Reader Response
June-August, 2004

James Heisig responds to questions about his choice of kanji meanings

I enjoyed reading the Kanji Clinic during a recent trip to Japan, and I subsequently discovered your excellent website. As a (47-year-old) beginning student of Japanese, I've learned some basic kanji, but was struggling to get past the basics. I ordered Heisig's book, and I think it's great. Ifve only done a few hundred so far, but the methodology works better than anything else I have tried.

I have just two questions-- I am curious as to why I can't find a few of Heisig's kanji in my Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary, like his kanji for "spoon", "crossing", "membrane", "reed" or "page". (Maybe I'm just not looking in the right place?) I am also curious as to why a few kanji have different meanings from what I'm seeing in the dictionary, like his kanji for "place on head", "seduce", "fish guts", and "hoarse". (I probably shouldn't be trying to look them up, but I'm doing it to make my flash cards using the computer.)

Jack Leitmeyer
Harleysville, Pennsylvania

James Heisig responds:

Here are my answers. I hope they are useful.
There are several reasons for the discrepancies in fundamental "meanings" assigned to the kanji:

(1) I used the root meaning rather than the most common meaning (e.g., the kanji for "place on the head" also means a "peak" and "to receive." But the root sense of the latter that relates it to the former is bowing the head to receive something humbly.

(2) I had to find synonyms because of all the nearly synonymous kanji. Thus "seduce" can also mean "invite" or "beckon." I think if I had to do it over, I would choose the latter, even though the story for seduce was very seductive....

(3) Some kanji have no real meaning on their own any more, or one associated with esoteric astrological or counting systems. So in the case of "fish guts" I chose among the meaning the one closest related to the primitive meaning assigned to it, in order to have a concrete image.

(4) I made a judgment call that some would make differently (e.g., "village" and "town.")

And finally, there is at least one that is clearly misleading: "mountain peak." The character refers to the highest point of a pass between the peaks, but it also means the "high point" of something. On reconsideration, the former is more common, and. I should probably have said "mountain pass."

The character for "hoarse" does in fact mean "go hoarse", though it is used also for shouting (both the shout of a Zen master KATSU and the cheering of a crowd).

I should add that I have toyed several times with the idea of reforming the list, but with all the vol 1., vol 2., and card sets out there, I was hesitant. In any case, since none of them were downright wrong in my judgment, and since once you have learned them all and actually started using them, you will find that the "keywords" fall by the wayside one by one and the kanji will have their richer Japanese connotations. The crutch may be a little bent, but it helps you walk and will be discarded later. If I were convinced that it helped people to walk with a limp, I would indeed make the changes, but no one who has actually gone through the system and beyond it to ordinary Japanese reading and writing has complained of this to me.

All the best,
James Heisig
He uses Japanese words as names for components

About the "day of the week" kanji, j, (which you mentioned in a recent column on gmonsterh kanji), I learned it more than a year and a half ago, much like the old way: eventually remembering the shape by practicing writing the full day of the week every time I had the chance to, that is to say in my diary and as a date header in university class notes. Nowadays the names I call its components are: sun, exists, exists, and furutori. The "exists" comes from maths, where the mirrored E means "exists" (as in "there is", "there exists"). As for furutori, in general I like to name characters (and I use the same name when those characters serve as components in other characters, to name the components) by a native word. In furutori's case it's the radical name, in other cases it's the kun or on pronunciation. When I don't remember either (ugh) I use the English meaning. Examples: I always call the "car" kanji as "kuruma"; when it's a component, I also call that component as "kuruma". As in "kiru" : kuruma + axe.

The character "sha" for "person" (as in "sakusha", author) I call "shamono", connecting both pronunciations, because they are both very frequent. At first I called it simply "sha" but I kept stumbling in compounds in which it was pronounced "mono", so...

When I learned the kanji for (day of the week) I didn't know what, if anything, the components I call "exists" or "furutori" meant. Later on I learned that the gexistsh are actually pig's heads and furutori is a bird (domestic, barn birds like chicken). So maybe week is the lapse of time (symbolized by the sun) you can survive by having two pigs and a chicken to eat?? That's my own (grotesque) story about the character! I thought of it about a year ago and somehow I still remember it almost every time I see the character. Not a very realistic story, I think, because except in the courts, I guess people in ancient China couldn't dispose of such a quantity of meat every week, relying instead mostly on cereals (rice) and vegetables...

