Kanji Clinic #57 The Japan Times, July 22, 2004
"Make mincemeat of multi-stroke monster kanji"

My son, a second-grader, penciled the strokes of his assigned kanji one by one, counting aloud in a sing-song voice: "Ichi, ni, san, shi, ...juuhachi! (1, 2, 3, 4...18). Mom, can you believe it? This kanji has 18 strokes!" Adhering to the prescribed stroke order, Lukas copied j (YOU, day of the week) five times before moving on to the next character. He and his classmates appear nonplussed by visually complex kanji like j as they steadily advance towards literacy in their native language.

I remember my own first encounter with j, when I was a beginning Japanese student in my late 20s. I longed to accomplish the elementary task of writing the days of the week in my target language, but no matter how many times I copied j, its shape resolutely refused to remain in my long-term memory. I began to refer to characters like my nemesis j--comprised of, say, 17 or more strokes-- as "monster kanji."

Of the 1,945 general-use (jouyou) kanji used in Japan, approximately a hundred have a stroke count of 17 or more. One, (KAN, appraise), boasts a whopping 23. Monster kanji tend to intimidate kanji novices, appearing in small print as dark blobs with nearly indistinguishable elements. Systematically cutting them down into their comprising parts, preferably in a large-print format, can render these monsters far less formidable.

Viewing j--with its three components (sun), H (wings), and (bird)-- as "the sun winging like a bird," for example, makes it a snap to remember the kanji meaning "the passage of a day."

Some monster kanji are no more than compilations of basic-level kanji, familiar even to beginning kanji aspirants. Take a look at these wimps disguised as monsters: [Mnemonics are from Kenneth C. Henshallfs "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters"(Tuttle)].

(KYOU, compete): Two elder brothers Z stand up to compete in a stand-off.
d (odo-kasu, threaten): Threatening d words from someone's mouth make you see red twice over.
(to-bu, leap): Leap with your feet flying like bird's wings H.

Other kanji with 17-plus strokes can be more intimidating. These are comprised of components that might be considered "mini-monsters" in and of themselves, because they have high stroke counts and are generally unfamiliar to kanji novices. If you are serious about gaining literacy in Japanese you'll want to master mini-monster components like the following [Mnemonics are from Joseph R. De Roo's "2001 Kanji" (Bonjinsha)]:

(a component in u, w, and \): gstructureh
Comprised of (well) and (again): In ancient China, layers of beams were repeated again and again to create the structure of a well.

(, , ): gsunseth
Comprised of [(big) + (fire)], (sun) and (small): Initially a big ball of fire, the intensity of the sun gradually becomes smaller at sunset.

(, , ): gsuperviseh
Comprised of b (minister), (variant of l, person), (one), and M (dish): The minister is the person who supervises every one of the dishes prepared in the Emperorfs kitchen.

Far from being obscure, some monster kanji are so commonly used that even Japanese second-, third-, and fourth-graders are required to know them. How many of the following can you provide with an English meaning and pronunciation? (Answers are at the end of the column).

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.c 9. 10.j
a.mirror/kagami b.face/kao c.test/KEN d.topic/DAI e.day of the week/YOU f.variety/RUI g.observe/KAN h.compete/KYOU i.discussion/GI j.request/nega-u

Kanji with high stroke counts are likely to rear their heads at any time, but don't avert your eyes in fear when they do. You can make mincemeat of monster kanji by unfailingly viewing them as the sum of their parts.

Answers: 1.b 2.d 3.g. 4.c 5.f 6.j 7.a 8.i 9.h 10.e

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