Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links

Column #15 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, February 1, 2002
"Jim Heisig, kanji river guide, offers tours in three languages"

For us foreigners faced with a never-ending stream of printed Japanese materials flowing from Japan's presses, setting our personal kanji learning goals is like visiting the Grand Canyon: Are we going to be satisfied, having learned several hundred "survival" kanji, to stand at a vista point, gazing at the Colorado River far below? Or are we somehow going to get all the way down and enjoy the waters of the river?

Many who have decided to take the plunge into true Japanese literacy have found an excellent kanji river guide in James W. Heisig, author of the revolutionary three-volume, self-study series "Remembering the Kanji." With the 1999 publication of Volume I in French, "Les kanji dans la tete" (Kanji in Your Head), and the brand-new 2001 Spanish language release, "Kanji para recordar" (Kanji for Remembering), native Spanish and French speakers can also now join "Skipper Heisig" on his raft.

A permanent fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Heisig became the author of kanji-learning textbooks by accident: As a newcomer to Japan in the 1970's, he created his own whimsical--but extremely effective-- system for quick mastery of Sino-Japanese characters, and in 1977 he was convinced by friends to polish his rudimentary notes for publication.

When the first edition of "Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters," was released, Heisig expected "no more than a short buzz, followed by a firm whack into oblivion." It was not to be. Sales figures of the first volume, now in its fourth edition and 15th printing, have topped 100,000. The "buzz" has turned into a roar.

Because he openly challenges some of the most widely accepted tenets of traditional kanji pedagogy, Heisig is dismissed by many teachers and learners of Japanese. In the Heisig system: 1) The learning of kanji pronunciations is totally postponed until a student knows the meaning of and has mastered writing all 1,945 of Japan's general-use characters; 2) Each of the 1,945 is assigned a single keyword in the student's native language; and 3) Every kanji element is given a name, often fanciful, that forms the basis for creating imaginative-memory stories. These stories allow kanji neophytes to readily associate the shape of a complex kanji with its keyword.

Born in the United States, Heisig learned Spanish as a young man in Mexico and later returned there to teach. He recently completed an extensive sabbatical in Spain and Latin America; in a recent interview in Nagoya, Heisig told me of the ways he is building cultural and scholastic-- as well as linguistic-- bridges between Japan and the Spanish-speaking world.

In Barcelona, he met professional translators Marc Bernabe and Veronica Calafell, who felt-- as a result of their own struggles to locate comprehensive and up-to-date kanji learning materials in Spanish--that undertaking a project to translate "Remembering the Kanji" would be especially well-received.

Bernabe refers to the rendering of Heisig's magnum opus into Spanish as a "re-invention" rather than a "translation." Many of Heisig's original stories needed to be replaced due to cultural and word-association differences. For instance, his keyword "carry" is associated in "Remembering the Kanji" with "sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home," but this would make no sense to someone unfamiliar with the American spiritual. Component labels such as "kazoo," "ketchup" and "Thanksgiving" were similarly problematic.

The French language version of "Remembering the Kanji," by scientist Yves Maniette, gives Francophones access to Heisig's method.

Spanish speakers may read the first 117 pages of "Kanji para recordar" here and a review of it (in Spanish) here

A word of caution to polyglot readers: Heisig suggests that to avoid confusion you select just one language-Spanish, French, or English-- in which to master the shapes and meanings of the general-use kanji. And stay tuned, he says, for Portuguese and German versions of "Remembering the Kanji."

Come on in, the water's great, especially with Jim Heisig as your kanji river guide!

Update: The German version has also now been published. Details are here.
Free download of the first 125 pages of Remembering the Kanji I, English version.