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Reader Response
April, 2002

A "scattershot" approach led Cate to literacy in Japanese

Well, here I am, sitting down to reminisce about my past 20 years (?!) of studying kanji. I'm a freelance translator /interpreter who often interprets for legal proceedings such as depositions, settlement talks and contract negotiations. I've passed level 3 of the Kanji Proficiency Test (Kanji Kentei, or "Kanken") and am now studying for the next level, but I've never taken a Japanese class.

I first saw Japanese characters on scrolls at an art museum, when I was a teenager, and the draw was instant and magnetic - it was as if I couldn't bear not to be able to understand them. Later, I became friends with a Japanese exchange student at university. We would wander the campus and she would spoon-feed me words and phrases that I would write in a little notebook and memorize.

I studied conversation right along with the kanji, from the very beginning. I was fortunate enough to take private lessons from a teacher in Detroit, a wonderful Japanese woman who let me wander freely through the language, picking out things here and there, who didn't force me into any programmed method of study. Then I moved to Japan and lived there for 16 years. For me, learning kanji, or learning anything for that matter, has always been an eclectic process. I keep a stack of Japanese books beside my bed and wander through them before going to sleep, picking out things that are interesting and learning them. Every morning I get up early, make a cup of tea and get back in bed with my books for an hour. I write each of the kanji in my notebook, write the combinations of characters and all their definitions, and then write the romaji in the back of the notebook. Every morning I test myself on the previous day's kanji, from the romaji. It's a peaceful way to start the day, and by the time I get out of bed, I feel like I've already had my private time and accomplished something.

I don't suppose this scattershot method would work for a lot of people, but for me, learning has always derived from interest and, except for the Kanji Kentei series of self-study guides, I have never been good at learning anything that required studying systematically. I felt like I had stumbled across a gold mine when I found the Kanji Kentei, because I had been looking for a systematic way to study kanji. I enjoy the process immensely.

I live in the U.S. now, but when I travel to Japan two or three times a year, I gorge myself on new words, reading the newspapers, watching TV, listening to people talking around me. But I always learn best by writing, which is why my life is constantly cluttered with little scraps of paper that I mean to transform into orderly lists someday.

Yes, I schedule my trips to Japan around the Kanji Kentei exams! I am extremely fortunate in that, as a freelance translator, I can work anywhere, so two or three times a year I pack up my computer and go over to Japan and stay 3 or 4 weeks.

I don't know if any of this will be interesting or helpful to other kanji learners, but if I had to sum it up in one sentence, my approach has always been: Learn what you are interested in - the framework will develop as you need it.

I'm looking forward to more of your columns. They are fascinating to us hard-core kanji learners!

Cate Swift
Estes Park, Colorado, USA
Her kanji dream is to study the history of written Japanese

I am new to Japan, and am painfully teaching myself kanji as I learn Japanese. People tell me I should ignore the kanji and just get on with it, but I can't let a character go by without making myself learn it. I want to read kanji some day.

My "kanji dream" is to study the history of written Japanese. I'm interested in studying the history of both literary and buddhist texts. I would like to read "Genji" and study the problems in the texts. And I would like to read modern Japanese literature in the original -- Mishima, for one.

I have a background in Classical philology, which probably explains my dream somewhat. But Japanese/Chinese seems so much richer than Greek and Latin! And it is so much older! I have always been interested in old writing forms. To me, writing -- symbols -- the things we choose to represent by means of symbols -- can reveal much about us as humans. The combination of the representative and the semantic elements of kanji seems fascinating to me. Unfortunately I know next to nothing about it.

I am using "Minna no Nihongo" as my basic text. As I go along ( and I'm still on chapter 1) I make a list of the kanji which is introduced. I use Hadamitsky and Spahn to practice how to write the character. Sometimes I refer to Henshall's "Guide to Remembering..." because of the interesting background it provides. My problem is simply one of consistency. I have yet to successfully maintain a daily study schedule. Perhaps I am setting my goals too high.

I have enjoyed your columns in the Japan Times, especially the one about Fr. De Roo. I would have loved to have learned from such a person. I am looking forward to perusing his book.

I also appreciate your website, and was touched by your "other" articles -- about your struggle with conception, and about Sho-chan. Will there be an update soon?

Best wishes,
Eugenia L. Fitzgerald
Chiba, Japan

Note: Thank you very much, Eugenia, for your interest in the articles about my son. I recently posted a new article about his develpment as a Japanese/English bilingual. You will find it at Other Articles. Best of luck in your kanji learning.

