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The Complete Guide to Everyday Kanji
by Yaeko S. Habein and Gerald B. Mathias
Kodansha International, 1991
ISBN 4-7700-1509-7

Reviewed by Christina F., a kanji learner in New Zealand

The Complete Guide to Everyday Kanji is "a systematic approach to mastering 1,945 Jouyou ('everyday') Kanji, as well as 1,257 common compounds." This book would serve well for those who like to know the "meaning”behind the composition of Kanji, and to understand the metamorphosis of Kanji from their highly pictorial forms to the blocky, standardised Kanji we know today.

Aside from explaining the history of Kanji, and how it evolved, The Complete Guide to Everyday Kanji also provides a solid groundwork for Kanji learning, including explanations of stroke order rules. The authors encourage written practise in Kanji.

The book is divided into easy-to-use sections, which show not only the basic-form Kanji, but also the different types of compound kanji (such as semantic and phonetic), irregular readings, Kanji for personal names, rules for compound formation, and other comprehensive features, as well as an easy-to-read stroke order index at the back.

Kanji components are presented differently than they are in James Heisig's now famous Remembering the Kanji series. While Heisig has come up with novel ways to explain Kanji components that are otherwise hard to remember, or obscure, Habein & Mathias' The Complete Guide to Everyday Kanji stays firm to the true roots of the kanji, taking learners from the ancient, pictorial representations of Kanji and their components to the modern day "abstract" representation. This serves as a method of learning Kanji not from purely imaginary mnemonics (as in much of storytelling Heisig's method) but as a way to learn components in a way that is historically accurate. Unlike in Heisig’s explicit mnemonic method, most of the memorization necessary for learning the shapes of Kanji through The Complete Guide to Everyday Kanji is left entirely up to the imagination of the individual.

Personally, I found this guide easier to use than Heisig's. This is probably due to the fact that I have had previous background in mnemonic training, and find it easier to make up my own ways of remembering the Kanji. I found it helpful to memorise in a way that did remain true to the historic significance of the Kanji, because it was less likely that I would later get confused about the “true” meanings of the components.

For example, if Heisig's notion that the component meaning “rice field” looks like a brain confuses you, then you should perhaps consider using The Complete Guide to Everyday Kanji instead. The latter does not explicitly tell you a way of memorizing the characters, but it shows you how they evolved, and explains the components contained within each Kanji. With this information, you can easily devise your own ways of memorising the modern versions. If you are a beginner, however, and enjoy following along with a story-based, narrated guide to learning Kanji, then Heisig is also a good choice.

Here are some sample entries:

辞(ジ/や・める)
Combines 舌 (tongue) and 辛 (needle). Since criminals were tattooed, this combination brought to mind arguments in a court trial. Its derived meanings are: word, phrase, diction, make excuses, decline, resign.
事典 (ジ・テンdictionary), 辞める(や・める)

卓(タク)
A combination of 人 (person) and 早 meaning "prominent, conspicuous," like someone very early or fast. It also means "table."
食卓 (ショク・タクdining table)

昔(セキ/シャク/むかし)
Combines 日(day) and a graphic element interpreted as "laying one thing upon another," meaning "past days, long ago."
昔日(セキ・ジツ), 昔(むかし)

突(トツ/つ・く)
Originally had a dog (犬) in the mouth of a cave (穴) and means "abruptly, thrust out, protrude."
突然(トツ・ゼン suddenly), 突つ(つ・く poke,thrust, stab)

給(キュウ)
Combines 糸 (thread) and 合 (join together) and means: add, supplement, provide, wages, serve.
給料 (キュウ・リョウwages)