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Reader Response
September, 2001

New devotee wonders, "Does Heisig discourage writing practice?"

I found "Remembering the Kanji" at a used bookstore and am now a devotee. Thank you for the suggestion and encouragement. I am up to frame 172 and am surprised at how easy it is to recall the Kanji, even if I haven't looked at them for several days. I have used mnemonics for Kanji in the past, but his system of attacking one primitive at a time and building upon it far surpasses my feeble efforts. I have also made my flashcards using blank business cards. I start my second year of Japanese tonight at the community college and, without a doubt, the book has re-inspired me. Just thought I'd mention that.

One point of confusion that I would like to ask you to clarify: he seems to actively discourage writing practice. He states "There is really no need to write the kanji more than once, unless you have trouble with the stroke order and want to get a better 'feel' for it." and "Review only from the keyword to the kanji, not the other way around". (Page 42). It seems natural to review by looking at the kanji and "guessing" the English keyword, and at other times by reading the English keyword and writing the Kanji. So far his system seems so ideal that I hate to mess with it and resort to old fruitless habits. Could you please tell me how you study them and why he feels that writing practice is unnecessary? Maybe I simply don't understand his instructions.

Thanks again,
Art Curnett
Mary Sisk Noguchi responds to Mr. Curnett:


So glad to hear you are enjoying Heisig's system. How far have you gotten in the book now?

To answer your questions, although I cannot speak for him, a re-reading of Heisig's introduction reminds me that he wants kanji learners to break away from the following notion:

"If only I write this kanji enough times, somehow it will embed itself in my memory."

After all, this is one way our teachers normally ask us to learn kanji, by writing over and over in those little grids which so many textbooks include.

Heisig wants to break us of our reliance upon visual memory and rely instead on imaginative memory.

In the fifth to last paragraph of his introduction he stresses the importance of writing the characters, but only AS YOU RECALL THE STORY. Constantly reviewing by making certain you can remember all the details of the story is key to his method. This is why, I believe, he says not to review from the kanji to the keyword. If you review by looking first at the kanji itself, you will see the elements written there and will likely be lazy in recalling all the details in the story which tie the components together. If you start from the keyword, on the other hand, you can be sure that you have all the details of the story in memory, because you are starting from nothing, with no clues, only the keyword to set the recall process in motion.

Also, at the beginning of Lesson 1, Heisig stresses the importance of learning proper stroke order. He includes it for each of the first 575 characters in order to enable learners to become adept at using proper stroke order.

Hope this is helpful.

"Hooked on Phonics?" Naw, "Hooked on Heisig"!


Your explanation of Heisig's method must be right on the money because I have gone back over my cards for the first 222 kanji and hit about 90% with very little effort. I am truly astounded by how quickly and easily I recall the Kanji. (I feel like I am doing a "Hooked on Phonics" commercial.) Anyway, I am impressed.

Your website is great. Keep up the good work. You are inspiring an international audience.

Enjoy a beautiful Japanese autumn,
Professional woman longs to read Japanese books

Dear Mary Sisk Noguchi,

I've wanted to write you for awhile to tell you how much I enjoy reading your Kanji Clinic column. Your amusing husband stories in the column today finally inspired me to actually write.

I've been "studying" Japanese for about 15 years now--about 2 of those years in a university program in Wisconsin. So I had a good base knowledge when I came to Tokyo about 11 years ago. Since then I've worked a lot on speaking, but the kanji slipped away little by little. Summers and vacations from teaching English, I would often take a short course and try to get back into reading. But once school started it would slip away again. So I'm in the frustrating position that you've often described in your columns--a very educated, semi-illiterate professional woman in Japan!

As for kanji stories of my own, I don't have any yet, but thanks to you I did buy James W. Heisig's book and am working on it this summer vacation. I was not even familiar with this way of studying kanji before your introduction so I really appreciate it. I'd also like to check out the Foerster/Tamura book you mentioned today. I agree that making one's own stories seems better. Somehow I often just can't get into Heisig's mind set. But I'm enjoying it anyway.

One final thing...I think the hardest thing for people like me is finding books to read. Not mukashi banashi type books but something real written for adults. In fact, until last summer, I had never been able to find a book I could read. I have many many on my shelf that I've bought, but I tend to give up after just a few pages. I had begun to think that at my level, it might be impossible. But I also knew that only studying kanji with no real books to reinforce it wouldn't work. So I was absolutely thrilled last summer when I was able to read Ohira Mitsuyo's (大平光代)best seller, 「だからあなたも生き抜いて」 using a dictionary very little. It's written so that kids can understand it, but it's a real page turner and not a kids'book. That gave me confidence and now I'm reading a collection of short stories called 「必要のない人」 by Uchidate Makiko(内館牧子. Some are harder than others, but the first two were really easy to read. And fun!!!

