Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links






Column #30 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, December 23, 2002
"Where is the finish line in the kanji-learning marathon?"

Years ago, by learning to reproduce the single-stroke Sino-Japanese symbol for "one" (), I unwittingly became a participant in a kanji-learning marathon. Since then, I have occasionally wondered: "Exactly how many characters do I need to learn to finish this race?"

Fortunately, by creating a succession of attainable goals, I avoided being sidetracked by questions concerning the location of a finish line. My first serious objective was to write from memory the shape and one English meaning for each of Japan's general-use kanji.

These 1,945 characters form the irreducible core of modern written Japanese. Shortly after the end of World War II, Japan's Ministry of Education decided to promote widespread literacy by removing rarely used characters from general circulation and school curricula. The Ministry initially approved the use of 1,850 kanji, but in 1981 expanded this list to 1,945. Junior high school graduates are expected to know all of these.

The Ministry (now known as the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry) does not serve as a "kanji police" force, enforcing its rules in the publishing industry. Hence, as Japan's writers persist in exercising their freedom of expression, a good number of exiled characters have re-entered common use. The Ministry's kanji-regulating efforts have been particularly undercut since the 1980s by the popularization of personal computers that give writers easy access to thousands of non-approved characters.

Once I had learned the general-use characters, and started to read contemporary novels, I still found it necessary to refer to a kanji dictionary for deciphering nonapproved characters utilized by some novelists. Stragglers also popped up with regularity in everyday written materials: On subway ads I noticed that dentists favor kanji like (ka-mu, chew), and that contact-lens makers refer to (hitomi, pupil of the eye). (yu-deru, boil) and u (ita-meru, saute) show up in recipes and on food packages.

Menus are kanji minefields planted with the non-standard likes of ˗ (menrui, noodles), X (miso), and ݖ (shouyu, soy sauce). Questionnaires for patients at doctors' offices are full of unsavory--but vital--non-general-use characters: (gan, cancer), P (seki, cough), (tan, phlegm), and ^ (NOU, pus), not to mention body parts like (kubi, neck) and t (JIN, kidney).

Weekly magazines, filled with lurid reports on the private lives of entertainment and political figures, make liberal use of the characters \ (uwasa, gossip), R (uso, lie), (kenka, argument), and (noro-i, curse). (Notice the "mouth" component appropriately present in each of these symbols ).

The characters for everyday things such as handbags (kaban, ), chopsticks (hashi, ), keys (kagi, ), and mothers-in-law (shuutome, ) are also not standard. To my initial distress, newspapers sometimes display non-general-use characters in headlines.

To get a grip on Japan's non-general-use kanji, I allow my personal reading habits to guide my acquisition of them, and keep a notebook of those I encounter on more than one occasion. I have also found the pioneering work "Remembering the Kanji, Volume III--Writing and Reading Japanese Characters for Upper-level Proficiency," by Tanya Sienko and James Heisig (Japan Publications Trading Company) to be useful. "Remembering III" covers 954 advanced level kanji, and might well be the only study aid published in a Western language that systematically explains how to learn Japanese kanji beyond the general-use level.

There will be no finish line tape and cheering crowds when you have mastered the 1,945 general-use kanji: For active readers in any language, vocabulary learning never ends, and the same applies to kanji. You will, however, have acquired the literacy skills necessary to cope with the majority of materials printed in 21st century Japanese, and can then participate in the kanji-learning marathon at a far more leisurely pace.

The 196 additions to the general-use kanji, (made in the 2010 revision), along with English meanings, approved pronunciations, and sample compunds for each, are here.