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Reader Response
September-October, 2002

Japanese "gets in the way" of his kanji study

I live down in Kagoshima and am an episodic learner of Kanji. Just like New Year promises which disappear like a puff of smoke after two weeks, my studies stutter to a halt after the same period. I hate being illiterate but can't find the energy to really get to grips with reading Japanese.

A week or so ago my wife and I were watching a Chinese video. Neither of us could understand the Chinese but my wife was happily reading the Japanese subtitles. Getting pretty bored I watched her and realised she was also getting incidental information from the Chinese 'Kanji' which appeared in scenes of the movie. I didn't think any more about it until I was driving to work one day last week.

I realised I was reading many of the road signs: although in Kanji I was reading them in English. The memory of the video came back to me. Putting the two things together I got that 'Eureka' feeling. I don't need Japanese to read Japanese! Kanji are independent of language. They carry a sense meaning to which you can attach any language's equivalent meaning.

There is always the assumption that when you learn Kanji you must be using this as a way to learn Japanese. Reading is largely a private matter though, and so why not read the Kanji in English or French or whatever happens to be your native language.

I am going to try learning to read again, but this time in English. Later I may feel confident enough to actually read Japanese. I will try to hold the Kanji { as "basis, book, hon" and not "hon, basis, book" in my mind. Not until I have a lot of Kanji under my belt will I try to start reading Kanji in Japanese.


Graham Telfer

Note: Readers who found Mr. Telfer's letter thought-provoking may also enjoy reading Column #3--"You, too, can be a heavyweight in kanji sumo" and Column #4--"How do I read it? Let me count the ways". (Go to Previous Columns).

A vocabulary-based approach allowed him to break through to literacy

I enjoyed reading your articles on kanji learning. For me, the "breakthrough", so to speak, did not come from a component style of learning (such as Heisig), but from realizing two important concepts:

1) When you read Japanese, you are reading words, not individual kanji (except in the cases where the kanji itself is a word).

2) You do not need to learn 1,945 kanji before you even attempt to read something.

The first concept led me to approach kanji learning from a "vocabulary based" standpoint rather than a "character based" standpoint. The two best series' I know for this method are "Kanji in Context" published by the Japan Times, and the Bonjinsha company's "Kanji Book" series (Basic Kanji Book 1&2 and Intermediate Kanji Book 1&2).

Unfortunately, some learners seem to operate under the idea that once you learn the English meaning and readings of the 1,945 jouyou kanji, all that's left is grammar and then you can read Japanese. The assumption is that with the meanings of the characters under your control, you can guess the meanings of the compounds. I also had this idea when I started studying Japanese, but I was increasingly frustrated seeing words that were made up of kanji I knew, but being unable to read the words.

Perhaps I just have a poor imagination, but I often find it difficult or impossible to guess the meaning of a jukugo from the component kanji, even if I know the "meaning" of the kanji -- and there's always the danger of an incorrect guess. Often when I try to read Japanese texts, I am hindered not only because there are kanji I don't know, but also because there are jukugo I can't understand (despite being able to pronounce them).

The two series I mentioned above also provide a great deal of reading practice, not just characters and readings. For me, the absolute best way to learn a new kanji is in context, both in the context of a jukugo and the context of reading passages.

As for the second concept, if you're not looking for 100% comprehension you can read Japanese with 1000 kanji (or even less), provided you have a good handle on the jukugo. I've only studied around 1000 characters, but I find myself able to read newspaper articles with around 75% comprehension (and often the lack of comprehension is because of jukugo I do not know, not kanji.) In this sense I really do agree with a frequency-based approach.

I think that too many learners labor under the horrifying spectre of the "1,945 jouyou kanji", when in fact you don't need all of those kanji to try reading Japanese, and to really read Japanese with 100% fluency you can't stop at the 1,945 mark.

However, in the end I think it's important that everyone work out their own strategy for learning kanji. I found the vocabulary-based approach the best suited to my needs and ability -- but others find an approach like Heisig's the most helpful. A mix of the approaches might work for other people -- to first study the common components, and then move onto a frequency-based approach with an emphasis on vocabulary.

