Kanji as Argo

My copy of Eve Kushner's new book Crazy for kanji arrived in the mail last week. I'm quoted in the book on one page, and consider Kushner an internet friend, so I'm not even going to try to write a "review" as such. I do like it a lot—I'd recommend it to anyone wanting a practical lay introduction to how written Japanese works—but what I really want to talk about is a related topic: how kanji are normally studied, and why it makes no sense.

The first 80% of Crazy for kanji is a comprehensive look at why and how kanji are so damn awesome. Internal structure, pronunciation, combination with the rest of the Japanese writing system: it's obvious that Kushner loves this stuff, and she has pages on pages of examples showing why, and making a convincing argument that we, too, should love the Japanese writing system.

But then we come to chapter seven: "Ten tips for studying kanji." I have no argument with the tips themselves; they make sense if you're going to study kanji, or anything else for that matter. "Avoid mindless drilling," "Think holistically about patterns"—all makes sense. What I disagree with is the notion that kanji should be "studied" at all.

When the Argonauts dallied so long in Lemnos that it became a threat to the plot of their adventure, Heracles gave them a good scolding. "My good sirs," he said (via E. V. Rieu), "we shall get no credit, I assure you, by shutting ourselves up with a set of foreign women all this time. And it is no good praying for a miracle. Fleeces do not come to people of their own accord."

Similar Apollonian sentiments have long dogged kanji. They are the weights room of written Japanese, where machos and masochists gather to compare the number on-yomi they have memorized with the arbitrary standards posted on the wall: JLPT, Jōyō, Kanji kentei... wait, scratch that last one. Even Kushner, despite her truly Dionysian passion for these characters, warns us against slacking off. "Your mastery of kanji will not happen on its own," she says.

In one sense, I agree with Kushner and Heracles. Mastery of kanji won't happen on its own, and it is no good praying for a miracle. On the other hand, though, I also think that sweating it up with flashcards and studying the kanji themselves is introducing an unnecessary middleman.

If you want to learn kanji, it's because you want to read Japanese text of some sort. So why wait? Start reading, and look up what you don't know as you go along. Sure, it's a drag to have to look in the dictionary every second sentence, and in the early stages of the project you might find yourself forced to give up on some books that are just beyond your reach. Still, if you were learning French, you wouldn't refuse to look at a French book at all until you'd memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.) Kanji are more opaque than words written in the Roman alphabet, it's true—but if you're going to be looking them up and memorizing pronunciations for them anyway, why not do it in the context of something that interests you?

In summary: You don't need to sail out in search of the golden fleece. Just lounge around Lemnos eating grapes, and before long you'll grow a golden fleece of your own. So to speak.

Popularity factor: 28


Hm, I agree to an extent (and you're not going to learn some of the odder readings of characters in most study programs). But until you're at a point where you can break down and look up a kanji at ease, I think you're better off going through a study course of some point.

Of course, it's not advised that one starts off with one of Kawabata's pre-war works and thus attempt to start learning Japanese from tablua rasa, so some formal training would be of use. And that formal training should contain some kanji and kana early on. (My apologies to the Jordanites, but I really don't think the Yale system is anywhere near right in that regard.)

And it is easier to look up kanji what with those new-fangled handwriting-imput electronic dictionaries. But it's even easier to write if you have a sense of radicals, etc.

Chris S. :

This is exactly how I study Japanese; by reading and looking up words (and memorizing lists of words I looked up).

It occurs to me, however, that one of the biggest wastes of time in Japanese language education is requiring students to write Kanji. It requires hundreds of hours of study throughout a typical school year, yet is a nearly useless skill in Japan. In this age of keitai, me-ru and wapuro, the only time you might actually write Kanji is in specialized situations, like government forms or nengasho. Mainly all that Kanji writing practice will only be useful in educational institutions... which also require useless Kanji writing.


"Just lounge around Lemnos eating grapes, and before long you'll grow a golden fleece of your own."

Well said! There is definitely something that feels almost magical when reading a Japanese sentence more or less effortlessly, but I guess the same could be said for any language. Growing A Golden Fleece - that gets my vote for the title of the No-Sword全集.

