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Kanji Isn't That Hard!
by Yoshiaki Takebe
Aruku (ALC Press), 1993
ISBN4-87234-217-8

Reviewed by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Tackling all of the 1,945 general-use characters through one of the highly organized component analysis systems described in these reviews may be more of a learning task than some Kanji Clinic visitors are ready to take on. Kanji Isn't That Hard! is recommended for those who have more limited goals, or who would simply like to get their feet wet using component analysis to learn kanji.

Takebe's text covers 414 characters. The majority of these are "kyouikui" kanji-- the 1,000 characters learned by Japanese elementary school children-- but others are more advanced general-use characters. Takebe's first 192 characters are explained in Japanese with an English translation beside each, and the last 222 are explained only in Japanese (with furigana provided for every kanji in the explanation). Illustrations accompany the first 192 entries.

In his text, Takebe offers 24 "rules" for understanding how kanji components fit together in individual characters, and gives examples that illustrate each rule.

Here is a sampling:

Rule 1: Kanji Express Meaning
÷ cherry
–Ø is the kanji for "tree." — is the kanji for "woman." ƒc is a decoration. Cherry blossoms are very beautiful. A woman is very beautiful when she wears a hair decoration. ÷ is a tree which is like a woman wearing a hair decoration. Imagine a cherry tree in bloom as a gaily-dressed woman. Isn't it a beautiful image?

Rule 4: Circles Became Squares
‘« foot
A knee has a round shape. Look at the kanji ‘«. The Œû on top is the outline of a knee. The circle became a square. The figure below this is usually written Ž~. Ž~ is the outline of a footprint. Ž~ means "to stop." The kanji ‘« is a knee and a footprint.

Rule 8: Adjectives Can Also Become Pictures
‚@high
With the adjective "high," you can tell the meaning by looking at a picture of a high building. In old China, a "high building" was the entrance of a palace. Look at the kanji ‚. The Œû on the bottom is the entrance. There is also a second floor. Over the second floor is a splendid roof. ‚ means "high."

Rule 11: Chinese People Invented Kanji
ŒZ elder brother
In China, boys are great. Among boys, the elder brother is greater. The elder brother says many things: "Do this! Don't do that!" The top part of this kanji is the Œû (mouth). The bottom part is ƒ‹ (legs). The elder brother is a person with only a big mouth.

Rule 16: There Are Many Types of Hands
•‰ to be defeated
The top ƒN in this kanji is a hand from above. The ŠL in the lower part is an outline of a shell. In old China shells were treasures. When you were defeated by your opponent, you gave him or her your treasure. In the case of the kanji •‰, the hand from above is taking the treasure.

Rule 24: Kanji Are Interesting
õ to dye
The ƒV in this kanji means "water." The –Ø is a tree. A piece of cloth is put into some colored water and then dried on a tree. It is put in water again. It is dried again. This is repeated ‹ã (nine) times. By doing this, the cloth is dyed a beautiful color.

Takebe's entertaining component analysis stories, which serve to tie all the parts of a character together as a memory aid, are not necessarily explanations of what the creators of kanji originally had in mind. Some of his stories are based on the true "roots" of characters, but only when, in Takebe's judgment, they are the most efficient way to remember the meaning of kanji. In a sense, Takebe says in his notes to teachers, they are teaching a "lie" by straying from etymology; he advises teachers to remember, however, that their goal should be to produce kanji readers and not kanji scholars.

Japanese teachers and other advanced readers may want to delve into Takebe's excellent resource bookuŠ¿Žš‚Ì‹³‚¦•ûv(Kanji no oshiekata). This volume explains his common-sense approach to kanji learning in more detail, and provides explanations for all the 1,945 general-use characters.

Kanji Isn't That Hard! and uŠ¿Žš‚Ì‹³‚¦•ûv are often available in major English bookstores in Japan, and may also be ordered from:

Bonjinsha Bookstore (Tokyo) TEL 03-3263-3959 www.alc.co.jp

Bonjinsha Bookstore (Osaka) TEL 06-6307-5400

Japan Book Center (Santa Monica, CA, USA) 310-453-1022