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Column #1 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, April 13, 2001
"Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos"

Lisa Garcia Yoshimoto, a long-term resident of Japan, hails from a country where kanji are seldom seen. Largely illiterate in Japanese, she experiences a daily struggle to be a fully functioning participant in Japanese society. Lisa used to depend heavily on the printed word in everyday life back in her homeland.

She finds it irritating and humiliating that she needs to seek assistance from colleagues at the school where she teaches English, or from her Japanese spouse, to read the most ordinary of printed or handwritten items. Lisa speaks Japanese fairly fluently. She can readily identify a couple of hundred "survival kanji," but she longs to be able to read much more: memos at work, notes sent home by her child's teachers, signs, Japanese Web sites, newspapers and magazines, instructions printed on food and medicine labels.

To do so, Lisa knows that she will have to learn approximately 2,000 kanji. From time to time, she dutifully opens one of the many kanji textbooks she has purchased over the years. "I'm intelligent and motivated," Lisa mutters. "Why do I study kanji so hard and then forget so much?" The answer probably lies in the way Lisa has been studying kanji. She and countless other frustrated Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) learners have been wasting their energy on methods which yield only marginal results.

Methods for introducing kanji to adult JSL learners are typically the same as those used on Japanese school children: Classroom teachers and textbook writers first present the correct stroke order and one or two pronunciations for each new character. They then point out the part of the character used to locate it in kanji dictionaries (the "radical"); finally, they give some sample compound words in which the kanji is used.

The needs and strengths adults bring to the kanji learning task, however, demand techniques different from those used on children. Japanese elementary students, with their uncritically receptive minds, memorize approximately 1,000 characters through rote learning. Unlike them, foreign adults who are learning kanji do not enjoy the advantage of being native speakers of Japanese.

Adults do, however, possess extensive life experiences and learning successes. They often benefit from a rational, logic-based approach to kanji in which everything fits together. Busy adults are extremely likely to give up before acquiring literacy in Japanese unless they can satisfy their deep need to see order, not chaos, in kanji. Learners like Lisa will likely get welcome relief from their kanji-induced headaches if they use textbooks that break kanji into manageable parts through a technique known as "component analysis."

This approach systematically breaks each kanji down into component parts of one to six strokes, and then assigns a name to each and every component. These names may or may not be based on the ancient Chinese explanations for particular kanji. A learner can easily recall the correct shape and meaning of otherwise hopelessly complex kanji by linking together in vivid stories the names of two to six components.

Several excellent self-instruction books employ component analysis, including Joseph R. De Roo's "2001 Kanji" (Bonjinsha Publishers).

De Roo spent years investigating ancient Chinese history and culture in order to locate the links which undergird his unique explanation of the unified logic behind the component parts of Sino-Japanese characters. Here are four of De Roo's stories that include the component "STAND" 立. The stories also contain the following familiar components:

"TEN" 十 "TREE" 木 "WATCH" 見 "HAND" "WOMAN" 女 "SUN" 日
(Note: Only one English meaning is provided here for each kanji or kanji component).

"SPICY" 辛
When you bite into a strong tasting, SPICY 辛 food, you STAND UP 立 TEN 十 times faster than usual and rush to the kitchen to rinse your mouth.

"PARENT" 親
Responsible PARENTS 親 living near a forest, (a STAND 立 of TREES 木), must carefully WATCH 見 their children, who might be in danger of wild animals or bandits.

"COME IN CONTACT WITH" 接
A man's HAND COMES IN CONTACT WITH a prostitute (a STANDING 立 WOMAN 女 who reaches out to him on the street).

"SOUND" 音 
Folks in ancient China used to listen for the SOUND 音of the temple bell, morning and evening, at the moment when the STANDING 立 SUN 日 was on the horizon.

Do you suffer from mild to severe kanji learning headaches? Do you experience clinical depression when faced with the printed Japanese page? Component analysis, a systematic and effective way to embed kanji into your active memory, can start you along the path toward recovery.

Explore
kanji-learning materials that employ component analysis.
Share your mnemonics with other kanji learners at Reviewing the Kanji .


Mary Sisk Noguchi is an associate professor at Meijo University in Nagoya. She was recently diagnosed with an addiction to kanji learning.