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Reader Response
June-July, 2003

He's sharpening his kanji axe first

I'm a 21 year old student from Germany. I do economics and Japanese. It's my first year at university.

In the past 8 months I was taught about 600 kanji the traditional way. At first sight, it works for me: I scored high at most tests, but just some weeks after the learning I would forget the kanji or completely mix it up with some very similar characters. At first I didn't accept or believe this. "Come on! I do graphic illustrations and fonts for companies - Why should somebody like be "mentally-kanji-challenged. With this arubaito-background should it not be easy for me to memorize characters as graphic as kanji ?? Maybe I'm just not studying hard enough!"

Then - by chance I saw your column in The Japan Times. (We have that newspaper at university.) And hey: It seems that many people have the same problem: Learning Kanji the way Japanese learn English. So I browsed your website, found the Heisig book and bought it at amazon. Last week it arrived and I managed to get the first 300 or so kanji. Sure, I already knew most of them - but I guess the system *really* works fine for me.

This morning I presented Heisig to my classmates and some grad students, but strangely enough the feedback was bad. Most of them told me absolutely not to use it because of the lack of pronouncations, compounds etc. Sometimes I felt a glimpse of envy, like "It's not fair that you will reach your goal faster than me just because of this witchcraft-book!!"

I understand that Heisig's is a "divide and conquer" approach. But unfortunately it seems to be rather impossible to make that clear to some people. The common answer is "What!? You learn kanji without Japanese?" This is normally followed by "You will never be able to express your kanji knowledge to Japanese people." or "A kanji book without compounds is useless, because compounds are important". I then tried to explain that you sure would learn the readings and compounds as well - only later. AFTER some clever preparation.

Do you know this quote from Lincoln: "If I had only one hour to chop down a tree, I would use 45 minutes for sharpening my axe."

I just wanted to say that when I sit in a cafe in Kyoto (I'll study there at Doushisha University in 2005), drink my espresso and read a *Japanese* newspaper I'll think of Kanji Clinic because you pointed me to the right direction.

Thanks a lot - and keep up the good work.

A. C. Schmidt
Tuebingen, Germany

View the first 125 pages of Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji I."
Love for her Japanese grandmother inspires kanji learning

I am a very busy student, but I always like to write a letter to my grandma in Fukuoka, Japan. Since I grown up here in US, I cannot write very well in Japanese, especially Kanji. I try to learn and learn and learn, but something about it just make me feel dizzy and cannot go through.

My grandma loves me very much and I know that. During the time I was there and pregnant, she was so helpful and I can see that she would like to say a lot of things to me. My husband is Japanese and he teaches me some basic things so that I can talk to her but of course it is not enough to really let her know how I feel, and how grateful to see her and be around her. My husband came here when he was 8 yrs old and his Japanese is not really good also. It is sad.

It is a wonderful moment to sit down and write a letter to my grandma to tell her about my daily life, but it is also a most painful moment because I have to think so hard, with help of dictionary, with anything that I can came up with so I can make sense in my letter. It took months to send to her one letter. And of course, every time whenever she read it, it must be a tough time for her also, guessing what I try to say.

But, I think learning this language and to overcome this matter will be a big reward for me and my grandma.

Thank you for reading.

Jacqueline Ishida
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, USA
Free kanji learning game: Slime Forest Adventure

My name is Daniel, from Germany, and I came across your site when I was looking for further stuff about how to learn Japanese. My interest in learning Japanese was always there, but I never thought about it as a real possibility, for I thought it too hard to learn etc.

I picked it up again when I found a Japanese learning program that differs from the usual a bit: it's a console - style role - playing game where you can explore and find treasures, etc. The Japanese comes with the combats: above the "monster's" head appears a letter from the katakana, the hiragana or a kanji. One has to type the romaji of the katakana / hiragana or, with the kanjis, an English word for it. If one doesn't know the right answer, it appears for a short time and the monster grows stronger a bit.I like this way to learn, as the game repeats the wrong answered symbols often, so that I can learn the ones I have problems with and don't have to see the ones I know too often.

The author did quite a job organizing the katakana / hiragana / kanji in groups so that one can learn based on previously learnt letters / kanji.The author has implemented 1000 kanji so far, and more to follow.

I hope you will take a look at the game, it's free (donations welcomed) and fun and maybe a nice addendum to the "usual" learning strategies. The URL is http://www.lrnj.com .

Daniel Dornhardt
Sex change? Naw, just a name change

Below is a kanji blooper I saw in an e-mail joke letter my fiancee showed to me. It isn't original, but it *is* cute:


Idris Magrette
James Heisig announces "Kana para recordar"

I just wanted to let you know that KANJI PARA RECORDAR has gone into its second printing, an "edicion rustica" that should make it more economical to ship to Latin America.

