Column #98 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, August 19, 2009
"Driving you 'crazy for kanji' in a good way"

Check out Kushner's Joy o' Kanji (fun, informative photo-filled essays about each Joyo kanji)

Here's an addiction that doesn’t require a 12-step recovery program. For the past six years, Berkeley, California-based freelance writer Eve Kushner ( has been a self-proclaimed, unapologetic “kanji-holic.” Kushner details her passion for Sino-Japanese characters in a newly published textbook, “Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters” (Stone Bridge Press).

Kushner, who penned “Crazy” in the first-person, is particularly intrigued with the way kanji components fit together logically to form individual characters, and with the “elegant construction” of kanji compound words: “Teasing out the tangles in kanji, breaking the code, provides me with endless hours of entertainment, as well as thrilling epiphanies,” she writes in the introduction to her book.

Kushner asks the questions most foreign adults learning kanji have scratched our heads over and details the answers in language we can understand. Topics tackled include the evolution of kanji, its pronunciation system and “architecture,” two-four character compounds, how kanji are used in everyday life in Japan, Japanese feelings about kanji, Chinese hanzi and Korean hanja, and tips for studying kanji.

Each chapter begins with a topic overview followed by games, photos of characters in real life, and a wealth of topic-related examples. Readers may proceed straight through the book from cover to cover or alternatively jump around among chapters. The difficulty level provided for each game heads off potential user frustration.

Kushner’s refreshing insights into kanji, including the following ones, pepper the book:

“Kanji are pictures plus sounds. It’s as if kanji can stream audio and video, compared with the mere audio function of kana or roman letters.

“Kanji continually opens my eyes to the meaning of English words. Only when I encountered the kanji for “iceberg” (氷山, ice + mountain, hyouzan) and “glacier” (氷河, ice + river, hyouga) did I even ponder the difference between the two concepts. “Iceberg” refers to a floating, icy mass. Meanwhile, a glacier, as I have learned, is a body of ice moving down a slope or valley, spreading outward in a river-like way. So the characters nail it perfectly!”

Kushner creatively dubs phonetic components (e.g., 反-- with the Chinese-derived pronunciation (on-yomi) “HAN”--found in 飯 rice, 板 board, and 版 printing block, all also pronounced “HAN”) “on-echoes,” “because the on-yomi reverberates like an echo through kanji containing these common elements.” She compares figuring out correct okurigana-use after transitive/intransitive kanji verb-stems (e.g., 止める to-meru /止まる to-maru) to finding the least common denominator in fractions.

In her “Wonderful Words” chapter, Kushner dishes up kanji compounds for concepts that don’t exist in English, including: 置き傘, okigasa: spare umbrella left at one’s workplace = to leave behind + umbrella; 花恥ずかしい, hanahazukashii: so beautiful as to put a flower to shame = flower + shame; and 畳水練, tatamisuiren: like swim practice on tatami (i.e., useless book learning as opposed to life experience) = tatami mat + water + practice.

Whether you have just embarked on your kanji-learning adventure, have attained “kanji guru” status, or find yourself somewhere in the middle, “Crazy for Kanji” will provide you with new information about Sino-Japanese characters, not to mention a generous dose of inspiration. If you have ever labored through humdrum kanji-learning aids, you may be pleased to discover that page-turners in the genre do in fact exist.

An online review of this book is available at
A more detailed review of this book at is here.

QUIZ: Eve Kushner’s “What’s the Meaning of This!?”

(Excerpted from “Crazy for Kanji,” with permission from Stone Bridge Press).

Choose the correct meaning of the following compound words. Answers are below.

1. 非常口 (not + normal + mouth)
b.emergency exit
c.Mick Jagger’s mouth

2.お見舞い (honorific o + to see + to dance)
a. to attend a ballet commit a crime visit a sick person

3.改札口 (to reform + paper money + opening)
b.change in interest rates
c.stock market

4.牛歩 (cow + walk)
a.herding cattle
b.snail’s pace

5.化生 (to change + life)
b.midlife crisis

6.出所 (to leave + place)
a.departure in a vehicle
c.release from prison

1.b. hijouguchi 2.c.omimai 3.a. kaisatsuguchi 4.b. gyuuho 5.a. kasei 6.c. shussho

If you are new to you may want to begin reading columns here.

Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links