Reader Response
March-May, 2004

Challenging the Japanese at "the game of kanjih

There are many ways for foreigners to test their proficiency in Japanese. The most commonly referred to is the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam. This is a not a bad test but very "marker orientated" (filling in boxes for most of the day) and inconvenient in that it is held only once a year. Other options are the Jetro Proficiency Test and the J-Test but I think that the Kanji Proficiency Test (Kanji Kentei), despite seeming to be a test for Japanese people, is an excellent chance for learners of Japanese to hone their skills and perfect them whilst climbing through any one of its ten levels. It is also held three times a year and can be taken in special test centres (the school where you work) too.

I passed level three in June of last year and received my level two certificate in April of this year. I am now studying for pre level one () and would like to have a go at it in June of next year, but with the workload for this year combined with other studies, simple mathematics is thus far working against me and may very well prove this deadline to be nothing more than a pipe dream!

Everyone will have their own system of study for passing exams and I'm sure the kanji kentei is no different. The first thing I did was to stop using a computer for writing Japanese. Kanji competence in Japan has dropped sharply, largely due to the increasing reliance on machines to produce these complex characters which were hitherto produced by hand. Passiveness (visual recognition of a kanji on a screen and the subsequent pressing of a button to reproduce it) has replaced the active creation of a kanji character using the brain and hand. Writing kanji wherever possible became a priority for me.

The next step I took was to accumulate some good study guides for the level I was attempting: a combination of books both produced by and recognised by the kanji kentei association. I bought five. In theory, one could buy a book of practice tests and do these repeatedly until passing them with a 100% pass mark, and probably have a good chance of passing the actual exam. However, with several books, you will have a wider range of the possible questions that will come up in the test in total and this will probably help more in improving your Japanese. You can fix a day to study a particular skill, looking at four kanji compounds on Mondays, radicals on Tuesdays, reading kanji on Wednesdays and so on. Also, at least half of the content of the practice tests show the context in which the kanji is used, and you can always find different ways to use the same kanji. Writing new sentences and checking their accuracy with a Japanese teacher is only one of the ways you can get to grips with your chosen level.

After a short while, you (or at least I did) will find yourself noticing Japanese that you have learned appearing in newspapers, novels or on television. This is when you truly notice that you are learning Japanese that had previously been "slipping through he net" and this is when I felt the most encouragement. I focused on practice tests and probably tried a total of about sixty or so, three or four times each. This did wonders for my reading and writing skills and by using the words in these tests in everyday speech, my spoken Japanese also improved noticeably.

The kanji kentei is most definitely not a test solely for Japanese people. It is a means to take your Japanese (all four skill areas) to a level that other "foreigner exams" could only dream of and it is also a means to challenge the Japanese at "the game of kanji.h It may even give those who have become indifferent to the beauty of this form of writing a little jump start!!

Neil McGinty

Heisig and epic stories enabled him to pass JLPT Level 1

I started using the Heisig method two years ago in the summer, almost 3 years ago. I spent about 3 or 4 months doing 5-8 hours a day and finished the first volume. This is perhaps the biggest single accomplishment of my life. Not because I learned the kanji, but because I concentrated, more than I have ever concentrated before, and because I made up all those stories. The stories become miniature epics because the elements keep recurring and interacting with different elements. Bits of childhood experiences developed and changed, probably more than 30 "Lord of the Rings" stories (this was before the movies). I made the element meaning gpersonh into a group, my martial arts group. That way I could use any member for a person story, giving me more freedom to make those stories because I had more than one person to rely on, yet they were all tagged by membership in the dojo. All these real and semi-fictional and imaginative vignettes I scrawled down in the first Heisig book, gRemembering the Kanji I.h

My brain then died, however, so I did nothing more for quite a while. But a year later I did book two, which teaches the pronunciations of the general-use characters, again studying all day every day for a couple of months.