Rome, Italy
American Ph.D. student questions traditional kanji learning methods

My name is Ethan Lindsay, and I recently completed an 8-month Japanese language course conducted by a prominent organization in Japan. In the fall I will enroll in the Ph.D. course in Religion at Princeton University, planning to focus on Buddhism in medieval Japan.

After meeting James Heisig (a good friend of several of my American professors) in February and hearing about your website, I have been reading and enjoying it over the past several months. The advice that both you and Heisig have offered is extremely valuable, and I wish that I had the opportunity to know about these ways of studying kanji much earlier.

I studied Japanese language for three years (six semesters) at American universities before coming to Japan for this course. During that time (and at this most recent language institute as well), I know that the kanji instruction was quite poor, when there was any actual instruction at all, and it was difficult to progress towards true literacy in Japanese.

The most useful classroom instruction regarding kanji that I received was in an intensive summer first-year Chinese course at the University of Michigan. There the instructor, originally from Taiwan, taught about the components within characters and how to make a story whereby to remember the character. We were forced to memorize the meaning of the most frequently used radicals and made aware of when they are in fact a characterfs central radical--something for which I am eternally grateful.

Unfortunately, we were studying the Chinese readings simultaneously with the writing, and thus while I was able to learn to read most of the characters, I soon forgot how to draw the complex traditional characters (as used in Taiwan). I continued my study of Japanese and Chinese simultaneously in university courses last academic year-a mistake, I realize now-but was still able somehow to manage to do this with the help of the learning methods I learned in the first Chinese course.

Just before I came to Japan last October, I bought Heisigfs first book on remembering Japanese characters. Before then I was totally unaware that it existed, but was immediately delighted that Heisig had discovered the very effective approach that I had been hoping to find. This past year in Japan I basically completed the first book, though I am much better at recognizing characters than drawing them on my own. I think that this problem is entirely the result of my previous gmis-training,h in other words, my use of ineffective study methods when trying to memorize the kanji on which I would be tested in my classes.

In an intensive language course covering all aspects of modern Japanese, this year there were many demands on my memory and energy. A particular problem was the mandatory kanji classes, employing the traditional Japanese approach and textbooks that are entirely inappropriate for foreign adults who want to be literate within the next 20 years. I think that a major problem was the way in which Japanese teachers expect one to conquer all aspects of the character at once, the result of which is usually that no aspect of the kanji is remembered well.

Furthermore, they stressed gkanji vocabularyh too much, and neglected to focus on the individual characters. Apparently, Japanese people normally just memorize gkanji vocabulary,h making no effort to understand the grooth kanji meanings out of which these words are constructed. A foreigner can build his vocabulary much more quickly, however, if s/he first learns the basic meanings of the individual kanji.

Despite what I see as some very inefficient methods of instruction used in much of my formal Japanese training, I have made tremendous progress in my kanji study, and because of this, in my overall Japanese skills as well. This summer I have used Heisigfs second book to learn many of the Chinese readings of kanji. I have also been reading online Japanese newspaper articles by putting them into Jim Breenfs dictionary, copying them out, and then writing in the kanji readings that I havenft learned yet. (Any type of writing practice helps one to remember.) I have also found Todd Rudickfs Rikai pop-up kanji dictionary ( to be an amazing tool, allowing one to learn the readings and meanings of kanji words in context while reading webpages. A major benefit is that is doesnft make one gdependh on the furigana, which shows up only when the cursor is on the word.

Furthermore, trying to integrate many of the language skills and develop greater fluency, I am using Rudickfs Rikai dictionary in combination with the short recordings of recent Japanese news and the accompanying text at gdougah part of its news section. If one is looking for good pronunciation of kanji vocabulary, this is an excellent source. Another great tool for those in Japan is the NHKfs 8:45 pm gShuwa (sign language) news,h that provides the text, with furigana, for most of the announced news. I recorded several episodes and brought them back with me to the US. Technology has now made learning Japanese so much easier, and I hope that Japanese students and teachers will be willing to take advantage of all these helpful resources.

