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Reader Response
February-March, 2002

Navigating look-alikes with "Kanji ABC" and "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters"

After years of kanji learning, I encountered a new and highly annoying problem, which you described in your last column (March 15, "Creating a roadmap for navigating look-alike kanji"): mistaking one kanji for another. To illustrate, when I encountered the kanji compound 探査, I had the strong urge to read it as "shinsa," but I was not at all sure that was correct, nor did I understand why I was having difficulty reading a character that I have looked up more than once in the past. The correct reading of course is "tansa," which means investigation or inquiry. The fact that I could read this character in other compounds, such as: 探偵小説 (tantei-shousetsu, detective story) or 探索 (tansaku, search) has helped me to understand that I am not really 'seeing' the kanji. I am relying too heavily on the context of the surrounding characters, the surrounding Japanese, the genre, etc. In this case, I could not see that the left radical or grapheme was the te-hen or hand radical and not the sanzui-hen or water radical for the more common 深 character (on-reading: shin) as in 深い (fukai, deep). Undoubtedly, I was influenced by the familiarity of the name of a town near my house: 深川町 (Fukawa-cho). Still, I could not have told you what the left radical for 深 was. This and other similar confusions have shown me that I process many kanji at a very wholistic level, highlighting a glaring deficiency in my approach to learning kanji. It has also shown me that the tendency to confuse similar characters stems from my unsystematic approach of learning a handful of unrelated characters from my reading.

Recently, I came across the book "Kanji ABC" by Foerster and Tamura (See the Kanji Clinic book review section for a review), which is helping me remedy my shotgun approach to kanji learning. "Kanji ABC" groups all of the joyo-kanji according to their "graphemes" (or "components"). A total of 484 graphemes are covered. Although I thought this book was a little too Spartan at first, since it gives no kanji compounds, no Japanese names for graphemes, and it misses key readings and meanings for some graphemes and kanji due to its core meaning and reading only approach, in combination with other references and dictionaries, it is proving to be an excellent tool.

For example, when I look up 深 and 探, I can see at a glance, since they appear together, that it is only the water and hand radicals that I have to be careful to notice; that is, these are the only two joyo-kanji that share the same right-hand structure. Believe me, this alone is valuable and comforting information. However, Kanji ABC puts these two characters into a cluster of seven characters -- 突く、空く、控える、搾る、窯、深い and 探す -- because they each share a common grapheme: the top half (five strokes) of the first two characters, which is named "airhole". With "Kanji ABC" you can easily identify all of the graphemes for each character. For example, the first character above, 突 , consists of "airhole" and "big" and the second character, 空, consists of "airhole" and "handicraft". With the assistance of the two core definitions given for the first kanji (i.e., thrust and protruding), one can then imagine in the mind's eye something protruding from, or thrust into a big "airhole". For me, the first three and last two characters in the above cluster are quite familiar, but the fourth and fifth are not, so by studying this cluster I can efficiently increase my knowledge of new characters as well as learn graphemes and improve my analytical eye for kanji.

According to "Kanji ABC," for example, the fourth character (shiboru), has three graphemes - "hand", "airhole" and "generate" the last of which you may recognize as the right radical of 作る(tsukuru). Knowing that the core meaning is "squeeze" one can easily imagine a hand generating a stream of milk through the "airhole"(teat) on a cow's udder. Worked for me!

Anyway, studying this particular cluster yielded multiple payoffs for me: I could see commonalities between previously unassociated characters, do a quick review of old characters, integrate knowledge of new characters into old knowledge, learn a new name or two for graphemes, and graphemically analyze each character, all of which drastically reduces the likelihood of my confusing 深 and 探 in the future.

I will close with one more example, which shows the limitations of using only "Kanji ABC." The other day I wanted to confirm the kanji for kuchibiru (lips). "Kanji ABC" tells me that the on-reading for 唇is "shin" and the kun-reading is "kuchibiru" and that the graphemes are "tremble" (辰) and "mouth" (口). Kuchibiru is listed in a cluster of seven kanji that use the tremble grapheme. However, since I knew that 辰 (tatsu) is dragon (the fifth sign in the Chinese zodiac), I was suspicious of this ABC grapheme name. Therefore, I looked up 唇 in Henshall's "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters" which provides brief but comprehensive etymologies for all of the joyo kanji (Note: 辰, although a commonly used character in Japan, is not a joyo-kanji). Here, I discovered that the original meaning for 辰 is clam, not dragon.