Meantime, the three of us put out KANA PARA RECORDAR in February, and it is selling briskly. You can find it at:

http://www.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications ... Other books and Collections...

James Heisig
Kumon learner shares her experiences

I wrote a text some times ago for Roberta Welch's site about my experiences studying Japanese through Kumon. Some of it may interest your readers. http://www.ba.tyg.jp/~welchr/KumonAnnerose.html

Roberta also wrote a report about her studies of kumon's kokugo, at http://www.ba.tyg.jp/~welchr/Kumon.html

It seems that studying conditions depend on the teacher (I don't study in the classroom and go every couple of weeks to pick up sheets and bring back the one I did - but other teachers may want the students to come twice a week).

Now I am still studying by alternating between Kumon's kokugo (2nd year elementary school level) and drills from the bookstore (usually about 1 hour a day). I noticed that the drills where I have to fill in either the reading of a kanji or the kanji (based on the furigana) are a better exercice than just writing the kanji many times. I hope to go to the 3rd year elementary level soon. It gets more and more difficult because the introduced kanji are also new vocabulary words for me.

Annerose Matsushita
"Can you read Chinese newspapers?"

Firstly, I love your articles, I already feel like I'm in Japan and I can see the culture all around me with your insightful yet personal articles into your experiences with Japanese Kanji. I have to ask, how does a native Japanese person cope with a Kanji character they haven't seen? I've asked my mum, who is Chinese, and she says that she just 'guesses'. I'm not too sure what that involves. I know you use your dictionary quite a lot but aren't there any times you go all Japanese and just use the more native ways, and what are they exactly? It will help me when I'm stuck like you in a supermarket not knowing what is what, and whether I'm buying Pig's Heart instead of Lamp Chops!

And secondly, just to comment not at all to critique, I find the idea almost inconceivable that you wouldn't attach a pronounciation to a Kanji character, maybe because I'm learning Chinese first, but I find that being able to put sound to characters involves the learner into internalising the character and prevents boredom. I mean it's pretty uselss to look at a piece of text and know what each piece of a Kanji character means and what it means overall but not be able to actually read it per se. Maybe it's different depending on the language, because in Chinese practically every word has only one set pronounciation - even in a compound word. I would like to know the thinking behind that.

And thirdly, how much of a Chinese newspaper would you be able to make out? If you reversed the question on me to Japanese, with the little Chinese I know, I would be pretty certain to understand the core meanings of the characters being used but nothing else. That is if I knew the Kanji character in Chinese.

Simon Liu
Edinburgh, Scotland
Response from Mary Sisk Noguchi:

Dear Simon,

The way I guess the meaning of a kanji I don't know is to look for a hint in the components comprising it. For example, if it has the water radical then I know it has something to do with water. The next way I use components is to search for a phonetic component within the character which will give me a clue to its pronunciation. You can read all about how that works in Column #5 if you have not done so yet. I have not investigated the matter thoroughly, but I believe native speakers of Japanese use the same tactics.

As to your second question, I would never suggest that the pronunciation of a character should not be learned. What I have found useful in my own kanji learning, however, was to delay learning their myraid pronunciations until the meanings and shapes of the general use characters had been mastered. This is what James Heisig calls a "divide and conquer" approach. Trying to learn the (usually several, unlike Chinese) pronunciations, shapes and meanings of nearly 2000 characters all at one time is simply too overwhelming a task for most learners of Japanese coming from non-kanji using backgrounds. Most quit before they are ever able to read a Japanese newspaper.

For many of us, it makes more sense to first gain the huge advantage someone like your mother has when approaching the written word in Japanese: she knows the meanings and shapes, but not the pronunciations, of the basic 2000. In my experience, pronunciations are learned best in context, by actually reading. The use of materials with furigana (hiragana printed above each kanji) works ideally for learning pronunciations, once one knows the meanings and shapes of kanji (and the basics of Japanese grammar) and can actually begin to take meaning from Japanese text.

Since learning the shapes and meanings of 2000 kanji, I have been able to take meaning from Chinese newspapers (and signs in Chinatowns all over the world). Because I am not familiar with the grammar of Chinese, I can only get the gist of news stories, but headlines and advertisements are a breeze. I make a point of picking up Chinese newspapers whenever I visit a city with a large Chinese population.
A new fan of "2001 Kanji"

I got a copy of Joseph DeRoo's "2001 Kanji," and find it to be fascinating. I wish I had known about it when I first came to Japan in 1988 - it was the kind of thing I was looking for at that time. The strange thing is how he manages to create stories without referring much to the evolution of the kanji, as Henshall does. Another interesting thing is that there doesn't seem to be much correlation between Kenneth Henshall's "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters," and DeRoo, although they both are supposedly grounded in the kanji's history. In any case, I still prefer De Roo since his stories seem more intuitive to the kanji.

Mark Donaghue
Boston, Mass.

Read a review of "2001 Kanji" here .
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