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Column #2 Kanji Clinic,The Japan Times, May 4, 2001
"How to build your house of kanji, block by block"

Many foreign adults living in Japan aspire to literacy in Japanese. Unfortunately, these kanji learners generally fail to consider a critical aspect of the task at hand: the extreme importance of selecting an effective sequence for quick mastery of all the 1,945 general-use (joyo) characters. Knowing these is essential for understanding everyday materials written in Japanese.

Kanji textbooks for foreign adults typically begin with the 80 characters every Japanese first-grader memorizes. A handful of visually complex, beginner-unfriendly kanji contained in common compound words such as ׋ benkyoo "study" and X֋ yuubinkyoku "post office" are often thrown into early lessons, because of their assumed usefulness to adults.Such texts, for want of an adult-friendly sequence, then go on to present, in some semblance of the Education Ministry-prescribed order, the next 926 kanji graduating sixth-graders are required to master.

Asking busy foreign adults to memorize kanji in the same sequence used with Japanese children has a critical fault: It rules out a "building block" approach that can make the task of memorization much easier. Many graphically simple characters not introduced to Japanese elementary students or foreign kanji novices can easily be used as building blocks for memorizing more complex kanji. For example, _ "spot" and X "store," both of which are taught to second-graders, include a character, "fortune telling," not introduced to them until they reach junior high. You may have memorized the first character in ʐ^ shashin "photograph" in beginning Japanese lessons; did you know that one of its components, ^ "impart," is also a general-use kanji?

James Heisig, in his innovative "Remembering the Kanji I, A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters," presents all the 1,945 general-use characters in building block fashion: He does not present a character until each of its component parts has been named. Heisig assumes that users of his "Kanji for Dummies" system plan to master each and every one of the 1,945. Hence, he is not in the least concerned with frequency lists or the order in which Japanese elementary school students memorize kanji. Heisig's "component analysis" self-instructional technique allows adults, who possess advanced powers of logic, abstraction, and concentration rarely seen in children, to recall the meaning and precise shape of even the most complex kanji by viewing them as the sum of their parts.

While naming some components based on traditional usage (e.g.: "tree" , and "fire" ), Heisig assigns memorably humorous names to other components, such as "sunglasses," "teepee," "staple gun," and "piggy bank." He demonstrates, with 500 of his own humorous, grotesque and otherwise entertaining kanji tales, how to harness the incredible power of imaginative stories to kanji learning. Students then use their own imaginations to create the remaining 1,500 stories.

Here are three Heisig stories built around the component he calls "COMPUTER" : (Warning: Sharing these narratives with anyone who mastered kanji the "old-fashioned" way might cause a violent reaction!).

"BLACK"@
is "COMPUTER".@ is "FLAMES". Like most things electrical, a computer can overheat. Imagine flames pouring out of it and charring the keyboard, monitor, and your desk a sooty, "BLACK" color.

"CARP"
is "FISH". is "COMPUTER". On a Japanese carp-streamer, parents string up a small computer, hoping their children will have the courage and determination of a fish which swims upstream, ("CARP"), plus the efficiency and memory of a computer.

"BURY"
y is "DIRT". is "COMPUTER". Here we "BURY" our beloved computer, which has served us so well. A choir chants. Bystanders wail as they shovel a little dirt into its final resting place. R.I.P.

Heisig's book does not contain pronunciations for characters. This kanji iconoclast strongly recommends that you, the serious aspirant to literacy in your adopted land, first remember the exact shape and one English meaning for each of Japan's 1,945 basic kanji. This can serve as a firm foundation for learning their myriad pronunciations, and, incidentally, give you the same considerable advantage learners from kanji-using countries bring to the study of written Japanese.

Kanji learning starts to seem much less like taking bad-tasting medicine when it is mixed with humor. Heisig's block-by-block, story-by-story approach may be just what you need to breathe life back into your Japanese studies.

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