Certainly, 辰 does contain the core meaning "tremble" as in the 震える (furueru: tremble) of 地震 (jishin: earthquake), but knowing the original meaning is very helpful in this case. For example, I can now think of 辰 as the "clam-dragon" as opposed to the "real dragons" 龍 and 竜, which share the same kun-reading, tatsu. Also, with the help of Henshall, I can use the clam meaning to remember several of the kanji in this cluster.

For example, lips (唇) might be thought to open and close like a clam shell, and when someone does not want to talk, they clam up. For the 娠 (shin: to be pregnant) of 妊娠 (ninshin: pregnancy), one can think of a woman incasing her unborn child safely and securely in her womb like a clam shell incases the clam. For the 農 (nou: farming) of 農業 (nougyou: farming), once one knows that 曲is not etymologically related to kyoku or bend, but is a miscopying of any early form that showed a field (田) surrounded by plants and trees、it is easy to imagine a farmer using a sharp clam-shell-like tool to clear fields for planting.

In addition to useful and scholarly etymologies, Henshall provides three high frequency compounds for each character, helping you to further anchor the meaning of a character in your mind as well as to expand your vocabulary. A drawback to using Henshall is that etymological study can be very time-consuming, and the real etymology of a kanji can be more complicated and obscure than helpful. My solution has been to use Henshall sparingly.

Does anyone know a good single source that lists the Japanese names for graphemes? The best I can find in my library are the descriptors for each of the 214 radicals in the beginning of each radical section in the classic Nelson's dictionary. (For example, for radical number 129 (p. 736), it says that the radical's name is "fude," at the right it is called "fudezukuri," and it has a truncated variant, as in 書.)

I am looking forward to feedback from other Kanji Clinic site visitors.

Dave Mosher


And now a word from another kanji country, China

To a Westerner, the Chinese name 'Yi Wen' ( 意 文 )may not mean more than a name. But to a speaker of Chinese, 'Yi'means 'mind,' with connotations of spirit, feelings, intentions, thoughts, gentle, refined. 'Wen' evokes associations pertaining to literature and fine arts. The first character, 'Yi,' consists of radicals depicting sun, rise, and heart. When the sun rises, the world awakens, and the sound of life begins. Together with the radical depicting the heart, this character means 'mind, the sound of the heart.' The character 'Wen' is used not only to denote belles-lettres, but also to depict the literature of the sky, astronomy. Thus, in combination, these two characters convey the message that to find meaning, look into your heart and aspire for the stars. Chinese names often have rich associations, are pronounced in tonal cascades, and are capable of evoking abundant images, both visual and acoustical.

There is no upper limit on the number of Chinese characters. To function in a Chinese society, one should know about 3,000. To function at the college level, one should know about 7,000. The shared opinion among students of Chinese is that only after learning about 1,500 characters does one begin to realize the enormity of the task undertaken.

It takes at least seven years of concerted effort to learn functional Chinese. There are many approaches to learning Mandarin Chinese. Computer-assisted multimedia instructional technologies may change all of this, but there is a consensus among instructors of Chinese that the best results are attained by western adult learners when initially guided by instructors who teach them how to speak and do not use pictographs. This may lead to an ability to speak conversational Chinese, but provides only limited insight into the Chinese culture.

Compared to Chinese, learning English for native speakers of other European languages is relatively easy. The common Indo-European roots of these languages provide a latent network of shared meaning. Also, the shared vocabulary of classical Latin and Greek make learning easier. The scientific and technical terms like 'physics,''chemistry,' 'psychology,' 'catalyst,' are the same, as are the names of 'telescope,' 'computer,' and 'telephone.' In Chinese, the term ‘psychology’ sounds differently and looks differently, represented by characters resembling a heart and that of a student into whose head an instructor's hands pour knowledge: . The telephone is 'electrical speech,' the computer is 'electrical brain,' and a bank is associated with ingots of silver.

The names of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Beatles, and Madonna, spelled and pronounced in a similar way throughout most of the world, are written in Chinese as pictographic renderings of approximated sounds with unrelated, disparate meanings. In the case of Shakespeare, four characters representing his name remotely sound like his name, but mean, in turn,‘a herb,’ 'gentleman,'‘to compare,’ and ‘second in excellence : . Beethoven is spelled by chaining characters signifying, in turn, 'shell,' 'many,' and 'fragrant.' One has to know that this particular string of characters has to be decoded for sound, not for the meaning. Native speakers of Chinese are able to make this distinction by initially decoding a string of characters for meaning. If the string is meaningless, they decode it for sound. However, most students of Chinese do not have the self-confidence to decide that a string of character is, indeed, meaningless. This difficulty for nonnative speakers of Chinese is so great that the Japanese, who adapted Chinese characters for their own language, developed a separate alphabet, Katakana, to transliterate foreign words and names.

