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Reader Response
July-August, 2002

American-born naturalized Japanese citizen shares his roadmap to kanji literacy

Hello Kanji Clinic.

I was asked some time ago by Mary to offer some thoughts on how I learned how to read Kanji. Well, I'm not sure if I can say anything new or so profound it would make your pencils drop, but for what it's worth:

I'm sure most of you reading this are already converts to the cause of Kanji. Without learning to read and write Japanese, you lose your two main avenues for wide-ranging self-expression and control of your fate in Japan.

Without being able to read, you will have to trust other people's interpretation of rules, notices, and other social and contractual agreements which will have a direct impact on your standard of life here in Japan. You can never be self-sufficient in the negotiations which stretch beyond oral communications, and most of them do.

Without being able to write, you will be unable to tell people your thoughts beyond the zone of air between your mouth and your listener's ear. Even if you write in your native tongue and have your articles translated, due to to sensibility filters and editorial constraints your articles may wind up at best only as close approximations of what you want other people to understand, and at worst as completely watered-down and toothless treatises that serve the interests of the audience, not the writer.

Illiteracy is not the way to live engagingly in a society. That is why universal literacy is one of the goals of all developed nations and world organizations. So let's move beyond the "why"s and discuss the "how"s.

As any educator can tell you, the learning process depends on the individual, and I cannot prescribe a one-size-fits-all process for people to absorb characters. However, I consider myself as having a language learning disability. Yes. Surprising to say, I always hated language learning in high school, and never did well in it (What does one expect? I took Latin, not French, or more usefully, Spanish, fool that I was--and thus I understood nothing about the communicative incentives behind language learning.) Also, I learn on a needs-based paradigm (meaning if I don't need the information, I don't bother learning it). This is why my living in Japan has become a virtuous circle for language study--for as I noted above, I need and read Kanji every single day of my life here in Japan.

My point is: Speaking as as a slow language learner, if I can learn in the way I will now describe, I bet others can too. Okay, rule number one:

Look around you: roadside signs; advertisements on public transportation; manga and the mass media; place names and personal names. Kanji is all around you, like horseflies in summer. You see a Kanji you don't know? Capture it. Write it down (or have somebody else write it for you) and learn it. Kanji are like building blocks--collect them and you can build your own language house. If Kanji cards work for you, fine, use them (they never worked for me because I can't learn lists of things--I need a context or an experience). But don't just say, "Ah, that's a Kanji I'll never learn", because you can. And the more you learn, the more you can learn.

Do your best, also, to make it fun. Learn the language of topics you are interested in for starters, otherwise the initial stages of language learning will become tedious and not habit-forming.

Do whatever it takes to get that kanji branded in your brain. Repetitive writing? Kanji card gazing? Depends on whether your memory works on a photographic basis or through manual reproduction. But in any case, I recommend that you 1) you get an electronic dictionary (I use a CANON WORD TANK, because with the "jukugo" function you can see how the Kanji makes words, and by triangulating between those words you can get the root meaning of the individual character. Other electronic dictionaries do the same, so shop around.). This will save time. Also, learn how to write the Kanji with proper stroke order (Don't compromise on this--it will help you not only to remember how to break the thing down to its component bits, but also how to write other Kanji as a collection of those components in future).

In other words, expose yourself to as much information about an individual character as you can cope with. I like to treat Kanji like experiences to acquire--or like merit badges, for those Boy and Girl Scouts out there. One by one does nicely. Once you understand the roots, it is much, much easier when you see the shoots.

For years I kept a fat notebook (in a i u e o order) of new Kanji and their jukugo I was learning, and wrote kanji, readings, and meanings--because I personally need manual reproduction to remember things. Like me, the notebook grew fat over the years; ultimately I found I didn't need it any more. So make your own dictionary, because once you master fully one Kanji after another, you will discover their synergy when used together.

Don't shy away from writing things in Japanese. Plenty of people out there on Kokusaika (Internationalism) binges will ask your opinion, so use that avenue to practice getting published. I learned how to write by trial-and-error (but if you have a chance to take a Japanese Writing course--DO SO! --because written Japanese is divided into all sorts of writing camps, and trial-and-error takes too much time.). It has been a hard slog, but from all the mistakes I made (I asked for proofreading help from native speakers on the relatively rare occasions when they had time; but most people I know don't know how to teach writing, and lots of others really don't know how to write well enough to escape the "cutes" and appeal to a wider audience) I wrote and rewrote until patterns started to form. Despite what your mentors may advise, aim for comprehensibility, not perfection, in the first stages of your writing. But there's a lot of TPO and esoterica out there, so expect it to take time. I have been studying writing for about sixteen years now, and it's only now starting to get respectfully stylistic.

As long as you keep at it, things will develop. You will hit plateaus, levels of fossilization, some discouragement from native speakers (many of whom will remain convinced that foreigners can never learn--when in fact Japanese is as learnable as any other language), and even mental blocks that will simply make you want to give it all up. Go to bed early on those difficult days and try to be fresh for the next day. But maintain that verve and curiosity as best you can.