Also, to add one random tip for something that helped to increase my "passive" kanji knowledge: If you use flash cards for vocab study, always write the kanji on the card regardless of whether you know the kanji or not. If you do not know the kanji, either write the reading as furigana above the kanji, or put it in the upper right or left of the card. Don't force yourself to learn the kanji, but always look at them and try to remember them if you can.

So I guess the point of this entire rambling message is that there's not one "correct" or "best" way to learn kanji. Perhaps my suggestions will help people who aren't having so many problems with the shapes and readings of the kanji, but who are still struggling to read Japanese texts. And I really do recommend that people check out the two texts I mentioned above.

Chris Kern
Austin, Texas, USA
Introducing "Yomiyasui"

Dear Kanji Clinic,

I want to read contemporary Japanese texts, in something close to real-time. However I lack the enthusisasm and mega-concentration necessary for going the the multi-stage process of going through a Kanji dictionary identifying radicals, and counting strokes, then going through a J-E dictionary looking up the word. And this, for every other unknown word that crops up in a text.

So I put together a Web application which uses Jim Breen's Edict and Kanjidic, and the Chasen morphological analyser, and makes all the words clickable. It is at:

The format is a bit different from some of the other Web readers (better, I think), and I can add new texts with no hassle. Longer texts are presented to the user 10 lines at a time, so you don't have to wait forever to download megabytages. It is possible to print out the texts with an attached vocabulary, for anyone wishing to study away from the computer, in the link marked "Same Texts with a Hard Vocabulary".

I'm happy to add new texts, of readers' interest, to make the application more generally useful. (Indeed I wouldn't mind adding some of the University of Virginia archived texts, but there is a question of permissions).

In my day job I'm working on Machine Translation using parallel texts as resources, so I intend to improve the reading application with word and term translations extracted from the corpora.

This Web application has become an indispensible assistant for me in my dysfunctional Japanese learning efforts. I hope it can be helpful to a lot more people.


Stephen Nightingale


Kanji literacy: The key to closer Canadian/Japanese relations?

Last year on September 11 I was in Japan and stayed up the whole night watching TV as that terrible event unfolded. Recently I watched the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's coverage of the anniversary of 9/11. The focus was not just on the events themselves and how Americans were impacted, but also how it had effected Canada. There were no doubt similar shows on Japanese TV at the same time and with the same focus.

I'm not sure, but I think that roughly the same number of Japanese and Canadians died in the tragedy. Even though Mr. Koizumi stood right beside our prime minister, Mr. Chretien, at the memorial ceremony last week, I don't recall any mention of Japan in the coverage. Britain, France, even Russia were mentioned, but nothing about Japan. Of course there was nothing about Italy, Estonia, Sweden or China either, but it got me thinking that if for no other reason than for cultural pride and helping the rest of the world have more direct information about Japan, the teaching of the Japanese language to foreign students must be expedited by whatever means necessary.

I see many similarities between Canada and Japan, but the Canadian media tend to ignore Japan, and while in Japan I found that the Japanese media return the favour. We both prefer to look to the U.S. rather than toward other nations with whom we have more in common.

How many reporters in the western world are literate in Japanese--or Chinese for that matter? How many future journalists in non-Kanji cultures are studying Japanese, wanting to become literate but frustrated by their inability to remember the Kanji? I know that at the university where I studied the Japanese language classes always have waiting lists. There is a lot of enthusiasm, but how many actually become literate? (I mean the students with no previous knowledge of Kanji). I'm thinking of asking my teachers there to see if they know.

The Kanji are difficult to master but the dedicated student must be helped, not hindered by the teaching methods they encounter in the classroom and by information about learning Kanji. I believe that current methods of learning the Kanji, rather than the Kanji themselves, are the biggest barrier to Japanese literacy for foreigners. Those teaching
Japanese to these students can stick to their old methods, tried and true for teaching Japanese children their mother tongue, or they can adopt bold and unorthodox methods that are proven to be effective for foreigners.