Upon encountering an unknown flower, a botanist looks at its corolla and calyx, identifies the type of petals, and counts the number of stamens within its androecium. In this fashion he or she is able to find the name of the plant in a herbarium. In a similar fashion, Chinese, upon encountering an unknown character, first identify the basic component of a character, called its root. Next, they count the number of its strokes, thus zeroing in on the character’s position within the general nomenclature. Then they search a dictionary's index within the likely confines of the identified category, hoping to spot the unknown character by using visual matching. Once the character is located within the index, one notes the number with which it is associated. What remains is to find the character in the dictionary, where the characters are listed in a numerical sequence. If the character is not located within the index, it is possible that perhaps the dictionary does not contain the character, or that the initially selected root signified a clue to the pronunciation of a character and not to its meaning. In that case the next root is identified and the process, described above, is repeated. A similar process is involved when one tries to find a person's phone number in a phone directory. This is to illustrate that Chinese and Japanese cognitive processes are likely to be somewhat different from that of other people.

David Krus
Tempe, Arizona
Her kanji dream: "I want to read the same books as my Japanese husband."

At last I have had time to use James Heisig`s method and, as you know, it really works! Now I have renewed hope that I will be able to pass the ikkyu (Japanese Proficiency Exam, Level 1) someday. I`m really impressed by how the method builds on kanji already learned and makes each new one stick in the mind`s eye. I wish I had heard about it 5 years ago when I first started studying Japanese. I told one of my professors, a Canadian who can read, write and speak fluently, but I don`t think he really understood how effective the method is for those of us who are not geniuses. I know that once I finally sat down and actually made the flash cards and started to visualize those potent little stories, my little kanji garden really started to bloom.

Before I bought volume one of Remembering the Kanji, I tried to make my own stories, but I started somewhere in the middle of the kanji world rather than at the beginning, at step number 1. Back then I couldn`t believe Heisig`s claim that if one worked full time on learning the meaning and writing of the kanji, one could master the task in about one month. Now I`m a believer! I`m also about to become a bit of an evangelist for Heisig`s method.

If asked what motivates me to learn kanji, I would have to say that I`m not sure. My husband is from Japan and we live in western Canada. I`ve just spent the last year as an exchange student at Meiji University in Tokyo. Unfortunately, this does not mean that I can read or speak Japanese effectively A few years ago when I went back to school I knew exactly what I wanted to do: study Japanese and Japan. Now I`m about to graduate but I don`t know what my next step will be. But I do know that I want to be able to read the same books that my husband reads. A tall order, but I think it is possible. Also, I`ve had so much fun studying Japan and Japanese culture that I`d like to somehow share the fun with other Canadians. The better I can read kanji, the better I`ll be at studying Japan, whether as a professional or as an amateur.

The scariest thing is that age is taking its toll. My short-term memory needs all the help it can get, which is why Heisig`s often wacky little tales really help. I`ve always been the kind of person who can remember the silliest trivia but not really important stuff like where the cheque-book or last year`s income tax records are. Heisig`s little stories seem tailor-made for me.

I don`t think I would have read your column if I hadn`t come to Japan when I did. That in itself is sufficient justification for this trip! Thanks to your Kanji Clinic column, I know that my dream of being able to read and write Japanese can come true someday. Thank you very much for all your help. It is very much appreciated.

Susan Yoshihara
British Columbia, Canada

"Kanjiphiles," "misokanjists," and musings on compound words

As I was going through a collection of essays by 吉本ばなな (Banana Yoshimoto), I ran across the following sentence: `「私は本当に子供の頃から「パイロォット」とか「保母」とかと同じような感じで「作家だわ」("Since childhood, just as other children feel they want to be a pilot or a kindergarten teacher when they grow up, I have really always thought of myself as a 作家.") Now I hadn't met 作家 before, and guessed that it meant "homemaker". Why not? It's logical and made perfect sense in context. (Most little girls think about becoming homemakers at one time or another). Also, I used to use "homemaker" as an example of American 熟語 (jukugo, "compound word") for my English classes - most of my students thought it meant something like 大工 (daiku, "carpenter"). Seeing 作家 , I thought, "Ah, the Japanese have the same concept and I just hadn't run across it." Having learned from bitter experience, however, I went to Nelson and found out it means "writer". Sigh... This is what I mean about 熟語. For many, the meaning is clear from the beginning, for many more, the meaning, when learned, elicits なるほど!(naruhodo, "I see!")

