find that creating their own kanji stories, as opposed to remembering the ready-made ones found in textbooks, helps to etch the kanji more deeply in their brains.You have probably devised similar stories from time to time in your own kanji studies. Perhaps you felt reluctant to write them down because they seemed silly, or irreverent to the rich kanji etymological tradition?

The fact is that the great majority of us who seek to befriend kanji do not aspire to be kanji scholars-- we yearn instead to be literate in adult-level Japanese. If you would like a rational system for utilizing your own life experiences and fantasies to create memorable kanji stories, you might want to acquire Andreas Foerster and Naoko Tamura's "Kanji ABC: A Systematic Approach to Japanese Characters," which assumes that your goal is no less than mastery of all 1,945 general-use characters.

This cross-cultural, husband-wife team takes a "Lego" approach: Their 486 Lego-like components-- two-thirds of which are basic kanji or historical radicals-- allow you to construct your own, personalized kanji castle. No kanji is presented until its components have first been isolated and named. After getting to know some of the names of their components, the next step is to let your imagination run wild as you dream up memorable stories to help you tie the components together.

Using components from "Kanji ABC," I have concocted stories for two kanji containing the component 夫("husband"):

規 regulations
The newly elected all-female Diet has created neighborhood teams of husband 夫 watchers 見 (見 is "see") to ensure that Japan's strict new regulations on equal sharing of household duties are properly enforced. ("Husband-watchers enforce regulations.")

替 replace
My first husband got so sun 日burned that I had to replace him with another husband . Look at the two of them lying in the sun 日. ("A second husband replaces my sunburned husband.")

Absolutely anything can happen in the Kanjiland of your mind. Whether sexy, disgusting, fantastic, childish, embarrassing, or even occasionally crushingly ordinary, the sharpness of each kanji's story will determine whether or not you easily recall its shape and meaning three or four years from now.

Eliminate the phrase "Kanji wa muzukashii" from your life forever! No kanji is too "difficult"-- you simply haven't discovered the right story for it yet.

Share your mnemonics with other kanji learners at Reviewing the Kanji .