Japan has so much to offer to the rest of the world! If the goal of Japanese language education for non-Japanese is to produce students able to read and interpret the language and culture for their non-Japanese reading countrymen and women, I wonder if the old ways aren't failing miserably. All I can say is that they didn't work for me but Heisig's method does. I'm about 1/3 through book one and have no intention of giving up until I get through book three!

Many thanks for your column and your encouragement. If I had not found the Kanji Clinic I might have quit in frustration by now. Truly, I can't thank you enough!

A Canadian kanji learner
Homeschooling mother: "Begin Japanese learning with kanji"

Dear Kanji Clinic,

I thought I'd like to tell you about our kanji-learning experience, since it is both different from many of your readers' and also illustrates the benefits of learning kanji as a route into Japanese, even from the beginning.

I'm a homeschool mom with a fifteen-year old daughter. Last year we took up Japanese, which neither of us had any real background with, as my daughter's foreign language to be continued through her high school years. We chose Japanese because we love anime. I love to learn languages, so Japanese didn't strike terror into my heart. I should mention that we are in the US and have no ready access to a pool of Japanese speakers, and we did not want to enter a structured Japanese class.

I insisted that we learn hiragana right away. Initially (starting about this time last year) we were also working with some language tapes (Pimsleur). We would transcribe some of the phrases we learned from the tapes into hiragana, and practice dialogs with each other. We kept at this for about six months, not too intensively, but we were making less progress than I wanted to. (I wanted to be able to read manga, at least the ones with furigana.) After a disappointing start, we put Japanese away for a couple of months.

In late May, I happened across a couple of really good online kanji-learning tools. One is Kanjigold, a wonderful freeware app to teach the 1945 JOYO kanji. The other is a commercial product called Lexikan. (I have no affiliation with the developers of these programs.) Lexikan is a fabulous tool for self-study, because it offers an onscreen drawing practice mode that can be adjusted as to how precisely one must enter a stroke in order for the program to understand it. I don't know how else a person without a teacher can readily get feedback on how well she is drawing kanji. I also find Lexikan's drawing mode less tedious than pen-and-paper work.

Since May, then, I have learned about 300 kanji using Lexikan and the grade-level kanji files they offer on their website. I have been teaching my daughter in a more systematic way (by related word-groups rather than strictly grade-level) and she has learned about 60 kanji. We learn kanji as follows:

While we are learning the shape (by drawing the kanji with the precision demanded set fairly low), we also learn an English "keyword" for the kanji. When we can easily draw the kanji and remember the keyword, we learn a Japanese "keyword" (generally one of the kun readings). We gradually set the precision higher (stroke order is *always* enforced, because I have read that Japanese people are very concerned with this.) I should mention that kanji I have learned to produce with the precision set high in Lexikan have given me no problems at all even the first time I tried to write them on paper. We may or may not add more kun readings to our vocabulary list -- it depends on how useful I find them at whatever stage we are at. It is easy enough to go back and pick up kun readings later (a few weeks ago I went back and reviewed all the kanji I know that can function as verbs.) We do not worry in these stages about on readings, with the exception of such vocabulary words as numbers, days of the week, etc, where it is very natural to learn the on readings.

I have also been using kanji to teach Jen grammar. For instance, she is currently learning adjectives, along with the okurigana for adjectives. I point out patterns (e.g., if you see UK (unfamiliar kanji) no UK ni, that is apt to be a postpositional phrase.) With Jen I am now concentrating on a reasonably competent approach to desu and imasu/arimasu sentences.

The next step is building from the basic vocabulary (the first kun reading is chosen because it is a good vocabulary word) into compounds. We use three approaches here. First, Kanjigold has a fabulous list (by grade-level) of kanji compounds. Second, I try to go through old kanji lists regularly and add compounds to Lexikan's flashcard feature. I try to pick compounds that are somewhat useful (no nuclear physics or high finance terms, thanks), and that do not include unknown kanji. I try to pick enough to teach all the on readings, and to include some with the target kanji first and others with the target kanji last. And then I whittle down the lists -- this is an evolving process, and I'm sure you can see the difficulty -- recently I picked a random kanji (hiku, from grade 2) and looked it up in my dictionary (JWPCE, another indispensible freeware product). After eliminating the compounds with unframiliar kanji, I still had 75 compounds I could choose from.