I guess I was thinking you might want to suggest some books in your column that people like me and at lower levels even might be able to read. It's so encouraging and exciting to actually be able to read a real book. It makes all those hours of study worth it! I know I would sure love to have more titles to try.

Anyway I want to thank you again for your great column. Please keep writing it!

Kay Hetherly
A message from the co-author of Heisig's "Remembering the Kana"

Dear Noguchi-san,

I greatly enjoyed reading about "Let your imagination run wild in Kanjiland", in your Japan Times article of September 7. You are certainly pointing many learners in the right direction and give very clear reasons why this approach is so profitable.

Some years ago I met Kenneth Henshall in New Zealand and was greatly impressed by his method. James Heisig, who wrote "Remembering the Kanji" also wrote a book on "Remembering the Hiragana", which I found very useful AFTER unfortunately having had to learn them in the old, boring, laborious "a-i-u-e-o" way.

Jim Heisig mentioned at the end of his book that one should learn the Katakana in the same way as his Hiragana mnemonics, but at that time he had not published anything about it. So I got in touch with him some years ago and eventually Jim, my wife (Kazue Kurebayashi) and I jointly dreamed up crazy mnemonics for all the Katakana as well, starting from the easiest one, and proceeding to the most difficult.

Writing this was great fun, but sadly the booklet "Remembering the Katakana" has been out of print for some time. Fortunately the publisher (Japan Publications Trading Company) recently put the Hiragana and Katakana books together in one volume, and this is now available at book shops ("Remembering the Kana: Hiragana and Katakana," ISBN 4-88996-072-4).

I used parts of both "Remembering the Hiragana" and "Remembering the Katakana" when lecturing about Japanese culture to adults at Glasgow University in Scotland, and many of my students could finish both books AND remember the kana, after about three plus three hours of (admittedly concentrated) study.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Helmut Morsbach
(Recently retired from a professorship in Intercultural Communication at Shiga National University, Hikone)
Tiny newspaper print seems sadistic

I wear bi-focals and still cannot read Kanji written in newspapers or books. What is with the tiny kanji fonts? Is there some sadistic rule in Japan that if it is worth reading it is also worth going blind?
Dan Raabe

Mary Sisk Noguchi responds to Mr. Raabe

Dear Dan,
I wondered about your question, too, and asked a reporter at a major local daily to respond.
He reports that when he first began working at his newspaper thirty years ago, it was printed  with  15 characters per line. Today the number of characters is down to 11 per line so that the type can be enlarged. Some newspapers have "Silver Pages" which use even larger type. Obviously, enlarging the type means that less information can be printed per page, and this is a problem for every newspaper. In the aging society of Japan, meeting the needs of readers who have difficulty reading newspaper print is an issue every Japanese newspaper is facing.
"Pre-war kanji" anyone?

Folks learning Kanji must also, at some point, learn "pre-war Japanese", the written version of which was much, much different that that of today. The Kanji used were more complex, much like those currently used in Taiwan. 4-5,000 characters were routinely used in newspapers and novels of the time (obviously, this varied with the publications. Things were written differently (and still are by people my age).Ssimple example:貴女、貴男、貴方 all of which are readあなた, but they do not mean the same thing - one you use to your wife/girlfriend, one to your boyfriend/husband and one to someone above you socially or to whom you’re trying to be polite.

People trying to learn Japanese need to learn this because some authors still use these conventions - Yukio Mishima claimed it gave a true Japanese flavor.

Now, where do you learn this stuff - well, a few Japanese漢和辞典include some of the old kanji.  I haven't seen anything lately that gives the old spellings, but there must be something out there in Japanese if not in English. 

And, just so students don’t get too complacent, remember all the lovely types of writing that are designed to totally obscure the meanings of already obscure characters.  Aspirin anyone?

Gary Harper

A site visitor from the Netherlands feels isolated

Your site is interesting. The reviews of books and other people's opinions make it quite valuable to pay the site more visits.

Learning Kanji is fun. I impress a lot of friends with it. But it is difficult to keep motivated when you don't have someone to share it with or to practice with. Sometimes I ask a Chinese colleague of mine how to write some Kanji. Progress is pretty slow because you need to practice a lot and I don't have always the time for it.

I will surely pay your site more visits. Perhaps it keeps me going again =)

Best regards,
Olivier Schotgerrits
near Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Nagoya radio personality shares his roadmap to literacy

Dear Mary,

After reading your article about Kanji learning, I have one bit of advice that worked for me. It's nothing new I'm sure, but a trail and error experience which helped me master kanji in the end.

When I was studying Japanese fulltime, I originally began my curriculum at Nanzan University but soon quit due to the great number of Caucasian students. I wanted to learn with other Asians and decided to do things the tough but quick way--struggling with fellow students who already had a huge head start. I moved to Sony Language Laboratory, where 90% of the Japanese language student body was Asian.