Ethan Lindsay
Hickory, NC, USA
Learner in Puerto Rico is making his kanji dream come true

I found your columns on the internet while searching for kanji study materials. My particular case might interest you. I was surprised to see the high number of English speaking foreigners in Japan who are relatively fluent in Japanese but still find Japanese reading as something completely beyond their grasp. As you have stated over and over it comes down to dedication and, most of all, THE dream.

I'm a 31 year old professional, as well as a student of Japanese in the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. There is virtually no Japanese community here, so obviously I have nobody to speak Japanese to. No kanji signs, no Japanese TV shows, no Japanese teachers. So I have to study by myself using textbooks and online materials targeted for the English speaking market... and our native language is Spanish. All the while I keep up with my job. That means I have to try harder than any foreigner in Japan if I want to reach a high level of proficiency. And I need to wait longer to see any part of the dream come alive. When I go to Japan on vacation I can take trains, I know my destinations, I read from menus, I find my way around, I talk to children, young people, adults, elders, I read magazines, and I even say to the guide "It's ok if the site tour is in Japanese". I can read and write about 600 kanji. One time I served as an interpreter in a convention which earned me free accomodation for the whole stay in Japan.

My interest in Japan goes way back to when I saw the TV movie Shogun as a child. Japan seemed so far and foreign that wishing to go there was as exciting as wishing to go to the moon. But I had to wait a long time before I could begin to learn anything about the language because we didn't have any teachers in the island. Many, many years later in college, the Humanities department started a short-lived Japanese course which only covered the most basic aspects of the language. Since this was the best I was going to get in PR I went to Japan and did a homestay for 2 months. Of course, communication was a torture. After those 2 months I had to regret all I could have learned about the country if I was properly trained in the language. 2 years later I enrolled in a language school in Japan for 1 year, but I shared the class with many Chinese and Korean students who possessed knowledge of kanji, so that, in a way, hindered my progress in that area and I had to concentrate mostly on the conversational aspect. Same story; regrets after graduation of all I could have learned about anything if my reading was better. And that's where I find myself now, studying not only for the sake of learning but also in hopes of taking and passing the proficiency test. It is really hard because I need to keep up with my work (I am co-pastoring a church) so I need to go to bed later or get up earlier to find the time, but it pays; in the last 3 months and a half I learned to read 1000 new words which I keep on flash cards I make myself.

My point to your readers in Japan is: If I in the middle of the Caribbean can do it, simply for the sake of a yearly trip without anybody patting me on the shoulder for support, without any teachers, without any visible or audible input, then they can do it too. It all comes down to dedication, but most of all, THE dream.

Rafy Riquelme
Hatillo,Puerto Rico
More fun with fish kanji

I enjoyed your column last week regarding "fish" based kanji. The helper component on the right works very well for remembering what fish the kanji represents. One of the best fish compounds includes a super predator that isn't even a fish, namely the kanji kAa.k.a. the crocodile or alligator. It's interesting how that beast has a kanji, since I donft think it's a native animal to Japan nor China. I also love the simplicity of L, because if you think of the helper component, , as "crossing" or interaction, you can somewhat visualize a shark cutting and zigzagging through the water, as its dorsal fin slices the surface.

Japanese society has for all intents and purposes, given up on animal kanji and now katakana-izes everything. It is as clear as day that seeing the kanji visually is far more understandable and lucid than a ridiculously long string of katakana characters that just wind up camouflaging themselves in the text.

George Guida
Nerima-ku, Tokyo
Entomologist enjoyed insect kanji column

Just read your column on insect kanji. As a museum educator, teacher, entomologist and a person very fond of things Japanese, it gave me the most satisfying read that I have had all year. I am waiting to retire from State government, so that I may pursue my two passions: teaching and insects. I have been collecting things that show the ancient connections between insects and people from different cultures. I think what struck me with your article was that I saw a museum exhibit in it. Your descriptions included a view of Japanese culture beyond language and writing. You show how people see their world, how they change and simplify things for convenience, and how they overcame their ancestral feeling about mushi as something negative. When I built a museum in Mississippi, I used children's fascination with collecting live insects to build the museum's reputation with larger institutions. We sent the insects to the Cincinnati Zoo Insectarium. Cincinnati exchanged these with the Smithsonian and other large zoos in the US, Germany and Russia. We never got to trade with the Tama Zoo (in Tokyo). Government restrictions kept us from getting suzumushi for Cincinnati. They have them now, but it took them 20 years.

