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KANJI ABC: A Systematic Approach to Japanese Characters
By Andreas Foerster & Naoko Tamura
Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1994
ISBN 0-8048-1957-2

Reviewed by Mary Sisk Noguchi
with a message to KANJI CLINIC readers from the author

For foreign adults determined to attain literacy in Japanese, a critical necessity is a systematic approach to learning the shapes and meanings of all the 1,945 general-use characters. The sequence of introduction of characters should not be determined by their supposed "importance"; instead, graphically simple kanji should be introduced first, so that they may be used as building blocks for learning more complex ones. This is the approach taken by Andreas Foerster and Naoko Tamura in their self-instructional text Kanji ABC.

In Part I, they introduce, step-by-step, one concise label for each of 483 kanji components, which they call "graphemes."@The graphemes they name include: basic kanji; historical radicals; and frequent combinations of other graphemes, which are used to avoid unreasonable fragmentation of the characters. According to Kanji ABC, 90% of all the general-use characters consist of from 1 to 3 of these graphemes.

In Part II, kanji that can be created from the graphemes introduced in Part I are presented in a logical and systematic sequence. Similar kanji are presented next to each other; this reduces the danger of confusing them since the differences become obvious in comparison. Kanji with shared "phonetic components" (see KANJI CLINIC column #5 for a full explanation) are often presented next to each other, as an aid to learning on ("Chinese") pronunciations.

Kanji ABC may be utilized in one of two ways: the user can memorize small groups of components (10-25 in number) first, and then proceed to memorize the corresponding kanji containing those components. Alternatively, learners may first remember all 483 graphemes as a foundation, and then learn new kanji in any order they choose. The latter approach may be appealing to those who are determined to learn the general-use characters in order of frequency of use.

Kanji ABC provides commonly used pronunciations for each character as well as one or more meanings for each.

Unlike James Heisig's Remembering the Kanji Iand Joseph De Roo's 2001 Kanji, both of which also take a "component analysis" approach, Kanji ABC does not provide stories which link together the graphemes and the meaning for each character. It leaves this task for its users to grapple with. Some kanji learners may actually find that the stories they make up themselves are easier to recall than those created by others. All they need are the building blocks, conveniently provided in this extremely user-friendly text, to get started.

Andreas Foerster, creator of Kanji ABC, writes to KanjiClinic.com:

When I first came to Japan in 1989 to collect material for my PhD-dissertation, I was very surprised how much time students of the Japanese language spent on studying the kanji. Being an economist, I thought there should be more economical ways of memorizing them.

My friend Naoko Tamura (now my wife), who at this time was a member of the Department of Japanese as a Foreign language at Tsukuba University, referred me to a lot of material that explained the components of more complex kanji. While I thought that this was a good starting point, I was still dissatisfied by the didactic organization of these books. In some books the components had a different meaning in different kanji, in others their shape changed depending on the kanji. Moreover, there was no logical progression from grapheme to kanji and then to the kanji compounds.

Furthermore, the sequence in which new kanji are learned is extremely important to economical memorizing. This reduces the danger of confusing similar kanji and makes it easier to memorize the reading of phonetic components.. Stories provided beforehand can obviously help, but they need to be good! Whenever books provided stories that I could not understand well or did not fit to my experiences, they did not help me.

In a stopover in Hong Kong my wife and I learned that for Chinese characters there is a relatively good number of learning materials available. We collected as much as possible, at first not with the goal of writing a book. But when we later on explained our approach to our friends, they asked us to make it available to them in the form of photocopies. They were very excited about the systematic approach, and some of them had managed to study all Joyo Kanji within 6-8 weeks. Eventually we offered the material to the German Hueber Publishing Company. Two years after publishing the German version, the English version was published with Tuttle.

Ever since, we have received a lot of positive feedback from students. Many of their suggestions were directed into computerizing the Kanji ABCapproach. We developed a simple German software version which is currently in the process of being brought into the internet for online learning (in English).