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Read an interview with James Heisig on how his method was born.

Remembering the Kanji II: a systematic guide to reading Japanese characters

by James W. Heisig
University of Hawaii Press, 2008
ISBN 0824831667

Reviewed by James Pannozzi

There have been few books addressing the problem of learning Kanji which are based on the principles of image association and solid reinforcement. By using one of these, the breakthrough Volume I of the Heisig series, the learner is given the opportunity to acquire knowledge of the basic construction of Kanji.

Heisig emphasizes learning the common usage (joyo) Kanji in Volume I. He arranges the material in a hierarchical order in which some of the most basic Kanji and Kanji elements are learned first, each step serving as a foundation for the more complicated Kanji that follow.

Using Heisig's unique approach in Volume I, the diligent learner calmly associates a mental image with each character element. By associating that mental image, (such as a vivid story or absurd image), with the key-word that Heisig assigns to each character, the learning of Chinese characters is accomplished almost effortlessly. The learner's main concern is to create a sufficiently vivid "scene" for each character, something far more easily done than the brain numbing rote memorization which has been promoted in the past as the one true way to mastery of Kanji.

In Volume I, learners master the shape and one key-word for each character. Volume II completes the task begun in Volume I by supplying a system of Kanji and practice compounds that teach the typical sounds (pronunciations) of the Kanji.

After a brief initial chapter focusing on the sometimes rather unobvious connections between the kana (Japanese native alphabet symbols) and the Kanji from which some of these symbols were derived, Heisig embarks on "Pure Groups." These are groups of kanji whose on pronunciation is predictable based upon the presence of what Heisig calls "signal primitives." Less systematic than in his first volume, Heisig continues his cognitive innovations by dividing the seemingly daunting Chinese (on) pronunciations into a series of manageable sections, each one focusing on a group of Kanji with the same on pronunciation. In this way, on pronunciations become learnable.

Each Kanji is presented with a typical example phrase. As in Volume I, the order in which the material is presented, coupled with the example compounds, leads to superb reinforcement, speeding the learner to the desired goal.

Of particular note is the excellent indexing system that Heisig incorporates throughout the book. In addition to numbered frames with cross references to Volume I, there are several excellent indexes in the rear of the book which provide for easy location of desired Kanji.

He provides the Chinese derived reading of the Kanji in Katakana (a native Japanese alphabet), and he shows the pronunciation of the illustrative phrases in Hiragana (another native Japanese alphabet), thus following his own suggestion in Volume I to avoid English romanization at all costs.

Following a chapter concerned with Kanji related to everyday words and expressions, Heisig returns to the subject of "signal primitives," elaborating, in several chapters, variations on this theme that lead to an understanding of even more Kanji.

In this manner, Heisig provides a path to learning the bewildering complex of similar sounding Chinese pronunciations, which is essential to attainment of literacy and which so often bars the way to even the most diligent student.

The final chapter, using a methodology somewhat reminiscent of Volume I's approach, covers a general technique for learning the Japanese (kun) readings. Although he outlines a clever mnemonic technique here, Heisig wisely cautions the user to rely on it more in times of real need than to consider it a definitive methodology.

In summary, Volume II of "Remembering the Kanji" builds on the foundations so carefully laid in Volume I and, like Volume I, combines originality with logical organization.

It is my belief that a cassette containing a native speaker's reading of the sample compounds of Heisig's Volume II would constitute the "icing on the cake" of an already great book.

Together, the 3-volume set of "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig has already become a modern classic, and for those who choose to follow the path that Heisig has so carefully mapped out, Volume II stands at the crossroads on the way to Japanese literacy for the self-taught learner.

Note: Interested in learning more about "signal primitives" (also called "phonetic components")? Read Column #5, "Learning to predict kanji pronunciations--without the strain."