Well, I have been living here for over fourteen years, and can read, write, and speak well enough to have no real problems in just about any social situation I encounter. Of course, words that I don't know pop up every day--just as they do for native speakers--but I don't fret. That's what dictionaries are for. Anyway, I have reached a stage where I can translate a hundred-character newspaper article in about twenty minutes, and write (in imperfect Japanese) about a page an hour. My shortcomings are that I still can't read novels very well, and I find that if the subject matter doesn't interest me I rarely bother with it (I write far more than I read, believe it or not). This is not to brag, but to encourage: Hey, if I can do it, I bet you can do it.

In sum, learning Kanji is only a matter of time and effort. And doing so will change your life in Japan for the better.

I hope this essay helps readers of the Kanji Clinic. I would love feedback.

Arudou Debito

Note: Arudou Debito (in Kanji, —L“Ή@ol) is a 37-year-old Hokkaido resident who took Japanese citizenship in 2000. His website, covering many topics about life and residency in Japan, may be found at http://www.debito.org (go to LINKS on this site for direct link). *****************************************************************************************
Component analysis kanji books for elementary school students

Caught your latest column yesterday, "For adults only--the component fast track to kanji literacy." You're correct and component analysis is the way I remember (or, more accurately, try to remember) kanji. It is perhaps an advantage for adults, but children, especially young children, are like little sponges and seem to remember just about anything.

I have no idea what the actual textbooks use, but for fourth graders, and especially for fifth and sixth graders, some auxillary books of kanji do use the "break it down into components" system as part of the mnemonics they recommend. And, I have one book (ŠΏŽš‘‚¨‚Ϊ‚¦Ž«“TAfrom ŠwKŒ€‹†ŽΠAwhich I consider truely excellent) which is designed for elementary school children but gives all the Joyo Kanji in terms of the components. I also have one book from NHK(ŠΏŽšƒ~ƒjŽš“T) which gives a lot of kanji using this system and seems to be designed for beginning junior high students.

Gary Harper
Another convert to Heisig: "This I can understand"

I started learning kanji two years ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, at University. This was your typical rote-learning style, which was based on learning about two hundred high frequency kanji.

When I came to Japan last year, I was really busy with two part time jobs, so my kanji went out the window. That is, until reading a book review of Jim Heisig's component based approach in a Friday issue of The Japan Times. "This I can understand," I thought. So I bought the book, and now have passed the five hundred mark, into the make your own story section. I've had a few people laugh at my explanations about how I'm learning the kanji, but I think they're just jealous, because they had such a hard time themselves. Especially when they see the reader reports in the Kanji Clinic.

Until next time,

Geoff Sinha
Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture
He suffers from homophone headaches, too

I write to say I enjoyed your Kanji Clinic column today on those pesky homophones. It was the best explanation I have read on this subject and on how to try to remember them.

Only yesterday, one of the expatriates at my American company here in Japan was asking about the differences between two homophones, hajimeru and hajimete. Your column is most timely. I am a longtime resident of Japan (with Japanese wife) and have a reasonable understanding of Kanji and Japanese. I did it the old fashioned way, rote memory and lots of writing by hand. Unfortunately, the advent of Japanese MS Word has seriously eroded my ability to remember how to write many Kanji. Now, when I do write in Japanese at work, it is mostly a process of recognition versus actually remembering.

However, I digress. To repeat, I enjoyed this column immensely.

Best regards,

Bruce McLin
Light at the end of the tunnel

I have only just recently found and been enlightened by your Kanji Clinic. It was such a relief to see that other people were in the same boat as me. I read through all the past columns and found them so interesting and helpful. I think the Kanji Clinic is a wonderful idea and is such a relief to non-native Japanese Kanji learners like myself. Hearing advice from a native English perspective makes Kanji learning seems somewhat more in sight and achievable.

I am 22 year old from Australia and have just started a years contract of teaching English to all ages here in Japan. Ten years ago I came to Japan for two weeks with an interlink program and stayed with two lovely host families. Since then I have had a love of the Japanese language and culture. From the age of 13 I have been studying the Japanese language, at high school then as my major at University during my Asian Studies degree. You`re right about the school systems being focused on teaching you something and then expecting you to remember it without teaching you a way or a process to do so. For the week`s test I would remember the Kanji and then for the next week`s Kanji test I would often forget the Kanji from the week before. Therefore after 8 years of study I received my degree but felt I should know more than I do.

I have now returned to Japan to fulfill my dream. Firstly, to be fluent in Japanese, and secondly to be able to read and write the 1,945 Kanji necessary to read newspapers and everyday signs. Until recently I had always thought that I had to learn 7,000 or so Kanji to do this. Finally, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel! I realise 1,945 isn`t a small number either but I already recognise 300 or so and understand the `juukugo` that you talked about. I`m hoping to know them all in the year that I am here.

Also I have always wondered about bringing up a child with two languages at once. I thought maybe it might be a little too much for children to grasp, but after your insight into the subject I realise it really is the best time for them to learn, while they`re "fresh sponges."

Thank you

Karen White
Iwata, Japan
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