Kanji Pict-o-Graphix: Over 1,000 Japanese Kanji and Kana Mnemonics
by Michael Rowley
Stone Bridge Press, 1992
ISBN 0-9628137-0-2

Reviewed by Eve Kushner, author of Crazy for Kanji: A Student's Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters


I'm not a visual person, which is strange, since I specialize in kanji! It may seem even stranger that I fell in love with Kanji Pict-o-Graphix (and then with kanji) while barely noticing Michael Rowley's copious visual mnemonics. Sure, the one on the cover always catches my attention; ~ means "stop," and in a great likeness of ~, Rowley has drawn a police officer extending his arm as if to say "Halt!" This mnemonic has lodged in my brain over the years and proven helpful. Still, I'm always amazed that people reduce the book to an assortment of illustrative memory tricks, when Kanji Pict-o-Graphix offers so much more.

For each character, Rowley presents the meanings, on-yomi, kun-yomi, visual and verbal mnemonics, breakdown of the components, numbers cross-referencing those components, and occasional references to endnotes. It's amazing how much information appears in a small area that's not at all cramped. With abundant white space and pictures, the pages suggest the lightness of a child's picture book--a lightness that comes as a relief when one feels overwhelmed by kanji.

In an ingenious arrangement, Rowley presents a radical or a basic shape such as , which is not a radical but rather a kanji pronounced as KYOU or KEI and meaning "capital." He then shows how this shape pops up in an array of kanji, such as (RYOU, suzu(shii): cool), i (KEI, KE: scene), and e (EI, kage: shadow). These arrays form the bulk of the book; there's very little prose to be had.


The kanji arrays enable you to do several things:

1) Grasp that characters consist of discrete building blocks, rather than being random bunches of baffling lines. Using Rowley's book, you learn to pick certain meaningful shapes out of characters. Sometimes that's easy. For example, in the display about the "person" radical C and the "person" kanji l, you see the common kanji d (SHI, JI, tsuka(eru): to serve, work, do), learning that it breaks down as "person" (C) + "samurai" (m). If you've been in the kanji world long enough, that's not surprising. It's more eye-opening to recognize that (KAI, a(u): to meet) combines "person" (l) and "cloud" (]). And it's downright astounding that R (BOU, tobo(shii): scarce, destitute) features C on top. Another mind-blower: y (KYUU, oyo(bi): reach, extend) includes l, as you can see more clearly if you mentally erase the jaggedy "3" shape.

2) Compare easily confused characters, such as x (KYUU, yasu(mu): rest) and (TAI, TEI, karada: body), which both appear in a display about trees ().

3) See how characters with common shapes often share an on-yomi. One page features four characters containing (SEI, SHOU: blue)--namely, (SEI, ha(reru): clear, bright), (JOU, SEI, nasake: feeling, pity), (SEI, SHOU: spirit, vitality), and (SEI, SHOU, kiyo(i): pure, clean). Surveying the book's clean pages, you can quickly notice that all these kanji have the on-yomi of SEI and sometimes of SHOU.

This book taught me facts that even many native speakers don't know. For instance, I've met few Japanese aware that the component (e.g., in W, SHUU, atsu(maru): to gather) means "bird." In the same vein, Rowley shows that the left side of V (SHIN, atara(shii): new) means "needle" and that the left side of (HAN, ho: sail) means "cloth."

From Rowley I also learned about the component on the left of @ (IN: institute) and on the right of s (TO, miyako: capital). He explains that as the shape shifts from left to right, its meaning changes from "hill" to "village." I later researched this fascinating issue, and as I wrote in Crazy for Kanji, I found that some authorities consider these to be two separate radicals, particularly because they each had older forms that looked quite different from one another. Both of those early forms meant "hill," but one primarily meant "village." If it weren't for Rowley, I would never have investigated the matter.

My first exposure to kanji came in a class where both the textbook and teacher taught kanji as poorly as possible. Rowley's book came to the rescue. Using it to scrutinize the complex characters assigned in class, I would disassemble their parts until I had dissolved them down to their most basic elements--the protons, electrons, and neutrons, you might say. I represented this information in charts that resembled family trees, except that the information flowed sideways. One kanji broke into perhaps three components, and each component then split off into two more pieces, and so on, until they could break no further.

