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Reader Response
July-August, 2001

What's the deal on "Higashi Miyako"?

Your column in the Japan Times is very interesting but I have one question and one remark:

1) I've acquired the James W. Heisig's book but I haven't found the right method of study yet. Any advice?

2) I've tried your "Higashi-Miyako Giants" joke on my kid to impress him (with my knowledge of kanji) and was told by my wife that the second kanji of Tokyo is not pronounced "miyako" at all. Can you prove her wrong?

Thank you.
Christian Huss

Note: Please see Columns #4 and #5.

Thoughts on Higashi Miyako, and a puzzle for readers

Dear Mary,

A few specific comments on your columns:

There are special names in Japanese for the words with mixed yomikata, though mostly only older or well-educated Japanese know them, namely: *juubako-yomi* for an on-kun mixture and *yutou-yomi* for a kun-on mixture. These come from the words for "nest of boxes" and "hot water pail", which are themselves examples of this form.

The "higashi-miyako" business is interesting. One of the nice things about the Wordtanks is that they include some currently non-standard but historical readings of characters, and indicate them as such. Readings listed after the colon in the kanwajiten sections are nonstandard, in the following sense: In the early postwar period Mombushou decided to simplify the form and limit the readings for many kanji for the purposes of mass education. They created the list of 1850 *touhou kanji*, to which 95 were added to create the 1981 *jouyou kanji* list.

Anyway, "miyako" is not included as an allowed reading for the first character in *Kyouto*. The reason some word processors and dictionaries still mention it is that historically it was an appropriate reading (and still is in Japan's literary tradition). From the point of view of the Simplification Committee, it would make sense to keep only one of those two characters to be read "miyako", and omit it from the other one.

All of which is a long-winded way to say that I think those Japanese who complained about "higashi-miyako" have a point (maybe even the law on their side), and that it might be good to try your experiment again with a better combination.

PUZZLE: Give at least three examples of two-character Japanese compounds that can be correctly read either on-on or kun-kun. (More points if "correct" is to the standards of the *jyouyoukanjihyou*, a poster of which I have hanging in my hallway.)

Tom Roby
Department of Math & CS
California State University


Reply to Prof. Roby from Mary Sisk Noguchi

Dear Tom,
About your comments on miyako: The main reason I put Higashi Miyako in the column was to be a bit provocative in the hope that people would get involved in some interesting discussions about kanji with their Japanese teachers, friends, spouses, etc.

The whole idea of "approved readings " is an intriguing one, because there are unapproved readings all around us. There is just no stopping people when they want to get creative with kanji in literature, advertisements, place names, etc.

Anyway, hopefully I made the point in the column that pronunciations are the hardest part of kanji learning.

By the way, the other day someone told me that he is often asked, when saying the name of his university, 中京大学、whether the second character is "miyako no kyou."



Approved readings of kanji

Dear Mary,

Absolutely. I think being provocative and creating discussions is good. So from that standpoint, maybe your example is better. And I'm a big fan of people being creative with their own language, and not a huge fan of governmental agencies (like the Academy Francaise) deciding what words/readings are legitimate to be used in a language.

I think I was just reacting to the tone of your last paragraph, which seemed to me to imply that those Japanese people who claimed that "miyako" was an illegitimate reading were just ignorant (though you put it much more nicely). I think it is much more likely that they were TOLD by a teacher in school that they could only read the third character in *Toukyouto* (meaning Tokyo Metropolitan area) as "miyako", not the second. In a society where people actually listen to their teachers and the government on such matters, I don't think that the feelings of such people should be taken lightly, though I'm sure that was not your intention. Unfortunately, like kanji, English sentences are sometimes subject to more than one "reading"!

The whole business of "approved kanji", "approved readings", and how that plays out in practice might be another good topic for a column. If you've ever read or attempted to read any prewar literature, imagine the difficulty of learning Japanese if the government had NOT put those reforms in place.