"and in the early stages of the project you might find yourself forced to give up on some books that are just beyond your reach."

Yeah, that's not a fun feeling.


I agree with 無名酒's last statement (as well as the one about E.H. Jordan). Starting with a good kanji learner's dictionary, where you get used to looking up characters by the radical stroke count, or even getting really good at looking up kanji using the "kanjigen" (or other dictionary) function on your electronic dictionary creates a certain familiarity with certain parts of characters.

In order to pause one's reading and traipse through kanji dictionaries, one has to have the time and energy, and so I find Matt's point quite agreeable.

"[O]ne of the biggest wastes of time ... is requiring students to write Kanji. It ... is a nearly useless skill in Japan."
Chris, this I don't agree with. There are far more situations in which a Japanese person writes out forms than those you have listed, and most of the younger Japanese I know can only write a letter/postcard with a dictionary close at hand. Gross generalization, but the older generations didn't have this luxury, or need it, from what I have discovered. Outsourcing the brain to an IMEditor is a fairly sad trend, especially if, like Ms. Kushner, you see wonder and beauty in Chinese characters.

(Aside: I only wonder how many people had to copy and paste the "nagi" part of Kusanagi's name in recent activity in the blogosphere. Working offline, would they have picked it out of a huge list of Chinese characters or drawn it in by hand?)


I agree that learning through reading (and reading something you are genuinely interested in, regardless of difficulty level) is a good way to go, but I used to find putting the text down and going to a dictionary every time I hit an unknown word to be too distracting. What I'd do was alternate between that intensive method and skimming through, trying to get as much as I could from context and only looking up really crucial words. That kept me going.

L.N. Hammer:

Amida's comment highlights my point, which is while above advice is good for some people, it may not work for all --- because different people have different learning styles. Some remember things better when learned in context, with or without saying it out load; others, the visual cue of flash cards without periferal distractions; still others, by writing things out themselves (possibly as part of making the flashcards).

(One of the great lessons of learning how to teach was the differences between visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and abstract learners, and how to construct lessons that pipe best into the brains of each type.)



Yeah, obviously you need to get to a minimum level of competency before you start the reading project, but I think this is a pretty low bar. All the kana, a few dozen of the super-simple kanji that tend to reappear a lot in subkanji form (日, 木, etc.) -- the stuff that a good course will ensure that you pick up as you learn grammar, pronunciation, etc. (Actually, Kushner's book probably covers 90% of this foundational kanji knowledge all on its own!)

As for writing kanji, it's true that this is the big flaw in my system. I personally can only write (without assistance) a fraction of the kanji that I read. I agree with both Chris and Peter on this: it hasn't really caused trouble in my day-to-day life, but I don't think it's an ideal situation. Learning them in school is probably the best way to go about it. (I have a pretty low opinion of primary-through-secondary school as a place to learn anyway; if you're going to do pointless busywork, might as well be drilling kanji.)


[Other method]
To be honest, riding the trains and looking up the characters that appeared on the "naka-zuri kohkoku" or hanging advertisements was a big help. There isn't a whole lot to read, and trains are ideal places to be fiddling with hand-held electronic devices.

As I see friends who are studying with Papyrus and other dictionaries that have stylus input functionality, I find myself playing the grumpy old man, saying, "In my day, there was no Papyrus or Rikai-chan!"


When I was young, I was lucky enough to have specialized scientific/technical knowledge in English, so people actually paid me to read their Japanese stuff and write my English version of it. Looking up words doesn't seem so bad when you know someone's paying you to do it.


Peter: Yeah, I don't understand these kids and their newfangled ways either. In my day, if you wanted to know how a character on a website was produced, you had to copy-and-paste it into Jim Breen's WWWJDIC by hand. And this was before multi-tabbed browsers, mind you. Oh, the humanity, etc.

Denske: I'd look up just about anything for cash, yeah.

Leonardo Boiko:

Eh, seems like you hit a polemic here —I was about to say something but now there’s nothing else to contribute. Anyway, I started studying kanji in the traditional way, then briefly tried “remembering the kanji”–style, then changed to studying only whole words, and now I‘m seriously considering only whole sentences from real writing —got a number of books like “Breaking Into Japanese Literature” and “Read Real Japanese” to help.