Using De Roo, Henshall, and Kanji ABC in tandem to nail down kanji components

The De Roo book (2001 Kanji) that I ordered from Bonjinsha came very quickly, and his look-up system is not too much of a hassle. I'm using De Roo, Foerster/Tamura's ABC Kanji, and Henshall's A Guide to Remembring Japanese Characters to nail down graphemes (components) and the joyo (general-use) kanji better.

Sometimes Henshall has the best explanation, but often DeRoo's are more succinct and so vivid that they stick quickly. ABC is good for its efficient grouping of kanji, its attempt to identify all the graphemes used in the joyo kanji, and its indexes. But its labels of the graphemes are extremely static (and limited) when compared to De Roo's dynamic depiction of scenes and situations: ABC is hampered by its one grapheme-one name approach that does not always capture the full essense of a grapheme or kanji.

De Roo's 16h component (hand sprinkling water in the morning to chase away evil spirits and start a good day) versus ABC's (X7) cryptic "sin" label is a good example. DeRoo's explanation of —๊ (1442), which is comprised of 16h and 14n (the professional Žm at the altar Žฆ) then makes this kanji come very much alive, versus ABC's terse "scholar", "show", "sin" graphemic analysis. Other than his total reliance on his own look-up system, DeRoo's main fault in my opinion is that there is no systematic clustering of kanji like in ABC or Heisig.

I've done a once through of all the graphemes in ABC and have written in (as in writing in the book itself) additional grapheme information for some graphemes using Henshall and DeRoo. Already I'm beginning to see the kanji much more clearly. For example, the other day it simplly jumped out at me that the broom or hand-line grapheme in the gyaku of gyakutai (‹s‘า) was not the same as the one in the sou of souji (‘|œ). According to Henshall (1147), this represents the claws of a tiger Œี mauling a human being, leading to the core meanings of cruelty and oppression. DeRoo (1275) does about equally well here, but is a little more terse and less convincing than Henshall. For 1274 ‹• (kyo, ko: emptiness, in vain), however, he is in full form: when one encounters a pack of tigers (12e) lined up (974), all is in vain!

Dave Mosher

Note: 2001 Kanji, A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, and Kanji ABC are all reviewed on this site. Go to Book Reviews.
Retired publisher pursues his kanji dream

I live in Port Angeles, a small city by the sea and Olympic Mountains in Washington State. I am a retired small newspaper publisher. My wife was Nisei. Her parents came to America from Shiga-ken, and she lived in a relocation camp when she was young. We were married in 1955 when mixed marriages could be disputable. We have four adult sons and two daughters. Unfortunately, my wife died of cancer eleven years ago.

In 1993 I attended a school in Kobe, studying Nihongo. Since that time I have been to Japan seven times. I study the language every day. For the first years I ignored kanji in favor of conversation. But during the last year I've been struggling with kanji because I want to read Japanese history sources first-hand. At my age this is not realistic, but I'm going for it anyway. (My daughters Tomiko and Kiyo enjoy kidding me about this. "Dad, maybe you'd better just rely on secondary sources...").

After forgetting all those lists of kanji I remembered long enough to take the exam, I find my best way is to concentrate on kanji I'm interested in. That interest might come from seeing a movie title, an oft repeated kanji in newspapers, or one that just plain looks pretty. I'm also interested in kanji relating to my interests in history, WWII, and Dazai Osamu. To give myself some measure of organization and discipline, I use Namiko Abe's superb instructional site at japanese.guide@about.com. She shows the first three grades of kanji in addition to others.

Now that I know about it, I'll get some more help from your web site. I'm very enthusiastic about reading the previous columns as well as watching for it in Friday editions of Japan Times Online.

Del Price
Port Angeles, Washington (USA)

Note: Unfortunately, the Kanji Clinic column appears on Japan Times Online only in cases when it does NOT contain kanji. (The Japan Times does not load text containing Japanese onto its online site). The good news is that you can always read the column right here at this site, every three weeks, usually on the same day it appears in the paper version of The Japan Times.
Moving up to the next level of conversational ability through kanji knowledge

I have been living in Tokyo for 3 years. I spent an additional year living in Oiso, Kanagawa-Ken during 1995. Currently I am Purchasing Manager Northeast Asia for an American company.

In my Japanese studies, I have hit a wall in getting to advanced level Japanese. I use conversational intermediate level Japanese every day at work with my group of 6 employees, but I need to get to the next level of vocabulary and ability to describe things. To do this, I believe I need to learn Kanji. While in Japan, I have treated Japanese studies as a hobby after work, but am pretty serious about it.

