"Adventures in Kanji-Land: James W. Heisig and the Birth of Remembering the Kanji"
Based on an interview with James W. Heisig
By Juan W. Rivera

Free download of the first 125 pages of Remembering the Kanji I.

Every now and then, someone confronts their own personal challenge, systematically overcomes it, and then shares that system with the world. This not only opens up their world, but also opens up the world for generations of people to come. James W. Heisig, author of the sometimes controversial book Remembering the Kanji I: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters, is definitely one of those people. Many people refer to his approach to learning to write the complex Japanese characters as "revolutionary," making Japanese and kanji study accessible to their lives and opening up a whole world of learning and possibilities for them. I conducted a telephone interview with Prof. Heisig from his office at the Nanzan University Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan.

Heisig's kanji journey began while he was living in a commune of poets and artists identified as the "spiritual" side of the Sandanista revolution that would soon overthrow the Somoza government. Because of his familiarity with research centers, he was invited by Nanzan University to consult on the establishment of an academic institute devoted to dialogue among religions and philosophies East and West. Shortly after the consultation he was invited back to assist in the project, on condition that he would remain for five years and first attain fluency in spoken and written Japanese at an academic level.

A world-hopper who had spent time in areas as distant as Bangladesh to the Basque country, Heisig explained to the head of the language school at Kamakura where he was sent to learn Japanese that he was not interested in taking language classes, that this was not the way he had learned languages in the past. Classes had already begun, so the head of the school conceded and let Heisig stay and pay tuition while studying on his own.

Heisig began by reading and examining the Alfonso Japanese language series, an audio-lingual approach that emphasizes spoken language before concentrating on the written language. Heisig wanted to get gthe idea of the grammarh as he began his language study, but not necessarily to get bogged down in remembering all the rules.

Very early on, Heisig realized that he would have to tackle the written language first if he was going to be able to be a successful independent learner of Japanese. Everyone around him told him that it was not possible. When it came to learning kanji, even teachers of Japanese gexpected you to learn a few hundred and then forget it. It took the Japanese nine years to get the basics of kanji and they still forget them, people around me explained.h

There were other discouraging signs. At the school library, he pulled out all the books on learning Japanese characters. gI noticed the first 50 or 60 pages were heavily thumbed. Then after that the pages could have been European books that you have to cut the edges on. Those pages remained untouched.h Many learners of Japanese had come here before him and hit a kanji wall.

Heisig remained determined. His breakthrough came when he discovered Wiegerfs book on Chinese character etymology. gI read through the 800 pages and understood about 20% of it, but what I discovered was that Chinese characters could be broken up into basic elements. I think he had a list of 220 elements and the characters were made of those pieces.h So Heisig took this approach to learning how to read and write Japanese. Heisig broke down Japanese into the basic elements, and decided to give English readings to the kanji instead of getting bogged down in the different Japanese pronunciations of the same kanji.

"I broke the kanji up into pieces. I began with the simplest pieces, went through the entire list, saw what I could make with it, add another piece, and then go through the entire list of kanji once again. I kept a little diary of what I was doing, and exactly 30 days after I started I had finished writing all the characters, I had learned them all. Then the word got out at school."

Soon, Heisig was summoned by the teaching staff of the school. Some staff were perplexed that there was someone at their school who wasnft actually taking classes.

"They called me in at 3 ofclock, at tea time. There were these six teachers standing there.'We've heard that youfve learned the characters and we want to see if you can really write these things.'" Heisig agreed and they put him in front of a blackboard. They told him to write ginuh (dog), and Heisig explained that he did not know what ginuh meant.

"You mean you have been here for two months and you donft know the Japanese word for dog?h The Japanese teachers started to mutter among themselves, and Heisig asked the one teacher who spoke English what they were talking about.

gTheyfre saying you should really come to class. This is inexcusable.h

gNo, just give me English words.h

This is the lynchpin of Heisigfs system. Heisig insists that you must learn the characters in your own language first before you start getting tripped up by the different pronunciations of different kanji.

gThey said dog, and I wrote dog. They said cat and I wrote cat. Then they started to murmur amongst themselves and explained youfre not supposed to know that one. Itfs not on the list.h

After the chalkboard was filled with characters, the teachers buzzed amongst themselves and asked Heisig to come back at 5 ofclock.

gSo I went away, thinking it all very strange. I came back. The teachers had determined that I had a photographic memory and that it would only be short term for the characters and that I should come to school and give up studying on my own.h

gI told them that my memory was just like everyone elsefs but itfs extremely easy to learn it if you learn it in the right order.h

Heisig tried to convince them as much as he could. In the end they concluded that he should start classes, and not talk to the other students about the method since they did not have the same photographic memory. Heisig considered leaving the school and avoiding causing any problems, but the other students started coming to him and asking for his notes. Some of Heisigfs system was written down in notebooks and scraps of paper, but most of it wasnft written down at all.