Tom Roby


Kanji learning feels like "painting the Golden Gate Bridge"


I am an engineer in Texas who frequently visits Oita. I am about to begin my second year of Japanese at a local community college and this summer I have been reviewing last year's Kanji, which numbers about 250. During the school year I made flashcards for all of them so that I can read the Kanji and guess the meaning (Japanese and English), or see the meaning and write the Kanji. However, I feel like the painter on the Golden Gate Bridge. When I go through all my cards and start over, it almost seems like I'm starting from scratch. Maybe that is an exaggeration, but my progress seems to move at a glacial pace. I do try to separate out the ones that are the most problematic, but when I get them in tow, it seems as if the ones I felt confident about have slipped away. Any suggestions on how to pound these into my head better? Any archived articles that you could send? (I just recently discovered your column.)

Art Curnutt

Note: Check out Mr. Curnett's letters in September responses.


Resolution: "I WILL dust off those kanji books!"

Dear Mary,

I am reading your article on the Japan Times all the way in Ottawa, Canada. I used to be a Monbusho scholar in Osaka 4 years ago and I used to know 1,945 Kanji on my final test day. You've created the right mood for me to dust my old Kanji books and put them in my kitchen table. I am sure I've forgotten many, but thanks to your article I'm again excited about these fascinating things I used to know.

Sergio Medrano-Puga


English teacher likes image of kanji tomato garden

Dear Mary,

I read your article. It suggests good advice to kanji learners who are from non-kanji-ken countries. I was impressed with the following remarks:

If you want to harvest a bounty of, say, ripe, red, delicious kanji tomatoes in the late summer, however, planting kanji seeds is not enough. The "water" and "fertilizer" of your kanji-learning "garden" are the hours and hours of concentrated study you devote to your chosen learning system.

I now do research about Japanese EFL learners' cognitive processing of English words. I found that false beginners, who are my subjects, are poor in English spelling. I wonder how they can learn this. I think you gave me some hints about my question.

I look forward to the next article.


X-treme kanji-ing is fun!

Dear Mrs. Noguchi,

I very much enjoyed reading your article and I liked the picture of a growing kanji garden.

In my Japanese classes, we used to make kanji learning an extreme sport - named X-treme kanji-ing, We would all stand up and paint kanji in the air with our right arm loudly counting "ichi-ni-san-..." with every movement. We all enjoyed it a lot...

Best wishes,
Christine in Germany


This kanji learner is 75 years young

I want to thank you for your inspirational article. Just within the last hour I learned of the Japan Times web address by email from a friend in Tokyo. Yours was the first article accessed. You make it sound easy to learn Kanji. That has not been my experience. I have been taking the first class in Japanese Language at Kent State U for six years. It is offered only in the fall. I have never advanced to the second class because it is offered in the spring and I have been too busy doing income tax work then. This year I have retired so I look forward to trying the second course next spring. I doubt that I can master the second course in only one semester.

If I were 50 years younger it would be easier. My kids made a big celebration in May for my 75th birthday.


Hasn't meet "kanji believers"

Dear Mary,

I was inspired by reading your column in the Japan Times today. I have been living here for 3/4 years and have not been able to find a suitable kanji class, let alone anyone who really believes that foreigners can learn all 1,945.

I'm at the point now where I get very excited when I can recognize the odd kanji on a poster in the train - I can probably recognize about 100 and I would really love to tackle learning kanji systematically. I've tried a couple of self-study methods, but I need the discipline of a class and teacher.

Joan Anderson
living and working near Yotsuya


Suggests the fast-track for kanji learning

Dear Ms. Noguchi,

I read your comments in the paper to Diane Shimizu and couldn't agree with you more. Many, many years ago, in my student days, I was learning five kanji here, 10 kanji there, and doing well in my classes. But after I graduated from college I decided that that was way too slow. I decided to learn 50 a day. This took me 8 hours at first: 10 kanji an hour for five hours, plus 3 hours reviewing. This was really, really boring, but I learned 250 a week, so in just one month learned 1,000 kanji. At this pace you can see that it doesn't take so long to learn to read.