OTOH kanji themselves fascinate me, so often I’ll grab Henshall‘s and read on the etymology of some character I stumbled upon, then recursively on all its constituent parts.


Leonardo: if kanji themselves fascinate you, I have to recommend spending a little time with Morohashi (or 大漢和辞典 to be a little less familiar with it). It's rather neat to see all the uses one kanji was up to over the years/Chinese classics/Japanese literature. (And it's pretty much the go-to dictionary when reading old kanbun texts.)


Hey, I object. Studying kanji with flashcards was good enough for me, and for the generations of Japanese students before me. It ought to be good enough for anyone.

I have written extensively about useful strategies for studying kanji, I don't feel like repeating it all now. Just let me give the quick version: studying kanji by rote memorization is essential for beginners. Then it becomes relatively useless at intermediate levels, when it is better to study kanji in context, as part of vocabulary studies. I used a lot of flash cards studying vocabulary, but there are other useful strategies, here is one:
HOWEVER, at higher levels, you start to accumulate a whole lot of memorized kanji and you hit a "plateau" where it all gets muddled. You need to start studying kanji again, but with a different strategy, looking at the bigger picture. I found one book particularly enlightening, the "Bonjinsha Kanji Book 1000+" (ISBN 4893583565) which helps introduce the underlying patterns behind groups of kanji. Another book called "Orthographic Systems" (ISBN 4870432110) is exceptionally useful. You need this sort of higher-level study to pull it all together systematically.

Also worth noting: IMHO books with invented mnemonics like Henshall and Kanji Pict-O-Graphix should be avoided at all costs. Don't waste time learning fake mnemonics that you'll just have to unlearn in order to use the REAL system behind the kanji. These books are crutches for beginners that will become obstacles to proficiency at higher levels.

Now don't get me started on learning to WRITE kanji, or the "4 skills" system. You'll regret it.


Different strokes for different folks in my humble opinion.
Personally I started my voyage into the sea of kanji with the look up as you go method, but despite my initial enthusiasm I was swamped before I lost sight of land.

I finally started making headway years later after learning more about the basics of the language and studying some excellent kanji textbooks, such as the kanzen master and kokushokankoukai JLPT series'. These present kanji in context, and grouped logically, which I found made it much easier to mentally organize and recall what I had learned.

These days learners also have tools such as the Nintendo DS software, "Nazotte Oboeru Otona no Kanji Renshuu," which is surprisingly effective, although sorely in need of a definitions function.


The problem I've seen with other learners--and felt myself--is a difficulty in selecting the right material to be reading.

The literature (or technical readings) that would interest people past late adolescence and belong tend to be rather difficult. Striking a balance between "boring due to being boring" and "boring due to being beyond oneself" is quite problematic.

Though if you have a silver bullet, I'd love to hear it--I can never force myself to sit down to rote learning, but have never worked out a good reading methodology either.


The post summary makes perfect sense. Kanji are learnt to be be read, and in some cases written. However some people enjoy learning Kanji for its own sake, and I understand their feelings.


I don't know that the historical argument works, though, Charles, or we should really all be learning by writing out the thousand-character classic while a stern priest hits us with a stick.

I know that your techniques work for a certain kind of person, and maybe any sort of person if they can stay motivated, but they didn't for me. Diff'rent strokes etc. as Himajin says; my post is written more as the iemoto of the No-sword ryuha than as a serious, universal argument about pedagogy (for that, I would want to start with statistics).

RS, that is indeed a problem, especially at the beginning. I got through it by reading comic books, starting with Urusei Yatsura. I think one other good option would be to find a general-interest, illustration-heavy "Introduction to [topic that interests you]" book in Japanese. Especially if that topic is specific to Japan, like tea ceremony or Kyoto history or whatever. I realize that this is much harder if you don't have access to a good Japanese bookstore though.