Heisigfs second book is a very reasonable method and much faster and easier than book one. In my case I did the on-yomi part of the book, the bulk, which was really well organized, and then ignored the kun-yomi part just because I was tired. I also figured that kun-yomi all have hiragana "tails" (okurigana) so I could just guess a lot of them from context when reading without studying.

I now read novels, etc., and I passed level one of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this past winter. I am still amazed that I have pulled it off. In the end I feel that doing the Heisig method was beyond an accomplishment of learning Kanji, it was a creative accomplishment, my own "Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights" or something.

I would remind doubters of his method that you really have to follow his coaching. To keep the stories straight and not mix them up you have to be on top of his method, and he knows how things will be down the road. If you don't heed his advice you can get lost. If you don't like making the stories, then that's that... but in my experience they are the best glue to make kanji stick to your brain.

Gabriel Johnson
Announcing free web-based kanji learning tool, Kanji alive

Kanji alive ( is a searchable, web-based tool developed at the University of Chicago to help students read and write Japanese kanji outside of the classroom. It is freely available, cross-platform, and does not require the use of any Japanese fonts.

Students can currently search for 623 kanji (with approximately 1200 planned by Summer, 2005) using a number of different language attributes such as On/Kun readings and core English meaning or simply by selecting the appropriate chapter/lesson number from a textbook. Kanji alive offers large, pen-based kanji animations which can be played back stroke-by-stroke, 5-12 compound examples for each kanji together with English translations and audio clips to demonstrate their pronunciation, information on the radicals with animations of their historical transformation, On/Kun readings, stroke number and dictionary references.

We believe that in order to write kanji effectively, it is important for students to understand the basic principles underlying this writing system. For this reason, before using Kanji alive, we encourage beginning Japanese learners to consult the PDF documents, "Introduction to Kanji" and "The 214 Traditional radicals and their meanings". These can also be freely downloaded from our website.

Harumi Lory
Senior Lecturer, Japanese
University of Chicago
Therefs kanji for gHollywoodh but how about "Bollywood"!

There is a quiz at which has a number of foreign place names in kanji. Nelsonfs kanji dictionary includes most of the names on this quiz, (and a lot more), but one was new to me: . It is read nEbh.? I guess "holly" was taken from "holy" and , gwoods,h is obvious. But then, if is Hollywood, what is Bollywood (India's film capital in Bombay)?

Gary Harper
Finnish university student in Tokyo now reads manga in the original Japanese

I am from Finland, studying Computer Science and Japanese. Why Japanese? There are so many kick-ass computer programmers already, I felt the need to differentiate myself somehow! I also thought it might be interesting to take part in some translation projects since I was familiar with anime and manga..

In my university (University of Tampere) hardly anyone was studying Japanese, actually the class was nearly cancelled because we had trouble finding the 10 people necessary to keep it going. I took all the courses available in addition to doing some self-study. However grateful I am for the courses provided, it was still not as much as I would have wanted to study, so I started looking for other options. I could either study at some school near the capital Helsinki, or I could go and study in Japan. I decided to apply to study at International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo.

Basically the methodology here at ICU seems to be to take a random piece of text and then make the class learn all the kanji which appears in the text. For less common ones just recognition is enough, we don't have to remember how to write them. Every morning there is either a kanji or vocabulary quiz. The texts they selected were sometimes interesting, but sometimes downright painful. I learned to dislike the Nobel Prize winning author Oe Genzaburo for his complex and vague sentences. I still cringe whenever I see him appearing on TV. Our class schedule was incredibly challenging. It was called "Intensive Japanese", because we had four classes of Japanese every day. Now I have happily completed two semesters of those Intensive courses. It was rough, but I feel like I learned incredibly much during them.

To supplement the class I tried to learn kanji using the famous kanji learning book "Remembering the Kanji,h by James Heisig. It is a very interesting system, it appealed to my logic that the kanji could be broken down into discrete parts with definite meanings and used to construct new kanji. Other books have had a similar approach, but I feel there is no other system as solid as in that book.

