Column #105 Kanji Clinic The Japan Times, September 15, 2010
"196 more reasons to explore Heisig's imagination"

Last spring, the bar was raised for foreign kanji learners aiming to attain literacy in Japanese through mastery of the general-use (joyo) kanji, when the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology announced the addition of 196 characters to the original list of 1,945 joyo kanji approved three decades ago.

Many kanji learners who view memorizing kanji as a dreaded chore--including my 15-year-old native Japanese-speaking son--groaned at news of the additions and resolved to procrastinate as long as possible on tackling them.

Devotees of James Heisigfs three-volume self-instructional system, gRemembering the Kanjig (RTK), however, are already diving into the additions with a learning supplement recently made available as a free pdf download (

It is no surprise that Heisig has gotten a jump-start on other kanji textbook publishers in providing learning tools for the joyo additions, since RTK is not designed for dabblers in kanji learning. Vol. 1 teaches the shapes and meanings of the joyo list in its entirety, Vol. 2 explains the pronunciations, and Vol. 3 presses on with more than 1,000 additional characters.

Heisgfs system challenges some of the most widely accepted tenets of traditional kanji pedagogy. First, the learning of pronunciations is postponed entirely until the meanings and shapes of all joyo kanji have been mastered--a gdivide-and-conquerh strategy. Second, each kanji is assigned one gkeywordh meaning in the learnerfs native language (English, Spanish, German, French, and Dutch versions of RTK are available). Third, kanji are divided-- building-block style--into named components used in the creation of vivid stories (not based on historical origin of kanji) for remembering keywords and shapes.

This kanji iconoclast encourages learners to tap into their adult powers of logic and abstraction-- not to mention a childlike sense of fun and imagination-- to create unforgettable kanji memory stories. Anything can happen in Heisigfs richly imaginative Kanji-Land, as demonstrated in these examples from his joyo additions supplement:

A woman is jealous of the grockh (slang for gdiamondh) on the ring finger of another womanfs left hand.

Dig into your flesh (a variant of flesh) and pull out a lymph gland. Now give it a squeeze and watch a spring (white +water ) of lymph spout out of it.

Let your fingers do the walking as you make headway through the Yellow Pages in search of something hard to find.

A gold key presented to you by the mayor gives access to all buildings in the city.

Market s stalls are set up around an immense persimmon tree with watermelon-sized fruit. The tree is sacred, so the villagers allow the persimmons to fall and wreak havoc on buyers and sellers.

Someone who is displeasingly fat goes to a spa whose waters promise to cleanse him of his corpulence. As he sits in the water, the pounds melt away, leaving a greasy scum on top.

RTK users will already be familiar with such whimsical component names as gsiesta,h gtruckersf convoy,h and gturkey,h along with traditional names used in the stories above. Heisigfs story for 29-stroke joyo addition T (gloom, utsu), involving bulldozers, tin cans, and agro-businesses, will no doubt render kanji traditionalists speechless. The sad fact remains that even many Japanese cannot write this eye-popper from memory (See T in large type below).

Despite its detractors, (who might not want to take a look at Heisigfs sales figures), RTK has convinced devotees they can master the meaning and shapes of all the joyo kanji by viewing them as the sum of their parts. For them, the joyo additions-- far from being an annoyance--provide a good excuse for getting more creative kicks with kanji in Kanji-land.

Match each of the following joyo additions from todayfs column, accompanied by its componentsf names, with its meaning and pronunciation below.
1. i (woman+rock)@
2. ` (tree+market)@
3. (fingers+walk)@
4. (water+fat)@@
5. B (flesh+spring)
6. (gold+buildings)

a. key (kagi)
b. gland (SEN)
c. persimmon (kaki)
d. jealousy (TO)
e. make headway (CHOKU)
f. cleanse (TA)

Answers: 1.d 2.c 3.e 4.f 5.b 6.a

A free download of the first 125 pages of gRemembering the Kanji, Vol. 1h may be accessed here.
Read a review of "Remembering the Kanji 1."


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