As word of Heisigfs accomplishment leaked out more and more students became interested in discussing his system. Most students took the sides of his teachers and repeated the arguments that still come from Heisigfs critics to this day. In short, students explained that this wasnft the way to study. You donft learn the character if you just learn how to write it without learning the Japanese pronunciation.

gI told them to look at the Chinese and Korean students at the school. They donft know any of the pronunciations but they come in with a big advantage and jump ahead of you. Chinese grammar is completely different from Japanese, but Chinese students know the meanings of characters. I want to give myself the same edge as the Chinese have.h

One day Heisig was summoned to Nanzan University to speak to the President. gYou know we went through a lot of trouble to get you into Japan, to set up the institute. A lot of money was invested in getting you over here. We understand that you are not going to class and that you are not studying Japanese. If you arenft serious maybe itfs time for you to go home. Heisig paused and asked, gWhat exactly have you heard?h

gWell, we heard these rumors that you supposedly learned the characters.h

gWell, I did.h

The president stood up and explained. gLook. Ifve been in Japan for sixteen years. Ifm president of a Japanese university. I donft know any foreigner who can write all of these characters, and you expect me to believe that you did it in a month?h

gI did.h

gI thought you would be stubborn about this.h

Heisig explained that they wheeled in a blackboard and brought in three or four teachers from the Japanese Literature department to test him. They tested his knowledge of how to write Japanese characters. After Heisig demonstrated his kanji knowledge for an hour, the president sent the Japanese teachers away.

gHe got up from his huge oak desk, and sat down in a seat beside me. 'How did you do this?'"

Heisig explained once again how he broke down the kanji into its basic elements and created a system for remembering the meanings of the kanji.

gI want you to go back and write all of this down in a book.h

Heisig protested. gI donft know how to speak yet. I donft have a vocabulary of more than 200 words. Ifve got so much more to study.h

gNo, no, no.... I want you to do this right away. Give up everything and write this.h

Heisig headed back to the language school. He gathered his notes and had to track down the various index cards that he had passed out to students. When he had assembled all his notes and cut and pasted all the kanji together, he was finally ready with his first incarnation of Remembering the Kanji , which was entitled Adventures in Kanji-land. Getting the book published was its own series of adventures. Though Nanzan University published the first 600 copies, distributing and selling them was another issue.

Heisig approached Iwamoto Keiko of Tuttle Publishing. Heisig was again put to the test. gCan you make the characters for my name?h Heisig obliged, though he had some misses--perfectly written kanji that had similar meanings to gkeih in English. Ms. Iwamoto, nevertheless, was sufficiently impressed. gWefll buy all the copies from you.h A couple of months later they were sold out.

In the meantime, Heisig left the language school in Kamakura. He had the deepest respect for the teachers but wanted to keep going with his own independent methods. gI agree with Dante who said that the only languages that should be learned in school are dead languages.h

He went to live in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, where he gplayed with the children there and learned how to speak." During this time, he completed a second book which helps those who've conquered the first book learn in a more efficient way how the kanji are pronounced in Japanese.

In the midst of travels, lectures, and other professional obligations the old manuscript for the first book languished in storage. In the 1980fs, with the advent of computers and printers that could print and set Japanese type, Heisig rescued his work from the dust and set out to print it again. He took his book to Japan Publications, which was at first was hesitant to publish and market it.

gI said, eIfll pay for the printing of the whole thing. If it sells within a year, you pay me for the cost of printing plus 20% of the profits.h The first run sold out within a couple of months and thus began an on-going and fruitful relationship with Japan Publications.

Itfs a good thing that Heisig believed in and resurrected his manuscript, because his work continues to touch and affect people in ways that he never could have predicted. One woman, Thelma Fayle, bought Remembering the Kanji when she was on an exchange program in Japan. Several years later, in Canada, a young neighbor boy with dyslexia became interested in the book. They worked through it and the young boy learned over 1,000 characters. The confidence and the skill that he gained through learning such a seemingly insurmountable set of skills helped him overcome his dyslexia and become more successful in school.

In Remembering the Kanji, the kanji for ghumilityh is made up of the elements gstate of mindh and gtruth.h Prof. Heisig remains humble about his work. He explains, gIfm not a language teacher. I just kind of slipped into this because the President of my university insisted on it, and pushed me to write the books.h But fortunately Heisig possessed the state of mind to stick to the truth he discovered with his system.

His kanji work has been translated and adapted to German, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. He once even received a marriage proposal from a woman in India who had fallen in love with kanji study.

Though Heisigfs time is taken up with his responsibilities at the Nanzan University Institute for Religion and Culture, his books on kanji continue to open up Japan and its treasures to a growing number of people worldwide, and through them the adventures in kanji-land live on

Copyright 2006 by Juan Rivera

Juan W. Rivera is an educator and writer living in New York City.  He is currently working on a memoir about everything that happens to him on the road to learning Japanese.  He can be reached at taijuando@aol.com.

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