However for me the promise of the kanji sticking to my head like glue if I just relate the components together as a story in my head didn't hold completely. There are many kanji which I have learned using the book's methods, but sometimes the stories just don't seem to stick. So I have begun to have kanji for which I know the stories that relate the components and on the other hand ones that I just recognize because I've seen them appear so often in Japanese text.

So even though I don't always learn them using this method, I still am against the method supported by some teachers of just writing the kanji repeatedly. While I think it's necessary to have experience of actually writing kanji, I don't think that is where the memorization happens. Think! You have to think what you're doing, see if you can find something in the specific character you're working on, to make it yours. There is no shortcut to learning kanji, you just have to expose yourself enough to the characters to let your brain assimilate them. After seeing a character few times I start to feel like "I've seen this character appear now and then, I wonder what it means and how to say it". Then the next time I see it and I still can't remember how to say it, I will look it up again and promise not to forget it this time. Perhaps the next time, I actually do remember it and gradually the meaning becomes completely obvious. I think conquering a character is a process spanning a long time, not just a few minutes.

So because it takes time, there has to be motivation. My motivation is that I quite enjoy seeing the characters and I feel satisfaction when I succeed to write them myself. They also help me with my ambition of doing translation work and enable me to enjoy manga written in their original language. Try to find your motivation and then just get to work, kanji is cool!

Bemmu Sepponen
Visit my website at
Frustration with look-up in new electronic dictionaries

My new (now a year old) Canon word tank has a worse kanji dictionary than the one I bought 6 years ago! Definitions in general are better. However, for example, in looking up a kanji, let's say the Ki of kisetsu, season, and then looking at the jukugo list, there are all manner of difficult words with ki in them, but no kisetsu. I found that lots of words were missing from the jukugo dictionary in the first weeks of using the dictionary and gave up using it. All the words were in the old dictionary's kanji jukugo dictionary, however.

Since I don't want to carry two dictionaries around with me, I have to revert to guessing the readings as best I can and entering those readings into the wa-ei dictionary and hoping the word I don't know pops up. After that fails, I enter guessed readings one by one into the Kodansha dictionary and hope they come up. This all really takes a long time and I end up not using the dictionary at all, hoping to get things from context or to just not need the words.

Why have all the dictionary companies put this lame kanji software in their dictionaries, and will it ever change? I tried asking the guy at the camera store where I bought it but of course he has never thought of this problem. He sighed and said that's too bad but I guess all Japanese know the word Kisetsu so they don't need to put it in the dictionary.

Also, on my old word tank, when I looked up a word and then jumped to the definition of a particular kanji, I would get all of its jukugo. However now when I jump to the kanji dictionary definition of a kanji, I get only the definition of the kanji itself and its readings. Then I actually have to enter the kanji dictionary separately, and enter the strokes and readings of that kanji in order to call up the jukugo. Very mendokusai.

Can anyone offer me any advice on these problem?

Gabriel Johnson

Artist in India challenges the JLPT in his native land

I'm from India, and working as a Soft Eng by profession. Since 1997, I'm very much interested in learning Japanese, and things Japanese. Since then I started learning Japanese on my own. I do carving and sketching in my free time, so when I saw Kanji, I was very much attracted towards these scripts and decided to learn them. bCoz of no proper guidance or information till 2003 I was not aware of JLPT exam. Then suddenly in Aug2003 I decided to appear for the Dec2003 JLPT Level 4. Even though time was very limited, even then I started learning and took it. To my bad luck I scored 235 and so failed by just 5 marks.

Now since I know where I stand, this time I'm aiming for 3rd Level of JLPT. So, I used to browse thru many sites for any good information on Kanji, But interestingly I found a very unique way of presenting these in your site..... it is really fantastic and I appreciate your love towards Kanji.

I saw many books on the net, but cannot afford that much as of now.

Wish you all the best for the site.
D. Sai Prasad
Chennai, India

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