I would like to emphasize three things : 1) if first graders and fifth graders can do it, you can too. It just takes patience and time, not intelligence. Success in learning kanji depends on how big your bottom is, not your brain. 2) it's much more rewarding to make quick progress than slow progress, so it's much easier to learn a lot of them than a few. Imagine how easy it would be to keep to a diet if you lost 5 lbs a day. 3) there are what we economists call "returns to scale" from learning kanji, or what other people call a steep learning curve. That is, after you've learned a certain number of kanji, you know the hen and tsukuri and so it becomes much easier to learn more. It's like your mind is a computer and you can store the kanji as a combination of parts, rather than individual strokes, which takes up much less room in your mind. Those 50 a day I was learning in five hours at first took me only two hours to learn by the end.

As an illustration of what can be done, I had a Japanese history teacher who went to a school where they made everyone learn 100 kanji a day! After something like 8 weeks he knew (or, perhaps more accurately, had studied) some 5,000 kanji and could read classical texts.

Name withheld by request


University professor stresses stroke order

I enjoyed reading your Kanji Clinic articles . I concur that the component analysis approach is a very effective way to learn to recognize many kanji. Recognizing as many kanji as one can is extremely important, especially nowadays when one can count on a word processing program to list kanjis with the same sound if one needs to write.

At the same time, for any learner seriously interested in writing, I believe it is essential to see (components of) kanji not as figures or pictorial images but as what I may call "products of process." I notice so many good students from non-kanji cultures end up writing strange characters which are somewhat similar to but very different from what they aim to produce. Very few Chinese or even Korean students (who have never used a substantial number of Chinese characters before) make this kind of error.

I have come to think that many monolingual English students may be paying very little attention to stroke order. For them, kanji is a picture, not a result of sequential movement of a pen. Of course, I don't believe that we have to memorize the correct stroke order for every single kanji, but some familiarity of a commonly accepted order of writing (parts of) kanji seems to help a lot. Unfortunately, it appears to me many students waste a lot of time because they try to memorize kanji without moving their hand.

For most readers of your column, this may be not so relevant, but I mention it because it is something that has been bothering me a lot.

Name withheld by request
University professor of Japanese, native speaker of Japanese, currently residing in the U.S.


Successful kanji learner decries the "feel good approach"

Dear Mary:

I read your 7/27/01 article and must respond with "I agree completely. That's getting it said!"

Of the foreign population in Japan not coming from a country where Kanji are used, I would say that the majority does not even attempt to move beyond hiragana and katakana. I usually give these people a hard time. "If you memorized 50-odd hiragana and also the katakana, why stop there?" I usually say. But your article went farther: Nothing short of an all-out memorization exercise will work.

What I did not realize until a few years ago is that there is a third set of us, those with the "feel good" approach. We memorize a few Kanji a week and think that we are studying naturally, without all that nasty memorization.

A few years ago, I was wandering along, memorizing 5 or 10 kanji a month and falling short of the 日本語能力試験2級 by a few percent every year. Then I remembered some advice that my father had given me years ago about memorization. He said that when it comes to studying, memorization is the easiest thing to do. All I needed was a little discipline. So I turned it up a gear from "Pass" the test to "Destroy" the test. I wanted to memorize every Kanji on the list. I set up a study regimen and last year, I passed the test, with 83% on the kanji section.

All of this memorization has laid a foundation for me to begin understanding the written documents that I get at work and the world around me in general. I still have another 1,000 to go, but at least now I know how to get there.

I think that many Westerners have an aversion to memorization. We often come to Japan with the attitude that the education system here is bad because it requires too much memorization and not enough free thought. Perhaps that is true for some areas of study. But look at math class. Was there any way to learn the multiplication tables other than memorization? Kanji is the same way.

