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Column #17 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, March 15, 2002
"Create a map to navigate the roadblocks of look-alike kanji"

As a student of a beginners' Japanese class, I was aware of only one way to master the shapes of kanji: brute, forced memory. I dutifully wrote the assigned kanji --over and over-- in the little squares provided in my workbook. Every "100" I scored on a weekly quiz made me feel confident that I was headed toward literacy in Japanese.

Yes, I was one happy kanji camper-- until a distressing obstacle came along: look-alike kanji. At first, remembering V was a breeze. That is, until my sensei assigned v. Then up popped and . Ouch!

For a while, especially after Japanese word processors and then computers became part of my everyday life, I consoled myself with this notion: "I won't be writing kanji very often, so just being able to recognize them will suffice." Increasingly, however, look-alike kanji became impediments to rapid reading, particularly when they appeared in unfamiliar compound words. I lacked the ability to analyze the detailed features of strikingly similar characters like / , A/^, /, /, //, ////n, ///, /@/, //^, A/, M//n/m, ////m, and so on. @

Frustration with look-alike-kanji was a major factor in my taking a break of several years from serious kanji study. I eventually got back on the track towards literacy in nihongo, however, with the discovery of several excellent kanji self-instruction books that employ "component analysis." I learned to stop viewing kanji as whole units and instead to start using my adult powers of logic to analyze their component parts.

Using component analysis, a student systematically divides each character into mini, manageable elements made up of anywhere from one to six strokes. Some component names (e.g., for "tree" and for "ax") are based on ancient Chinese explanations. Others, such as "dollar sign" and "sunglasses" , are arbitrarily and even humorously drawn from our contemporary daily life.

A kanji learner can recall the shapes and meanings of look-alike characters by linking their components together in vivid stories like these:


V sky/heaven
The sky is a kind of "ceiling", a particularly "big" one. (Note that when handwritten, the uppermost stroke of V may be shorter than the stroke below it).

v husband
I can see my husband's "head" sticking up above the "sky" V. He always has his "head" in the clouds!)

That flying "object" way up in the "sky" V is an arrow.

My "husband" v is always losing things. Some "object" , probably his wallet, is ready to fall from his left side.


An ancient rule-maker (a ruler) had "money" L (shells, used instead of coins) and a "sabre" .

In those days, "people" stood beside their "rulers" -- if they valued their lives!

"People" were required to make regular visits to the tombs of exemplary military heroes. Each tomb contained "bones" and a "sabre" .

A "water-ruler" ( plus ) measures fathoms.

Some of these stories spring from the imaginations of three of my favorite kanji storytellers: Joseph De Roo ("2001 Kanji"), James Heisig ("Remembering the Kanji"), and Mark Donaghue ("KanjiCan" software). Their kanji tales have become woven together--along with some of my own creation-- in an intricate, personal road map for remembering the shapes of all the nearly 2,000 general-use characters.

If you are just setting out on a kanji-learning journey-- or, perhaps, have become lost along the way-- I urge you to use component analysis. Take the time to equip yourself with a map for masterfully analyzing kanji shapes, and you will find yourself cruising down the kanji highway, navigating with ease those former roadblocks: look-alike characters.

To learn more about a variety of kanji learning materials that utilize component analysis, please go to Book Reviews on this site.