I would like to ask your permission to use your article as the basis for designing an exhibit on "insects - from a Japanese perspective." I am not sure when I would be able to construct it. However, in November 2005 I am presenting a paper at the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America. If it is acceptable, I would be privileged to present on the topic of "The Linguistic Entomology of Japan." Thank you again for writing the article.

Doug Fleury
Caterpillar Catalyst
"Should I concentrate on the written language for the time being?"

I am currently learning (kanji) for both (Chinese) and { (Japanese) using the combination of the Heisig method (single English keywords), the dictionary, and a flashcard program called Supermemo. I have, in the past year, come to understand { to a basic level--I can follow my favorite h}idrama, IGWP)A Aj(anime), and even some of my favorite (songs). I feel a rush of pride whenever I walk and talk in public with my Japanese and Chinese friends; but I know I have some 2900 Kanji to learn before reaching my goal of 4279 characters: I am reminded of this every time I see a name or word I cannot parse for meaning.

My stupid question is this: should I give up learning "actual" Japanese (and Chinese) for a while--I estimate 3-6 months--in order to pursue with my full attention?

I am in America, not Japan. But I do not want to start forgetting whatever little Japanese I have worked to acquire, though I can see how, ultimately, knowing all the Kanji ahead of time would be beneficial.

Kats Rogo
Provo, Utah

What do site visitors have to say on this issue? Send your thoughts to Reader Response and they will be posted here.
gThe site is great!h takes you to an (in-progress) game that teaches all the kana and over 1,000 kanji. In under 10 hours or less of game play, I knew all katakana, all hiragana, and 40 or so kanji. After about 24 hours of play time, I have learned 320 kanji. The game is styled after old-school NES RPG's (like Dragon Warrior), but the battle system is the teaching tool. There is a short storyline to complete (rescue the princess), but that's mostly a sidelight. While the Kana are focused on pronunciation (romaji), the kanji focuses solely on meanings - not readings. I've been personally content with that, though, as the meanings seem more important until I start to develop a 'real' vocabulary of japanese words. Knowing the kanji meanings alone has enabled me to understand things that I would not be able to with only hiragana/katakana.

Thought you and your readers might be interested in this. Take care!

Manda, self-taught Japanese student, beginner
Nebraska, USA
Italian businessman discovers

Dear Ms Mary Noguchi (Field-Mouth),
I am a business man traveling frequently to Japan and it is many years I am studying as a part timer the Japanese language. I am rather fluent even if mada heta desu and I used to read your Kanji Clinic in the Japan Times. But I can get the Japan Times only when I am in Japan and that does not happen every Thursday. So I was wondering what to do, when I realized I can get from the website all your Kanji lessons (57 of them). Let me express you my gratitude for the extraordinary job you are doing in helping me decode Kanji. What I like about your approach is your common sense (but an English guy, a man of letters, once said that common sense is not so...common). So now I am going over your lessons and improving day by day putting together many pieces I did not know how to assemble.

I am also impressed by your suggestions to read Soseki, Tanizaki and Kawabata, all three of them present in my library since long ago though not in Japanese (unfortunately). I am just waiting for your next Kanji Clinic column due in August. I am writing from Italy and I am often in Osaka and in Tokyo. When I am in China it is extraordinary to see how my (limited) kanji knowledge is helping me to read hanzu characters and compare on- yomi with the Chinese pronounciation. All this is fascinating and I should say also amusing. Again thank you.

Josef Oskar
Pordenone -Italy
Thanks from a kanji learner in India

My name is Sachin, from India, student of Japanese language. While surfing regarding kanji I luckily get the chance to see the web site Kanji Clinic. You write with very much ease. It seems that some elder is putting her hand on our back & saying "Don't worry, you will learn easily." The assurance I get from your writing is very, very much satisfying. You seem to be like an elder sister who supports me in my dream, teaching me to see my dream. I' m extremely happy to read those articles. I will not say thank you as there are no thanks said in the family, and I think of you as an elder sister.

Sachin Gadhe

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