Well of course I am being a bit provocative and hyperbolic in my "historical argument." But I am serious too. I suppose I should say that I learned Japanese in one of the top University language programs, and I'm a firm believer in a structured classroom environment as the best way to learn the language. Since my teachers were all native speakers, it is probably natural that my teachers relied somewhat on the methods they used to learn the language as children in their own classrooms. After all, there are millions of Japanese kids who learned the kyouiku kanji by these methods, they ought to be good enough for us gaijin too, if we want to learn the language to the same level they do. Right? Well, not really, since my teachers went to great lengths to deal with the difference between childrens' native language acquisition and adults who are second language learners. And as you allude to, motivation is the primary factor in keeping up a long-term language study program, a structured classroom environment is the ultimate way to keep motivation levels high. I guess for the sake of argument, you can envision my teachers as the stern priests wielding a stick, you wouldn't be far wrong.

Anyway, sometime I'll have to dig up an essay I wrote about why anime and manga are the worst possible study aids.


Matt, up to a point I wholeheartedly agree with you. Study kanji as organically as possible, in context. Learn new kanji the way you would learn the orthography of any foreign language, taking them at surface value, absorbing data until you achieve enough critical mass to see the broader and deeper outlines of the system. To build on your example, French has a difficult orthography worthy of the complex phonology and history behind it, but no one would recommend as very useful or even necessary a thorough grasp of all that underlying complexity before actually attacking the language head-on.
It works the same for Japanese, and in fact, the best introductory Japanese text I know (sadly now out of print) is called "Kanji From the Start".

That said, I don't understand your hostility toward those tests themselves, or the joyo kanji list. Or even beyond that, to the idea of kanji study itself beyond the intermediate and advanced levels.

I don't see that calling them "arbitrary" is much of a criticism. All tests are arbitrary, and any course of reading pursued is bound to amount to just as artifically circumscribed a selection of vocabulary, idioms, and yes, kanji. The imperfect joyo list is easy to ridicule (monme匁 but no ?), but there are sound principles of design behind it, and by the time one begins to see its flaws, it's probably not even an issue any more. Similarly with the JLPT. Many a (especially non-Western) student has seen their practical ability rise with the very linguistically artificial goal of 1-kyu to motivate them. Why knock it? The study materials are almost all in Japanese, and involve lots of...reading.

I personally owe a lot to the kanji kentei, (?)may she rest in peace. I thought I was pretty badass after reading Snow Country in the original, until I humbly realized I couldn't come up with all of the readings for all the the kanji in freaking level ten. The deep probing of my ability to write all the kanji I can read, and read words written with the kanji I know, has been very good for me. Of course there's something ridiculous in the proud kanji prowess of someone who spends far more time memorizing kanji than actually reading Japanese. But surely you don't suggest that the senior monks are somehow beyond the prayers and rules of the novices?

Maybe I'm just old fashioned. They used to have the Thousand Character Classic. Today we have drier, analytically graded lists. Either way.


See, Azuma, I would say that reading Snow Country in the original, haaving started learning the language as an adult, is plenty badass. Not having memorized every possible reading for a given set of kanji doesn't affect the badness of your ass in the slightest, in my opinion.

any course of reading pursued is bound to amount to just as artifically circumscribed a selection of vocabulary, idioms, and yes, kanji.

I disagree with the "artificially" there. In fact it's very organic: if you read things that interest you, you'll naturally spend more time learning the vocabulary, idioms, and kanji most frequently employed in those things, and less time on the rest. That it is circumscribed by the limits of your reading, though, I won't deny. (Still, there's a way to fix that: read something in an area you're weak in.)

What I feel w/r/t to tests and lists is more "alienation" than "hostility". When in the original post I say that I disagree with the notion that kanji should be "studied" at all, what I meant was the notion that they must be studied -- but I can see now that what I actually wrote could very well sound like hostility to folks on the pro-studying side. Sorry about that.

But surely you don't suggest that the senior monks are somehow beyond the prayers and rules of the novices?

I guess what I am suggesting is that not everyone has to live in the temple in the first place. Once you get past the finger, you can see the moon from anywhere.


Once you get past the finger, you can see the moon from anywhere.

dude, you are on fire today.


I agree with RS, in that the major challenge is "selecting the right material to be reading".

