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KanjiCan (Software)

Reviewed by Mary Sisk Noguchi
followed by a message from its creator, Mark Donaghue (mcd@kanjisoft.com)

Many kanji learners have discovered the value of using James Heisig's system for learning the shape and meanings of all the 1,945 general-use characters. (To read a review of his "Remembering the Kanji I," click "Book Reviews"). Heisig's highly-organized system utilizes "imaginative memory" stories. Each story ties together the components of one character with its English meaning. Heisig provides stories for the first 500 characters he presents, and then leaves the remaining 1,500 stories to the imaginations of his users.

Some Heisig devotees find that using their own life experiences and fantasies to create kanji component stories actually helps to engrave the kanji more deeply in memory. Others, however, may be happy to learn that Mark Donaghue, creator of KanjiCan, has done the work for them: Using Heisig's components, (plus a few creative component names of his own), Donaghue presents 1,945 delightfully memorable stories in this flashcard software. Here are some example stories from KanjiCan:

Sticking out their tongues and wiping their noses, as their hearts beat from the exercise, are kids at recess.

Perishing flesh is the usual result of a warlike king's ambitions.

The bright white lines painted down the middle of the road are urging you to drive sensibly and not weave between the lines.

Police break down a drug dealer's door with an axe, and upon seeing all the drug paraphernalia within, say "We've got the right place!"

Animals use urine to mark off their territory, similar to the way we put up flags at our borders. Thus, urine is a flag made of water.

The KanjiCan stories are searchable. For example, if you wish to see which kanji contain the component meaning "flower," you can enter "flower" into the search engine, then browse through the list of matching kanji, making a mental note of the differences between similar looking kanji. Several keywords can be searched at the same time.

Another kanji learning tool in KanjiCan, also useful to those who are not using the Heisig system, is its flashcard capability. This allows you to specify a list of kanji, and then use the flashcard function to review them. It's customizable, so you can tell the program which fields (keyword, kanji, and kana) to hide and which to show.

The flashcards also have "auto-advance" capability. This means you can let the computer step through the flashcards automatically, while you watch. As you get more proficient, you can increase the speed. You can also eliminate a kanji from the flashcard review list once it is learned.

If you know something other than the components of the kanji you're looking for, the search engine features a set of "dropdown" lists, which allow you to find a kanji by keyword, romaji pronunciation, or kanji number. In addition to Heisig's numbering system, several others are included, among them: Henshall's, Halpern's, and Nelson's.

The program also comes with a copy of Jim Breen's KANJIDIC attached. KANJIDIC provides the common meanings, pronunciations, and various numberings for over 6,000 kanji.

A 30-day trial of KanjiCan is available through KanjiSoft at www.kanjisoft.com. The price is U.S. $49.95. It runs on Windows ME, 98, 95, and 3.1.

As a satisfied customer who has spent many happy hours using KanjiCan, I was curious: Who produced these 1,945 stories, and how did KanjiCan come to be created? I wrote to KanjiSoft to find out, and received the following reply from Mark Donaghue (mcd@kanjisoft.com):

I'm interested in languages, and as I had learned French without too much trouble (I lived in France for a couple of years previous to that), I decided to tackle Japanese when I went to Japan. Between work and play, and the intrinsic difficulties of Japanese, I didn't make as much progress. I also immediately started stumbling on the kanji, and wondered why there seemed to be no effort at all paid to identifying the various elements of the kanji, and to incorporating that into some type of systematic memorization scheme.

At one point, I gave Henshall a try, figuring that knowing the etymology of the kanji would lend an advantage to memorizing it, but I found that that system broke down (for me) for a couple of reasons:

1) In describing the evolution of a given kanji, you are actually presented with a series of kanji leading up to the current one. It's challenging enough to memorize the current set of kanji, let alone all their predecessors.

2) Many different "elements" of the kanji have the same name - for example "hand" has several representations.

When I picked up "Remembering the Kanji I" by James Heisig, I realized that I had found what I was looking for. I purchased it, and started studying kanji using the Heisig method.

There were still a couple of problems - at that point, I was getting ready to head back to the States, so I had less motivation to learn. Also, I found myself writing the flashcards by hand - a daunting task for me, given my relatively illegible handwriting. Every adjustment I made to a story led to multiple cross-outs/erasures. It wasn't pretty.

I knew even then that a computer application would be far more suitable for me, but there was really nothing available, at least that I knew about.

Between moving back to the States and settling there, I really didn't do anything with Japanese for a while after that.

Finally, around 1994, I realized that, since my wife is Japanese, I would always have to be involved in Japanese at one level or another. I remained fascinated with the potential of the Heisig system, as well. I decided to give kanji another crack.

In the interim, I had run across a piece of software called "Info Select" (an extremely useful program), which is based on the concept of "stick'ems". (Those little pieces of yellow paper where you write down a random piece of information, and stick it to a wall, your computer monitor, etc.).

The Info-Select program has a superb text-retrieval module, which finds and retrieves any of the "stick 'ems" you have created, based on a string of text which you enter as the search parameter. Thus, you can instantly retrieve any story(s) you create, based on the text elements of that story.

What this enabled me to do was create all my stories in the database - and retrieve them immediately, when needed. For example, if I see a kanji with the element "sunglasses" and something else, I could just enter "sunglasses", and I am presented with a list of all the jouyou kanji with "sunglasses" as an element. One problem with Info Select at that time was that you couldn't have an image of the Kanji presented with it. You could see just the text, so the visual impact wasn't there.

When I discovered the freeware JWP program by Stephen Chung, and realized that the bitmapped font presented therein was available for redistribution under the GNU license, I decided to bring the stories and the images together into an Access database, and "KanjiCan" was born.