The third approach we use, which is really the major one, is to pick some sort of text and use it as a vocabulary exercise. I have used recipes (from asahi.com), weather reports (ditto), and anime songs (from animelyrics.com) I want texts that are "real Japanese" (by which I mean they are written by Japanese speakers for other Japanese speakers) but which use a somewhat constrained vocabulary domain. Songs talk a lot about feelings, recipes about food, etc. I import these texts into JWPCE and then I put the kanji (including the compounds) into custom lists on Lexikan. I tailor the lists -- Jen is only learning nouns, adjectives, and postpositions so far, so I don't put the verb kanji in her lists. In my case, I'm doing a *lot* of verbs. Learning compounds in this way helps put them into a real context, and it makes the kanji easier to remember if, for instance, you watch the kanji version of a song's lyrics while singing along or follow the written text of a manga while watching the anime that uses the same dialog.

The result of this approach to Japanese is that we have made an enormous amount of progress in both producing Japanese (really slowly, but part of that is due to the fact that conversation practice is nearly impossible) and in decoding Japanese in anime and manga. About a month ago, we engaged a weekly tutor because I had learned enough to have lots of questions. She is impressed with how well we write (using both kanji and kana, and getting the proportions somewhere close to right so it is legible) and by our progress in the sentence production exercises she provides. We also work with her on such things as numbers / counters (which are difficult to figure out from the sources I have), more complex sentence structures, particle usage, etc.

I am still a bare beginner at Japanese, of course. I could not possibly produce this letter in Japanese yet, though given a month I could produce a horrible draft that would require lots of fixup. But I feel that, perhaps a year from now, our Japanese will be much better than if we had studied it any other way. I originally thought that reading Japanese written in hiragana would be immensely easier than reading Japanese with kanji. I was reasoning from my English experience, of course. But it is in fact much easier to read Japanese written with kanji, because the structure of the sentence is laid out in front of the reader to a great extent.

Thanks to Ms. Noguchi for her excellent columns! I hope this is of use to some of her readers. And if anyone has any good suggestions for other things we could do to improve our Nihongo study, I'd love to hear them.

Shira Coffee
Chicago, USA
Two more ways to get kanji into your life

It just occured to me that you might want to, at some time or other, to mention studying calligraphy to your readers. I would have thought y, but it seems to be considered strictly a feminine art. There are now some people teaching My which would probably be easier, and low cost instruction is usually available at local community centers, YM or YWCA's, etc.

And, with New Years coming up fast, you might mention Sl. I got a computer copy at the local 100 yen shop and Toys 'R Us sells J^ for around 500 yen. My friend Jack Seward swears he had no appreciation for Japanese classics or poetry until he got involved with this little game.

Just a couple of thoughts... Happy kanjiing!

Gary E. Harper
Kanji dictionaries: a recommendation and a question

Dear Ms. Noguchi:

There is one dictionary that you have not mentioned in your columns, "Direct Access Instant Kanji Dictionary" by Anne Castelain. It is a real winner. (ISBN4-8169-1474-9, published in 1998 by Nichigai Associates and distributed by Kinokuniya). It is light and small(10X13 cm), perfect for a shirt pocket or purse. It uses an amazing new system to identify kanji by shape rather than radical. It is so fast and easy to use that most Japanese I show it to wonder why Japan does not adopt the system (not hard to figure out if you have been in Japan a while). I forget the cost, but it is cheap. Check it out!

Does anyone know about an electronc dictionary that includes hiragana, or better still furigana in Japanese definitions? All the dictionaries I know about are made only for Japanese users. Thank you.

