Kanji Clinic #83, The Japan Times, December 12, 2006
"Entertaining stories etch on-yomi into memory"


The Japanese kanji pronunciation system is so complex that even educated Japanese people find complete mastery of it nearly impossible. A typical character, in addition to possessing one or more native Japanese pronunciations (kun-yomi), boasts one to three extremely altered Japanese imitations of Chinese pronunciations known as gon-yomi.h Kun-yomi and on-yomi are combined to generate a countless number of kanji compound words.

Fortunately, English-speaking kanji learners are offered an alternate route to the one their Japanese cohorts take in navigating this pronunciation minefield. The creators of two remarkably engaging kanji learning tools, both of whom began their study of kanji as adults, discovered that tying the on-yomi of a character to its core meaning in a concise English mnemonic (memory device) was an enjoyable alternative to the grind of rote memorization.

Mark Donaghue, in his software KanjiCan (www.kanjisoft.com), and Bruce McNair, in his textbook gKanji Learned Through Phonic-Mnemonicsh (kanjilearn@mac.com), provide a mnemonic for remembering an on-yomi for each of the 1,945 general-use kanji.


Some of the mnemonics these two kanji storytellers dish out are rooted in the mundane, but more typically theyfre whimsical, often humorous. For remembering the on-yomi of (MEI, pronounced gmayh), meaning gbright,h Donaghue offers gMAY all your tomorrows be BRIGHT!h His gReal MEN donft make EXCUSESh renders the on-yomi for , (MEN), meaning gexcuse,h a snap to remember. And gThe MOON GETS a lot of attention from loversh works well for (GETSU, gmoonh).

More dramatic KanjiCan offerings include: gA live mouse running around in someonefs STOMACH causes him to cry EEkh for (I, pronounced like a long ge,h meaning gstomachh); gA SLAVE escapes with a RAY gunh for (REI, pronounced gray,h gslaveh); and gAn ELEPHANT has been added as one of the signs of the ZOdiach for (ZOU, gelephanth).

In addition to memory devices like these for on-yomi, KanjiCan provides 1,945 mnemonics for tying together the components of kanji with their meanings (e.g., for , meaning gplaceh: Police break down a drug dealerfs DOOR () with an AXE () and, seeing all the drug paraphernalia within, say, gWefve got the right PLACE!h). Components and their names are identical to those used in James Heisigfs gRemembering the Kanjih system. Heisig devotees who are daunted by his directive to first memorize the 500 mnemonics he provides, then create 1,500 of their own, may find a savior in KanjiCan.

McNair, in his text, deftly manages to create concise mnemonics that incorporate not only a characterfs on-yomi and meaning but all of its components: gA WOMAN () who is STILL () small is a YOUNGER SISTER and a MInorh for (MAI, gyounger sisterh); gA standing man (), each and every () time he drinks BOOze, INSULTS other peopleh for (BU, pronounced gboo,h meaning ginsulth).

Other kanji tales by McNair include: gWater () for the master () is POURED for him when he CHEWs his mealsh for (CHUU, pronounced gchew,h meaning gpourh); gIn the EVENINGS ([), a big-MOUTH () always says his NAME as he MAtesh for (MEI, pronounced gmay,h meaning gnameh); and gOn a road () side (), arrows are waved by children (q) as they PLAY and become EUphorich for V (YUU, gplayh).

Donaghue and McNair do a great job of finding English words to stand in for on-yomi. Some are phonetic dead-ringers (e.g., gchewh for CHUU, gMInorh for MAI, and gCOld-or-COolh for KOKU, pronounced gkoh-kuhh) or are identical to the Romanized spelling despite differences in pronunciation (e.g., gKETSUph for KETSU and gshinh for SHIN (pronounced gsheeng). Others, while further from the mark, still provide reasonably good memory joggers (e.g., gRioh for RYOU and gmeowh for MYOU). One caveat: These mnemonics are not designed for the purpose of teaching the correct pronunciations of on-yomi, and to avoid confusion learners should have already mastered the sounds of Japanese before diving into them.

Once serious aspirants to literacy in Japanese begin to regularly expose themselves to kanji compound words through a daily reading habit, they will truly be on their way to mastering the Japanese kanji pronunciation system. But until theyfre able to get through written material without constant reliance on a dictionary, on-yomi mnemonics can be effective and entertaining learning tools. Why not try your hand at creating some of your own?

Read a review of KanjiCan.

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