When I first came to Japan, I purchased a few books that told about the background and histories of the kanji. These were interesting at the time, and may be good for spurring an interest and unlocking a few of the basics, but this is not a good way to learn all of the Kanji. These books often end up becoming part of the "feel good" approach.

Thanks again. Keep the good articles coming!

Dick Forsberg

P.S. I can't wait to see your website. I have looked around a few times, but guess what? All the web sites seem to be focused on passing Level 2 Kanji. That's right, they all drop you off right in purgatory. I hope that the aim of your site is to get us farther!


Weeding out negative thoughts about being too old to learn kanji

Dear Mary,

I`m writing to you from the Meiji University library. I`m a very mature exchange student from Canada. I`ve been studying Japanese for 4 years now as part of a degree in Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

I really enjoy your column in the Japan Times. Your use of colourful images, such as the kanji garden, is particularly helpful. I`m already using the image of weeding out negative thoughts. Whenever I think, "Why am I wasting my time, I`m too old to learn Kanji," I actively recall your words and the kanji garden. The kanji goal image and the kanji-rich environment come up for me all the time, too.

I hope you can suggest ways in which kanji learners can regularly reinforce their kanji vocabulary. When I had only about 300 kanji I found it helpful to study 1/7th of them each day. But as the number of kanji increased my system totally broke down. Now I work from each lesson`s tango hyo, but I find it hard to retain kanji over the long term.

Today I went to Maruzen and bought Heisig`s Remembering the Kanji. I`ll let you know how it works.

Thanks for your help,
Susan-Marie Yoshihara


Japanese sentence structure a greater barrier than learning the kanji

Dear Ms. Noguchi,

Greetings from the land of Aloha.

Just finished your article "Yes, it's you, reading a Japanese newspaper!" which appeared here in the Hawaii Hochi on August 20. While I found it well-written and entertaining (my compliments) I feel that it perpetuates the typical myth that the lack of kanji knowledge is the barrier preventing non-Japanese from reading Japanese. In fact, kanji are the least of the student's worries. After all, there are dictionaries listing every kanji, and if you look them up often enough, you remember them. Japanese sentence structure, not kanji, is a far more difficult barrier for the non-native speaker to overcome.

When I first began working as a translator, some twenty years ago, many were the times when I had looked up every kanji, every word of kana and still couldn't make heads or tails of what the sentence meant. At the time, my desk-mate was a native Japanese who was also translating Japanese into English, a pairing that was most helpful to us both. Often I would ask my friend the meaning of a particularly tangled sentence only to be astounded when he too would have trouble deciphering it!

My feeling is that if students become convinced that they need to learn more kanji, they waste their efforts trying to memorize kanji out of context, when what they should be doing is reading, looking up the kanji they can't read and figuring out what the sentence means. Kanji learned in context are much less easily forgotten then those which are simply memorized, and in any case, they are easy to look up. However, learning all the kanji in the world will be of no use if the student can't understand the sentence.

During my early years as a translator, my preferred method of study was to select a newspaper article on a simple topic which I was already familiar with and then try to find that meaning in the Japanese. A method which I highly recommend to students of Japanese. And, yes, whenever I feel starved for attention, I just whip out a copy of the Nikkei and start reading it in a public place!

Keep up the good work,
Nick Voge


Reading Japanese headlines induces headaches

Just saw your latest column in the Japan Times (actually yesterday). Can a foreigner learn to read a Japanese newspaper. Sure! In fact it's not really that hard. BUT can a foreigner learn to read Japanese headlines? Another matter entirely. You have the sports headlines that read something like the "cute" headlines on U.S. sports pages, which aren't easy. Here, on Okinawa, we don't get the major Japanese dailies and the two local papers seem to compete with each other in using obscure Kanji or obscure meanings of semi-familiar Kanji.

Gary Harper