I have now learned the first 360 Kanji in Heisig's book, and believe in his system. I find it very easy to go from key word to Kanji and can easily write them using my imagination images. It is a great feeling. I believe in this method and my focus will still be his direction of English keyword to Kanji, but I want to also practice going from Kanji back to keyword. I know Heisig says not to do this, but when I see the Kanji on the street, it is not easy to remember the keyword.

I only occasionally buy The Japan Times, since I find when I have English publications I read them cover to cover and neglect my Japanese studies. I have seen your articles and will definitely go out to your homepage.

Thank you.

John Taradash
And now... here's a word from Sweden

Here in Sweden, finding people that study Japanese in general and kanji in particular isn't very easy but I'd say that the number of people doing it is steadily increasing. We have quite a few courses here at the university in Linkoping (some people take full-time courses in order to prepare for university studies as exchange-students in Japan) and I think you can find assorted courses on the biggest 5-10 universities (we don't have that many here in Sweden, it's a small country). There may also be some evening-classes outside the academic world, I know you can find some Chinese ones. These courses, where the workload is usually very light because it's intended for people with full-time jobs, usually have a very pragmatic approach, focusing on conversation and basic grammar skills. I doubt they do any kanji studies at all.

Most Swedes study (apart from Swedish and English) European languages such as German, French or Spanish. The few who set out to learn Japanese are usually pretty motivated and attend courses at the university. At my university (Linkoping Institute of Technology) we have some "international" Master of Science programs where the students take ordinary science courses as well as courses on a language, which also includes courses on the culture and history of the country where the language is spoken. Japanese is one of those languages, but unfortunately for me, Japanese wasn't available with my choice of science subjects, so I do French instead.

I still intend to learn Japanese so a few months ago I picked up a copy of Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji vol. 1" and since then I'm pretty hooked. My university ("Linkoping Institute of Technology", part of "Linkoping University") uses Heisig's book in their introduction Japanese courses. I haven't had time to take the courses myself but it was the teacher giving the courses who recommended Heisig's book to me. My plan is to:

1) learn the 2000 or so kanjis listed in the book (and probably get vol. 2 as well)
2) learn the kana (I guess this is the easy part)
3) learn the grammar
4) go to Japan and practice a lot!

Since I can't seem to find any time to attend any university course I guess I'll be doing the first 3 items on the list on my own. Which maybe isn't that bad after all, I have a lot of experience of inefficient language courses.

There are some materials for learning Japanese grammar in Swedish but I believe all teachers at the universities use English textbooks. Young Swedes have no problem in understanding English so it's not much of a problem. A Swedish version of "Remembering the Kanji" would be very nice, to write that would really make for an interesting project!

Tobias Gerdin
Linkoping, Sweden
He remembers writing something besides kanji 500 times

You mentioned the "brute force" method of learning kanji in Column #17. I've tried filling out little squares and big squares with kanji many times over the years and, like you, I have found it doesn't work. It will help you remember stroke order and if you're doing ƒyƒ“Žš or@‘“น (Japanese calligraphy), it's essential, but I never found it to help at all in remembering kanji.

I suspect that we wind up writing them as fast as we can to get the task out of the way, something like writing "I will not kick Helen" 500 times.

Gary Harper

Saturday I read your interesting Japan Times columns. They are great. While reading the first one on the computer screen, I decided that I want to save these in printed form and also study the kanji examples you use.

The column I enjoyed the most was number 10 about Sean's joy over his name. Column 12 brought a lump to my throat. I wonder why the memo informing you of Father DeRoo's death was so terse? Column 5 reminded me of explaining to a Japanese friend why my plans to sit on a Northwest airplane seat for ten hours needed changing. I felt a little guilty reducing such a long word as hemorrhoid to simply "ji."

Column 3 reminded me of my youngest daughter Hilary Kiyo's complaint about Chinese students' learning advantage in her kanji classes at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Congratulations on completing Heisig's book in six months and passing Level 1 in another year.

There are lots of other things in the columns to talk about. My last question is this: Is there any connection between the war ending in 1945 and the designation of 1,945 jouyou (general-use) kanji?

Thanks again for all the kanji info and for sharing your personal stories.

Del Price
Port Angeles, Washington (USA)
Mary Sisk Noguchi responds to Mr. Price:

I have never noticed that interesting "kanji coincidence"! Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and thanks for taking the time to let me know which columns you found interesting. I appreciate the feedback very much.