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A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters
by Kenneth G. Henshall
Charles E. Tuttle, 1998

Reviewed by Prof. David M. Mosher
Hijiyama University, Hiroshima

"A Guide to Remembering the Japanese Characters" is the first book in English to provide a detailed etymology of each of the 1,945 Japanese general-use characters (Jouyou Kanji). Henshall aptly notes that, "For every one student who feels confident in reading and writing kanji, there are dozens who seem daunted and full of despair". The key to overcoming the kanji barrier, according to Henshall, is to break down the unfamiliarity of each kanji by first tracing its origin and subsequent evolution and then by employing a mnemonic memory aid. In this review, I will briefly describe the organization of Henshall' book and critically compare it to two other popular guides for remembering the Japanese characters.

The introduction provides a wealth of useful and interesting information on the history of the kanji, the six basic types of kanji, as well as the seven basic positions of kanji components or radicals. The etymologies for each kanji are listed by a combination of frequency and importance according to the Ministry of Science and Education's official Jouyou Kanji list.

Each entry includes the most common Chinese (on) readings and Japanese (kun) readings, three illustrative kanji compounds, an etymology, and a short mnemonic memory aid. Etymologies begin with an explanation of the original character and then trace how it evolved and picked up new meanings by association, extension and attrition. Information is included about the semantic role of both phonetic and graphemic aspects of the kanji.

The appendixes include a list of 141 commonly occurring character elements, a list of the non-general use and Chinese-only characters referred to in the etymologies, a table showing the kanji source for the hiragana and katakana syllabary as well as kanji stroke-count and kanji reading indexes.

Henshall's detailed and scholarly etymological approach provides a sharp contrast with more minimalist approaches like Heisig's Remembering the Kanji I or De Roo's 2001 Kanji. Heisig, who takes the most minimal approach, limits information for each kanji to one key English word, a creative story based only loosely on the kanji's etymology. Students are to learn to write, but not read each character. De Roo, who takes a more information-rich middle path, provides the most common on and kun readings for each kanji, most of the major senses and a brief story that stays closer to the actual etymology than Heisig's. In contrast to Henshall, both Heisig and De Roo employ only the visual aspects of kanji in creating their stories. Below, I will illustrate some of the potential strengths and drawbacks of Henshall's approach with specific examples from Henshall and De Roo.

Henshall's etymologies often provide historical information that help the kanji to come alive. For (wither, dry up), for example, De Roo simply says this is "an old tree," but Henshall explains that the (old) element phonetically expresses the idea of bones, giving a tree reduced to a skeleton: symbol of decay and withering. Sometimes the inclusion of older kanji forms help make a kanji more memorable. De Roo's explains (gallop, spur on), for instance, as a "ward where people keep horses", but Henshall explains that was originally written with three mouths (i) inside a box-on-side (hakogamae) enclosure and that it phonetically represented a horseback rider shouting "ou" to spur his horse on. The inclusion of three character compounds also helps to distinguish between characters with overlapping senses, such as q (guard, watch) and (guard, defend); e.g., Ԑl (watchman) for the former and q (self-defense) for the latter. Henshall also provides a welcomed reality check when De Roo's explanations seem a bit far fetched. For example, De Roo's story for (by chance, spouse, doll, image) is "now and then a man does something stupid". Though humorous, this does not match the meanings of the character. Henshall, on the other hand, explains that (guu) phonetically expresses "meet by chance" and that this meaning was extended to companion. "Doll" and "image", he notes, derive from the practice of burying effigies with dead persons of rank as afterlife companions.

However, there are also drawbacks to Henshall's approach. First, the characters are presented by frequency-of-occurrence and explanations of graphically similar characters are often not well connected. Take (live, grow) kanji number 42, for instance. Henshall explains it as a pictograph of a plant, but he does not cross-reference it to other characters. De Roo, on the other hand, skillfully relates this character to a cluster of seven others: (nature, sex), (surname) (star), (sacrifice), (vermilion), (pearl), and (stock, stub). Henshall's inclusion of a mere 141 radicals that are not indexed to the etymologies does not remedy this problem.

Second, etymologies are often poorly connected to his mnemonics. For (east), for example, after a detailed explanation of how the common explanation of the sun rising behind trees is incorrect, the "incorrect" version is used as a mnemonic. Third, Henshall's references to phonetic associations are often hopelessly ambiguous. For (liability, blame), he states that the top-radical comes from "thorn" -- the bottom-part of (policy) -- and phonetically expresses demand, but it is unclear whether this refers to the on-reading (SEKI) or the kun-reading (semeru).

Becoming fully literate in any language -- first or second -- is a long, incrementally additive process. Used wisely, Henshall can be an invaluable tool for achieving a high-level of Japanese literacy; however, used unwisely, it can just as easily become part of the daunting barrier to kanji literacy it seeks to remove. Although an understanding of the true etymology of a character can undoubtedly be useful, the sheer amount of information per character in Henshall can be overwhelming. Whereas Heisig challenges you to just learn one short, high impact story and one key English word for each of almost 2000 kanji, Henshall presents a long, complex story, and four to five readings or compounds per character. By comparison, De Roo's stories, read like a fast-paced novel, and Henshall's like dense, academic prose. In my experience, I have found Henshall most valuable as a supplement after having studied De Roo.

Heisig, James W. (1986). Remembering the Kanji I. Tokyo: Japan Publications Trading Company.
De Roo Joseph R. (1980). 2001 Kanji. Tokyo: Bojinsha Co., Ltd.

Go to Henshall Kanji Mnemonics at the Monash University site.