I can explain this best with an example from the book:

(RI, ura: reverse side, 1017)

Rowley has given each character a number for cross-referencing purposes. The number for is 1017.

The character initially looks daunting, but that feeling dissipates when you see how Rowley breaks it down:

(top third), which means "shelter" (1147)
(middle third), which means "village" (1086)
(bottom third), which means "clothing" (1021)

I'm inspired to look up all three components to find out whether they, too, break down and to see where it all ends.

At 1147, I find that is indeed a component meaning "shelter." Hmm, Denshi Jisho has it as "kettle lid." Kenneth Henshall (who wrote the fantastic Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, from which Rowley drew most of his etymological information) doesn't say one way or the other. I'm not sure what to make of this discrepancy.

At 1086, I discover a different character meaning "village"--not but . (At , the cross-reference should have said 1087, not 1086. Abounding with small errors like this, the book is itching for a good proofreading.) Anyway, 1087 is nearby, showing that divides into "field" (c) and "soil" (y). Neither character divides further.

At 1021, I find (I, koromo: clothing). I also discover a page of kanji containing and its variant form, the radical on the left side of (RA, hadaka: naked). And I soon get lost in characters such as (SOU, SHOU, yosoo(u): wear, clothing, gear) and (SAI, saba(ku), ta(tsu): judge, cut, decide).

Moving from character to character in this way has helped me to make sense of the vast network of kanji. Textbooks often teach the characters as if they're isolated, when in fact they're almost all interrelated. Rowley's book provided the first map I ever had. And just as I marvel at the genius of those who create kanji dictionaries, I'm full of admiration at how masterfully Rowley has presented so much head-spinny information in a calming, clear way.

His book is also a departure from the grimness with which people and books often teach kanji. Playfulness particularly colors Rowley's verbal mnemonics. For instance, (ka: mosquito) contains an "insect" () on the left and "text" () on the right. He writes, "A textbook case of mosquito bites." Yes, that could definitely help someone remember the components! (I can't say the same for the accompanying illustration, which is more confusing than anything.)

As if all this weren't enough, Rowley went beyond the call of duty by providing an efficient, informative introduction to the book, as well as mini-introductions to each section. Each bite-sized piece of text tackles a kanji-related topic, including the formation of compounds (e.g., kun-kun versus on-on combinations), look-alike characters, kanji that repeat within a word, furigana, okurigana, stroke order, radicals, and even kanji dictionaries.

The book also contains great visual and verbal mnemonics for the kana. These mnemonics helped me through the pain of learning hiragana and katakana, giving me a glimmer of hope on days when I was sure I would never be able to keep and straight. In fact, the mnemonics helped me so much that I violated the publisher's copyright restrictions and photocopied pages for all my classmates. (Sorry, Stone Bridge Press! That's now my publisher, too. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Michael Rowley and I are in touch professionally and are Facebook friends.)

I do have some gripes about the book. It's easy to come away from it believing that every component in a character adds to the total meaning, when that's true only in about 25 percent of cases. Much more often, one component contributes to the pronunciation of the kanji. Rowley does explain that on page 8. Furthermore, endnotes indicate that particular components are contributing sound. But because the book isn't a work of prose, one tends to overlook the introduction and the endnotes and to focus on the main pages, so one can get the wrong idea about the role of components.

Furthermore, the book covers a little more than 1,000 kanji, and they're not all from the Joyo (general-use) set (the nearly 2,000 characters one needs for basic literacy), so about half of the necessary characters are missing. That's understandable; Rowley acknowledges in the introduction that he couldn't think of a mnemonic for some characters. But if one is hooked on his handy breakdowns, it can be disappointing to look up a kanji in the index and not to find it.

There's one final point to address. Many detractors call the book a poor tool for kanji memorization. And given that Rowley has devised "mnemonics," you could reasonably conclude that memorization is indeed the goal. But memorization isn't the only way to learn kanji, and this book is far more than an elaborate set of flashcards. Kanji Pict-o-Graphix shows you how to learn from kanji in a deep way. Engaging with each character, as the breakdowns encourage you to do, will lead to a strong command of kanji and a fearlessness about exploring the system on a micro and macro level. Most of all, the book inspires love
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