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A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters
by Kenneth G. Henshall
Charles E. Tuttle, 1988

Reviewed by Mark Donaghue
Author of "KanjiCan" (a Kanji learning software package)

When I was writing "KanjiCan" several years ago, I became intimately familiar with "A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters" by Kenneth G. Henshall. The reason is that I had to dream up 2000+ "stories" for memorizing each of the kanji (using the primitive elements presented in Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji I"). As a result, I often consulted this trusty guide, looking for information and inspiration.

Henshall's guide is a serious and thorough work of scholarship. It traces the evolution of the general-use (JOUYOU 常用) kanji, from the initial nearly pictographic forms to the more shorthand versions that exist today, and many of the iterations in between. Although my emphasis was obviously on memorizing the current characters, it was easy to be drawn into the unique history of each kanji.

In terms of creating stories, I felt it would be helpful to get a "feel" for each kanji and how it evolved. Another idea was get as close to the "real" roots as possible with my stories. However, in many cases, this wasn't feasible and I ended up with a story totally unrelated the history of the kanji. I submit this is not necessarily a bad thing, given the actual origins sometimes don't provide a lot of help in memorizing the modern characters, which I discuss next.

In terms of memorizing kanji, this guide's biggest strength is in a real sense also its greatest drawback. That is, historical accuracy obliges the author to report on what a character, or piece of a character, was in the past -- even if that is of no use in memorizing the kanji in its current incarnation. As an example, take Henshall # 1038, "deep" 奥 (oku), which includes the character for "big", 大 (okii). We find that 大 originally didn't mean "big" in the context of this kanji, but rather is a simplification of a now defunct representation of "a pair of hands". This is information overload -- it provides no assistance in memorizing the current kanji, although it is an interesting detour. Henshall concedes this in a sense, stating, "it may be useful to take it as such" (i.e., "big" instead of "pair of hands"). A mnemonic sentence is helpfully provided for each kanji, and the mnemonic provided here employs the "big" meaning as well, to wit: "BIG AMOUNT OF RICE DEEP INSIDE BUILDING".

The above is clearly a useful and effective mnemonic. As a result, I would suggest that, unless you have a compelling reason to know the etymology of the kanji, you would be better served to first read the mnemonic, then just enough of the explanation to understand how it was put together. This technique is quicker, and doesn't burden your memory with what is in fact non-essential information. Otherwise, you may find that you are actually memorizing a series of defunct kanji in order to remember a single modern kanji. This is like studying every Latin or Greek word which preceded the modern one to understand English-- too much work and unnecessary as well.

There is a further complication, even if you subscribe to the technique of limiting yourself to the mnemonics and a brief check of the explanation. Due to the derivation from historical origins, there are often similar interpretations given to different elements of a given kanji, or "primitives" as Heisig labels them. For example, Henshall # 1026 "help" 援, is composed of four different elements, all representing variations of "hand". The mnemonic offered is "Four hands provide help". This is nice and simple, but when recollecting the kanji, you must recall to which of the multiple versions of "hand" the mnemonic refers-- which brings you back to relying on raw memory.

This is the main reason why I chose the Heisig system for memorizing kanji, which makes a point of being consistent in terms of assigning a single meaning to a single primitive. As an example, take the kanji discussed above, Henshall # 1026 "help" 援. Its keyword is "Abet" in the Heisig system, and it consists of the primitives "finger, claw, one, friendship", or more succinctly "finger, migrating ducks". The story I made up for this combination was "Helpful FINGERS nurse a downed MIGRATING DUCK back to health and aid and ABET it on its journey southward". Keep in mind, of course, that you can always change the story-- but not the history.

Which system works better? This is clearly up to the individual, and the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. For me, Henshall's guide fits in nicely as a companion for study under the Heisig system, providing rich background material and ideas for the stories you create on your own.

The following information is provided for each kanji in Henshall's guide:

- Henshall Number
- The kanji written in brush form
- Both Japanese (on & kun) readings and English meanings
- Number of strokes
- Detailed explanations of origins and meanings
- Example of usage (3 sample Japanese words) and corresponding English meanings
- A mnemonic (suggestion for memorizing)
- Cross references to other characters with the explanations (etymology)
- Explanations of components making up the character (as part of the explanation)

There are also a number of indexes, including a list of the kanji and elements by stroke count, an index of non-general use characters, and a Readings index (I found this last to be the most useful for my purposes).

To sum up, this book is a superb study of kanji, meticulously researched, concisely explained, and elegantly presented. I personally used it extensively for inspiration when creating my own stories, but in its own right it can be tremendously useful for remembering the kanji. Just be cognizant of your goals when perusing this book -- that is, you probably want to learn kanji as opposed to the history of kanji-- and orient your study accordingly.

Go to Henshall Kanji Mnemonics at the Monash University site.