That being said, whereas even ten years ago, if one wanted to absorb the characters in surrounding media, one needed to carry tomes of dictionaries, now, in the spirit of electronic dictionaries and Jim Breen, there are other more convenient solutions. Furigana injector, an addon for Mozilla, is one I recommend for those who know hiragana but want help reading Japanese news on the internet. Although it has its glitches, the advantage is that it can calibrated for different levels of kanji ability.

If this is carrying coals to Newcastle, forgive me.

Totally unrelated, but I do think that writing Japanese does require a bit of rote practice not only to memorize the strokes but also to acquire good penmanship. I don't know about everyone else, but I took Jay Rubin's cue and wrote a lot with ballpoint pen on banana peels. Stacks of cafe napkins work pretty well as well...


And once you look past the bars of the trap, you can see the fish it was built for in the first place. But that’s not really satisfying, or at least not for me.

I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think kanji must be studied. I certainly disagree with that. I even disagree with those who think Japanese must be studied, and I don’t mean that flippantly. I would never tell anyone they “needed” the language to “really get” works originally in Japanese. And I would never suggest that those who have battled their way through the lists you feel alienated from somehow read “better” or something. It’s not a race, and I do understand your distaste for those who make it one, which perhaps(?) was the source of the smoke burning in the background that led me to misunderstand your feeling as hostility.

But I admit that personally, I feel unsatisfied. I don’t think that you have to view the moon as pointed out to you through the high window of a temple loft, of course. Could you really have thought I did? Bad or not as the ass may be, every ten books I read still leave something to challenge me in the eleventh. (May that never change!) And it struck me out of chord to see the tests I had thought of as the equivalent of jogging to stay in shape, now hung up among the other brass votary plaques on the temple wall of machismo. Though I suppose there may be people who take it that way. (Personally, the only foreigners I have ever met at the kanji kentei test sites were friendly serious people, usually working students or immigrants or their children, studying in their spare time with jobs much more difficult than mine.)

Either way, it seems strange to argue when I mostly learned kanji the way you seem to have, through reading, and my “study” per se really only got into gear afterwards.

Leonardo Boiko:

Charles: Please go on about kanji writing and said 4-skills method, I’m interested.


It is especially strange to argue when a lot of my reading is, well, books about kanji.

I think that the macho kanji folks are in much fuller effect online than in the real world, like the Internet Tough Guys of any field.

Leonardo Boiko:

I was re-reading pinyin.info and came upon this Boodberg quote:

>M ost students in the field have chosen to concentrate their efforts on the exotically fascinating questions of "graphic semantics" and the study of the living tissues of the word has almost completely been neglected in favor of the graphic integument encasing it. ... The term "ideograph" is, we believe, responsible for most of the misunderstanding of the writing. The sooner it is abandoned the better. We would suggest the revival of the old term "logograph." Signs used in writing, however ambiguous, stylized, or symbolic, represent *words*.


Late to the party, but what the hell. Absolutely yes to functional learning of kanji. I like cooking, I bought tons of cooking mags and cookbooks in Japanese and soon enough I knew all the kanji for some pretty specific ingredients, could even read/skim recipes fairly quickly once I had the cooking verb kanji down. I couldn't always pronounce what I knew (on/kun bastards) but I knew what they meant. Of course, this kind of scattershot learning gets low intermediate level peeps like me in trouble when a Japanese native speaker can't understand why I know the kanji for junmai ginjo sake and various fish species but was helpless in front of an automatic parking lot machine.


The goal with studying kanji should be that you can distinguish between different kanji, and can keep them in your mind for a reasonable amount of time. Beyond that, they need to be treated as a normal part of the language.

But reaching that stage just through a piecemeal approach can be difficult.

I studied using Heisig's first book. I have the second and third, but haven't worked through them. I studied actual Japanese at the same time - I didn't neglect that. I then found that when I started to study Chinese, I could transfer my knowledge of kanji (separate from that of Japanese) over to Chinese.

Working through Heisig's first book really built up my ability to work with kanji, and was a wonderful base for me to use for adding kanji into my study of Japanese, and then Chinese.

I think that there is a lot of benefit to be gained from studying them separately, as long as the student remembers that they aren't studying Japanese when they are just studying kanji.

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