Some days I couldn't finish my studies by 8:30 pm when the library closed, so I would sit in the stairwell and study under the hijyo deguchi lights and pound away at the kanji, writing and writing and trying to remember the left, right, upper and lower parts of each kanji, often getting angry at myself and banging my head against the wall because I would forget them so easily. I had to study at the library because my homestay father would always demand I drink with him after dinner, hindering my late night study. I still have notebooks filled with kanji where I wrote and wrote in hopes they would stick in my mind only to wake up hours later with a line across the bottom of the page where I fell asleep.

I remember so many times taking friends and family around Japan, showing them Meiji Mura or the Tokugawa Art Museum and not being able to read and explain the explanations due to the difficult kanji. Now there is more English translation for foreigners available, but at that time there wasn't.

Finally, after beginning work as a news reporter at Nagoya Television, I had to read the Chunichi and Nihon Keizai newspapers every day to find topics, check stats or just keep up on local news. I was also a member of the city hall press club (first foreigner in the history of Chubu), so I also had to keep up on all of the news flyers and bulletins which came across my desk and decide whether they were newsworthy or not.

This is when I discovered that, like learning to speak, unless you regurgitate (thoroughly use) what you've learned, it never really sticks in your brain. Instead of just writing down kanji in hopes of seeing them again and maybe recognizing them at that time, I would extensively read articles and look up all the characters I couldn't recognize. You must actually read and use each character on a regular basis while you memorize them in order for them to stick.

Obviously I wouldn't suggest extensive reading at the very beginning of one's kanji learning process, but as you increase the number of kanji memorized, you can eventually speed up your reading ability and grasp the sentences.

I don't think that knowing ALL of the ON and KUN pronunciations is as important as knowing the meanings of the kanji. If you can read a newspaper or magazine and get the gist of what is being expressed, then you've won the battle. The pronunciation is also important, but can come later, gradually, and is only really important if you need to use it for your work

My last bit of advice is to reiterate what P.G. O'Neill says regarding the written Japanese language: try not to view it as an obstacle or an end in itself, but rather as the means by which to broaden your interest in Japan. It is a tool, a key to open a door to knowledge.

It can also be a real helper for traveling around Asia. When I went to Korea in 1988 with a fellow student, he dropped me off at a coffee shop with two of his buddies while he went off somewhere. He told me they could understand some Japanese and English, but as it turned out, that was not the case. The three of us communicated for nearly an hour using kanji! Had I not learned kanji, we would have been sitting there in dull silence twirling our thumbs.

This is my story and one that I'm sure is no different from others which have been submitted to already. My hope is that after reading about the ups and downs of kanji learning we "veterans" have had, perhaps beginners may acquire a more efficient means of learning them.

Bill Brooks

 He dreams of reading Japanese poetry, not newspapers

Dear Ms. Noguchi,

I agree with you that it is important to have a highly personal kanji dream. In my case, reading newspapers does not sparkle any tangible enthusism. On the other hand, being able to read Chinese/Japanese poetry sounds closer to a dream.

For me, contemplating nameless faces of archetypes expressed in and through the characters is a self-sufficient source of wonder and joy.  I am not sure how many learners have similar preferences. Among my friends, I do not know anybody interested in newspapers, but I know at least 5(!) people, who would be in one way or another interested in Japanese poetry. So I may suggest including, in the future developments of kanjiclinic, a section on Haiku and Tanka treated from the language and the kanji point of view.

I have no doubt that kanji is worth learning. In addition to the  acknowledged 1,945 characters, I would add another thousand less well known ones used in religious, philosophical, and cultural literature.  There are also some unknown number of purely Chinese kanji, which never made it into the Japanese language, but are used in Chinese classical poetry and literature, in particular in Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures.

Alan Mishchenko 
Portland, OR, USA

Study hard and don't eat your kanji textbooks!


After a lifetime of playing at and/or not studying and/or studying in a desultory manner, and once in a great while, actually studying kanji, I can say with absolute assurance:

1. You can learn Kanji.
2. It is hard work.
3. It takes a lot of time. No, I mean it takes A LOT of time. No, you still haven't got
it- A LOT of time.
4. Different people have different methods of learning - but most of them work for most people.
5. Unlike when I started learning Japanese, there are a lot of resources out there now - good textbooks, good programs, hand-held electronic dictionaries, magazines, etc., BUT
6. Materials don't help when left on a shelf or in the computer. It does not help to carry a book, sleep with a book under your pillow, or eat a book. You must read it and do the exercises. If there are no exercises, make some up.
7. In short, if you want to learn Kanji, you must, that is MUST, again MUST study and study hard!!!
8. I never heard of anyone who had any success with the "you teach me English and I'll teach you Japanese" approach. This approach is good for romance, and sometimes results in one of the parties learning the other's language. Never both.
9. You must use what you have learned in order to retain it. This is generally true for the young and absolutely true without exception for older people.
10. You are going to look up the same character innumerable times - and once in a while you'll remember a character having seen it only once. Language study works this way. Get used to it.

Gary Harper