James Simpson
Otsu, Shiga Prefecture
An update from the designer of Drilling the Kanji flashcards

Dear Mary,

Thank you very much for your Japan Times article (August 30) in which you give the URL to my kanji site. I read the article at JapanTimes Online. Over the last two months, thanks to sites like the Kanji Clinic, I have received interesting feedback. Following the suggestions of several users, I have added the possibility to see the card of a wrongly clicked kanji in the tests, just by pressing the spacebar. I will soon upload a version that will memorize the mistakes. An extra panel (tab) will display only the cards on which the user should concentrate. Another person suggested I use the order of appearance of kanji in the 4 levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, rather than the order prescribed by the Japanese Ministry of Education. I will offer this choice in the future. Online programs can be immediately corrected. When a user reports a typo, everybody gets a revised version the next time he/she connects. The process is transparent, since Java programs are broken into small modules (a series of 60 kanji weighs about 20 kb). They can "grow" over the years (mine now contains 720 kanji) and once again, everybody has immediate access to the latest version.

As you have guessed, I am an advocate of online programs: no installation, no maintenance, always the latest version. No messy uninstall attempts if you do not like them. Sincerely yours, and thanks again!

Roger Meyer

Note: Drilling the Kanji (French and English Java flashcards) are linked to this site at "Links." *****************************************************************************************
Kanji learner in Calcutta working to learn Japan's "sweet language"

Respected Mary Noguchi-san,

At first I am giving some information about me. I, Subrata Kumar Dutta, 34 years old, having an occupation in Govt Office of Calcutta in India, have been learning Japanese in Ramkrishna Mission Cultural Institute, Calcutta for more than one year.

Though I am now at very beginning stage, I find most trouble in Kanji and some sorts of grammar. I have seen in some books that there are some scientifical reasons to make the structures of kanji. For example --- 'me' means eye whose kanji structure is originated keeping in mind the physical structure of the eye.

I wish to sit in JLPT this year, probably for 4th level. If possible I will work hard so that I may sit for 3rd level.

I, being an Indian, am really proud of Nihon, a most developed country in our continent as well as in world. So I wish to learn nihongo to come more closer to this nation's culture. Being in picuniary weak position I am trying with the help of other's guidance to learn this sweet language.

Hoping for your co-operation. Thanking you. Expecting your mail.

Yours faithfully,
Subrata Kumar Dutta
Calcutta, India
Mary Noguchi's Response

Since you express an interest in seeing how the structure of kanji originated, I believe you might enjoy visiting Gakushuu Anime no Yakata (The Animated Learning Place). This site is designed for Japanese elementary school students, but adults like us can also enjoy watching the components of kanji for Japanese first-, second-, and third-graders come alive on the screen. The construction of each kanji is demonstrated through animation, and is accompanied by a short script-- written in easy to understand Japanese-- which gives information on the character's evolution. You will find the site at www.sabah.edu.my/meiko.

Best of luck to you--and all other test-takers in India--on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which is coming up in two short months.
Harper's Seventeenth Law on Kanji: Getting kanji pronunciations all wrong

I don't know if you've ever run into Harper's Seventeenth Law on Kanji, but it goes something like this:

"Given a n (jukugo, compound word) listed in the dictionary with not more than one possible pronounciation, any pronounciation I elect to use (before consulting the dictionary) will be logical, reasonable, usually in accord with Japanese pronounciation practice... and always WRONG!!"

For example, I just ran into u` and in some light reading, and while I know what they mean, I have no idea of the CORRECT way to pronounce them. Grrrrr!!!

I liked your last column, on irregular readings, - but did you notice that not only are some kanji compounds irregular in pronounciation, it is also not at all easy to decipher their meaning?

Once I actually believed that if I learned all the kanji, the n would fall right inro place. Ahh the (stupid!) optimism of youth.

Gary Harper
Mary Noguchi's Response


I hear you loud and clear on the difficulty of kanji pronunciations!

I happen to remember when I first encountered . I was hospitalized for the first time in Japan, and while waiting for the elevator my eye caught a (byoutou, hospital ward).

