Father Joseph R. De Roo's last letter to me arrived in late October. The meticulous, beautiful Japanese handwriting on the envelope was unmistakable. We had been communicating by mail for nearly ten years: he, the mentor, I, the disciple.
His letter began: "Dear Mary-san, Thank you for sending me the Kanji Clinic columns. Actually they were already in my special file, clipped straight from The Japan Times."
Then my eye caught an attached memo: "Father De Roo passed away suddenly on the evening of Oct. 18. This letter was found on his desk. Please pray for his eternal repose."
Joseph De Roo, a Belgian-born missionary, had died alone in his room at the Oriens Institute for Religious Research in Tokyo. He was 69. De Roo often labored at his kanji research until midnight; I can imagine him, pen in hand, drawing Chinese characters, even while breathing his last.
At the time of his passing, De Roo taught a class at Temple University called "Taking the Pain Out of Kanji." Prior to Temple University, he had spent 29 years as a faculty member at the Franciscan Institute of Japanese Studies in Tokyo until retiring from teaching duties there in 1997.
De Roo delighted in providing aspirants to Japanese literacy with the means to master Chinese characters. Unwaveringly, he conveyed his firm belief that kanji are rational, consistent, and above all-- learnable.
De Roo himself had struggled with kanji learning when, upon his arrival in Japan in 1958, he discovered that kanji textbooks for foreign adults were entirely inadequate.
But De Roo did not come to Japan intending to pursue kanji scholarship. Users of his revolutionary textbook, "2001 Kanji," have the miserable condition of roads in postwar Okayama Prefecture to thank for his change of plan. The potholes and ruts that shook his motorcycle as he performed pastoral duties caused serious spinal problems that required medical treatment, ultimately leading De Roo into the more sedentary life of a kanji scholar and teacher.
After working as a pastor in Tottori and Okayama, De Roo studied linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. There he was introduced to the "Setsumon Kaiji," a Chinese text compiled some two thousand years ago that explains the etymology of over 10,000 characters. This "bible" of kanji is the resource that modern scholars generally refer to when attempting to explain the construction of Chinese characters.
The iconoclastic De Roo, however, claimed that the Setsumon Kaiji was inadequate as an etymological guide as it failed to explain approximately 25 percent of modern kanji. This was, he said, because its purpose was to unravel ancient characters chiseled into stone, and not the many characters that were greatly modified when kanji began to be written with a brush on paper. "All my attempts to find an analysis of those modified characters were in vain," De Roo said, "and so I had to do the job myself."
Returning to Japan in 1968, De Roo undertook the task of analyzing the components of some 5,000 individual kanji. After eight years of effort, he was certain that he had come up with a system, ruled by principles and without exceptions, to explain how the components of kanji fit together. Finally, in 1980, he unveiled his findings in "2001 Kanji,"(Bonjinsha Publishers).
De Roo's explanations of character construction were grounded in his vast knowledge of Chinese and Japanese history, religion, politics, culture, architecture, and geography. His no-nonsense lectures were lively and featured his ubiquitous, graceful chalkboard drawings; thousands of slides from his Asian travels; and, above all, an inimitable, dry wit.
One of his last Temple University students recalls: "Once he started his lectures, he captivated me and I was hooked. His views made me look at kanji with a totally new perspective."
Another former student reports: "What he taught me in two years at the Franciscan Institute was all I ever needed to become literate in Japanese."
Father De Roo once said: "Kanji are universally human. I'm convinced that if the Chinese scholars responsible for formulating the characters had traveled the world, they could have made a kanji for anything they observed. This common script could have been used worldwide, while allowing each language to retain its pronunciation."
Kanji dreamer, kanji educator: Thank you, De Roo-sensei, for everything you have bequeathed to foreign kanji learners.
To read a review of "2001 Kanji," go here.