You used the term "kanjiphile" in one of your recent columns. I got to considering - we have "anglophile", "japanophile" and "francophile" and I suppose (although I've never heard it), "germanophile" or maybe "Deuschophile" - the point being that "o", seems to be required. (Since "phile" is Greek and "angle" and "frank" are Latin, there are probably other problems, but we needn't get into that now.) Then, exteanding the usages shown, your term should be "kanjophile" (corresponding to "angl(e)ophile" or maybe "kanjiophile" corresponding to "japanophile" or "francophile." This would also lead to "misokanjist", as someone who hates kanji!

Gary Harper
He needs a complete game plan to reach his goal: reading the newspaper

I've been studying kanji on and off now for many years when I lived in Japan and after I returned to California. Through your website I was inspired to purchase "Remembering the Kanji I" by James Heisig. I'm determined to make some progress.

What did you do after Heisig? With Heisig, you learn the English meaning and how to write the kanji, but what next? Remembering the Kanji, Part II? Your advice is appreciated! My goal is to be able to read a Japanese paper before too many of my brain cells expire!

Ron Oda
San Francisco

Note from Mary Sisk Noguchi:To read about my personal "post-Remembering 1" game plan, please go to Reader Response for January, under "Two darned good questions for all of us." What will YOUR game plan be? Best of luck, Ron! ******************************************************************************************
Learning kanji is like approaching a rose with thorns

Hallo,....I`m Victor from Indonesia. I have learned Japanese for over 3 years at college and am very interested in kanji. I`ll write my thesis about kanji. I wrote a short letter/comment about my studying kanji....in Japanese:

nihon ni tsuite yoku shiritai hito ga takusan ite, nihon ni tsuite yoku rikaisuru tameni, nihongo o benkyou surunowa 1tsu no houhou desega,kanji wa totemo muzukashii desu. [bara ni wa toge ga aru] to iu kotoba ga arimasu. kono kotoba no imi wa bara no toge o osorete baraen no mae ni tachisukunde ite wa, nanimo miru koto wa dekizu, bara no iro mo kaori mo ajiwau koto wa dekinai to iu koto desu. kanji no benkyou mo sou desu. mazu yatte minakereba muzukashii ka doukamo wakarazu, donna ni kanji ga kouka tekina mono de aru noka, toiu koto mo wakaranai.watashi wa ima demo mada kanji o machigaete kaite shimaimasuga, jouzu ni nihongo o tsukaeru youni naru niwa,kanji mo isshoukenmei benkyou shinakerebanaranai to omotte imasu.mainichi, asa to yoru,sorezore 10 kanji o kaite renshuu shimashita. nihon ni iru tomodachi ni kanji de tegami ya hagaki o kaku koto ni wa, tasseikan ga arimasu. dakara, watashi wa kanji o ki ni itte imasu. douzo, kanji no benkyou o tanoshinde kudasai!

Victor yori

Best regards,

Victor Thomas Corputty
Surabaya, Indonesia

"Should I replace my older edition of 'Remembering the Kanji' ?"

Dear Kanji Clinic:

I have a question concerning Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji, Vols. I & II." I bought the texts this past summer; however, I haven't yet cracked them (actually I am about to begin, full-time, so that is why I'm writing you).

In the interim, I've found out that new editions/impressions were published in late-2001. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy of either text. My question to you is whether or not the differences, if any, between the older editions are significant enough to warrant me returning the texts and attempting to exchange them for the latest editions. If the content in essentially the same, I won't bother worrying--just start studying, finally!

If you know anything about the revisions Professor Heisig has made and could briefly explain them to me as well as addressing whether or not using the older editions will hurt me in any way, I would appreciate hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Thanks for your help.

Taras Sak, aspiring Kanji-learner
Saratoga Springs, NY, USA

P.S. Thank you for the great website and column in the Japan Times! Kanji-learners need all the help they can get. I can't tell you how many useless kanji texts I have wasted my time and money on... anyway, thanks again and best wishes for 2002!
Mary Sisk Noguchi responds to Mr. Sak

Dear Taras,

Thank you for your letter and for your encouraging words about the Kanji Clinic. To answer your question about the new edition of Remembering the Kanji, it contains only a revised section of the introduction, a complete retypesetting of the entire book, an updated index, a redesigning of the stroke-order characters (previously hand-drawn) and a redoing of the "hand-written" index. Otherwise, just a sentence or typo were fixed up here and there.

None of the original stories or component names have been changed in the new edition, so working with the older edition should not hamper you in any way.

By the way, the first 125 pages of the new edition may be viewed by going to LINKS on this site.

Best of luck with your kanji learning adventure. Full-time kanji learning... what a luxury!