There is actually a hint to the pronunciation of in the form of a "phonetic component" contained within it: , pronounced "tou" as in "Toukyou" (commonly spelled "Tokyo"). You can find the same phonetic component in , as in Ⓚ (reitouko, freezer). Unfortunately, there are exceptions to groups of kanji like these: , as in K, (renshuu, practice), for example, is not pronounced "tou." But I have still found it is well-worth knowing about these groups of kanji, which are called "keiseimoji."

Anyone interested in learning more about "keiseimoji" might want to check out Column #5 in Previous Columns: "Learning to predict kanji pronunciations, without the strain."

By the way, many thanks for all your contributions to the Pleasure Reading section (see Book Reviews, right at the top). Looks like it should be renamed "Gary's Spot," but I am still hoping that more folks will contribute.
Middle-school Japanese teacher in Harlem has unique kanji teaching approach

I live in White Plains, NY - about a 30-minute drive north of New York City. I am now teaching Japanese to 6th and 7th graders at Frederick Douglass Academy, a grade 6-12 public school in the Harlem section of New York City. The principal is extremely eager to build a strong Japanese program for all grades; Japanese is a required subject for all students in grades 6-8!

Prior to this job, I was teaching Japanese and ESL at the high school level for 3 years in a suburb (but with the typical "city" demographics and problems). Before that, I taught Japanese to Pre-Kindergarten-4th grade students for four years in a public elementary school in the East Harlem section of New York City. Prior to that, I was a music teacher and freelance musician. If you visit my website-- at http://home.att.net/~robertayoung/jessi/ - you can find out more about my elementary school Japanese program, the book and CD I created for the program, and me.

In my high school program, I only taught a one-year Japanese elective. I had a small number of very enthusiastic students who wanted to continue their Japanese studies in a second-year course but my district would not support it (since the enrollment was low and we were not a wealthy district). Finally, I decided to leave when I was offered this new, more challenging position. (I just received an e-mail from my "manadeshi" who is now a college freshman majoring in Japanese. His professor has suggested that he transfer into 2nd year Japanese; level 1 is too easy for him. I'm so proud of him! He is also a kanjiphile.)

In my one-year high school course, my students worked on various thematic units - about 10 - while learning all the hirgana, katakana and about 60 kanji. I taught kanji in a way that I think was a little unique. Primarily, I chose to teach kanji that I knew would be useful to them based on the language they were learning in their units (which I created - I really enjoy writing and using my own material) and that they could apply in their writing (e.g. letters to our penpals in Osaka).

So, in that sense, it was kind of the traditional approach - based on "usefulness" not component analysis. But, when I taught those kanji, I also taught as "extra-credit kanji" all the component kanji focusing only on an English "core meaning." I also shared or had them create mnemonics based on the components. So, for example, I knew I wanted them
to learn basic kanji such as "nan/nani" or "namae no na" but I also taught and gave extra-credit on spelling tests if they could write a kanji that means "block" (nichoume no chou), "can" (kanousei no ka), "mouth," and "evening".

I actually like my approach better than either the traditional approach (such as I was first exposed to in Jorden's "Reading Japanese") or the pure component approach (such as Heisig). The reason why is that my students have the benefit of learning components and mnemonics and recognizing both the similarities and the crucial differences between similar-looking kanji. But also they can apply their kanji in a meaningful, communicative context which, I think, is also an important aid to memorization. Also, for non-kanjiphiles, using kanji for real communication is crucial to enjoyment since they don't find the kanji themselves to be intrinsically fascinating (hard as that is to believe).

Well to change the subject, thanks to your website I had requested and received Heisig book I as a present last Christmas. I completed it in July. I received Heisig II for Mother's Day but have not finished it. My kanji ability is certainly a lot stronger than it had been but I'm sure I've forgotten some. I still find that what really clinches it for me (as far as feeling that I really "know" a kanji) is reading it and seeing it used in a meaningful context. I read Japanese whenever I can find the time - usually at least a little bit about 5 days out of the week.

Roberta Young
White Plains, NY, USA
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