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Seeing boxes and gibberish where you should be seeing Japanese?

July 13th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Before I took a somewhat long, unannounced hiatus from writing for the blog (申し訳ございません), I wrote about how you can type Japanese into your computer. Now I’m going to get a lot more technical (I am a software engineer by day, after all) and explain how Japanese is represented in a computer. There’s a bit of history, a bit of technology, and a bit of sociolinguistics, all in this single concept of rendering Japanese text on a computer screen.

Before I get into Japanese text though, I’d like to talk about ASCII. To a computer, everything is bits: ones and zeroes. What you see, though, is a variety of types of files including text, sound, and video. So how does a computer know which is which? Largely by convention. For different kinds of files, a particular set of conventions exist for interpreting the bytes (groups of 8 bits) and converting that into something that humans can understand and interact with. That might be letters on a screen, or it might be sound sent to your computer speakers. ASCII is one such convention, first published in the 60’s and still surviving even to this day. It is also the most logical place to start understanding the history of multilingual text in computers.

ASCII defines 128 characters by different combinations of 1’s and 0’s in the first 7 bits of each byte. Basically, every number from 0 to 127 is mapped to a character or control code (these codes don’t get printed on screen but instruct the computer about the text in other ways). If you count it up, you can imagine that it is quite enough to represent all of the characters one would typically need to type in English. But since only 7 bits are used, that leaves an 8th bit completely open and with that single bit, another 128 characters and control codes can be represented. English doesn’t need it, but consider Japanese. 128 is only just enough to cover the syllabic alphabets and there are still thousands and thousands of kanji characters that also need to be represented.

Japanese approached this problem the way that many other languages did: cleverly using the 8th bit to greatly expand the number of characters that can be represented. This is sometimes referred to as Extended ASCII. But Enrico, you say, even if you added another 128 characters, that wouldn’t nearly be enough to represent all of the Japanese characters. You’re absolutely right. But here’s the clever part: by using the extra numbers made available by that 8th bit, one can create a standard that allows two bytes to represent a character instead of one!

One of the standards for extending ASCII to represent Japanese is Shift JIS. I won’t go into too much detail about how this works, but in short it is a set of rules that allow the first byte to sometimes signal that it is not, by itself, a character, and it must be combined with the next byte to determine what character to draw on the screen. As with all ASCII extensions, the basic ASCII characters are still included, which means that English text can also be represented perfectly fine. Shift JIS doesn’t actually use all of the numbers that are available in two bytes, which ranges from 0 to 65,535. And really, it doesn’t need to. Even just a fraction of that is enough to represent virtually all of written Japanese.

But here’s the problem: you need to inform the computer that the text you’re reading is using Shift JIS, as opposed to standard ASCII or any other of the myriad extensions of ASCII. If you tell the computer to use the wrong one of these standards, it misinterprets the bytes and you see gibberish. The Japanese have a word for this: 文字化け (もじばけ). Examining the kanji, “mojibake” literally means “corruption of characters.” There are programs that can examine bytes and take a really good guess as to how the bytes should be interpreted, but none of them are perfect. This puts a real hamper on multilingual computing, and the problem becomes simply impossible when you want to combine multiple languages in a single piece of text, because each language extends ASCII in a different way, and none of the standards includes any sort of signal as to when to stop using one and start using another.

That’s where Unicode comes in. The goal of Unicode is to create one standard for characters in all of the world’s written languages. There are a few things that Unicode does quite differently from ASCII. The first is that each character or glyph is assigned a code point. These code points may be encoded in different ways using up to 4 bytes. With 4 bytes, you can count from 0 to 4,294,967,295. That’s way more than I could possibly imagine anybody ever needing to represent all of the world’s written characters. The comparison I sometimes hear is that with four bytes, you could give a unique combination to every grain of sand on Earth and probably still have some left over.

But since English text only needs 1 of those 4 bytes, it’s very wasteful to represent every character using a full 4 bytes. So Unicode defines different encoding standards to instruct the computer as to how the code points are represented in bytes. UTF-8 is the most common of these. UTF-8 is most convenient for representing English text and is easily the most common Unicode encoding in the wild, since it actually walks and talks like ASCII if you don’t need characters outside of the basic ASCII set (very convenient for programmers who are used to ASCII and haven’t learned Unicode). But all of the characters in the Basic Multilingual Plane (where most of the characters in Unicode are defined so far) can be represented in between 1 and 3 bytes using UTF-8, so the encoding is definitely not lacking multilingual support. The details of how UTF-8 represents all of these code points is complicated and I don’t fully understand it myself, but if you’re curious there are many books and web pages on the subject.

But not everybody is happy with Unicode. One of the most controversial parts of the standard is the Han Unification. This is the Unicode standard’s attempt to represent multiple languages that use the Chinese characters into one set of code points. The intention of this unification is to help all of the characters in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean fit happily into the Basic Multilingual Plane. It is an amusing coincidence that the Japanese are one of the biggest opponents of the Han Unification. Some Japanese scholars are of the opinion that historically and culturally significant variants of kanji are culled out by trying to combine all variants into a single code point. It also causes oddities like the Chinese variants of kanji characters appearing in Japanese text because the Unicode font being used to render the text has Chinese variants instead of Japanese.

So I hope this taught you everything you ever wanted to know and more about how Japanese text is represented in a computer.

If you have more questions, you can get in touch with Enrico by e-mail (enrico at or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Google+.

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Tanabata Festival, Japan Foundation, Toronto – July 7, 2012

July 9th, 2012 Posted in Japanese Culture | No Comments »

In Japan, there is a summer festival that is celebrated by all Japanese nationalists every year on July 7th.

It’s called “Tanabata/七夕” which means “evening of the seventh.”

This “star festival” originated from the Chinese Qixi Festival and celebrates the yearly reunion between two deities that are deeply in love with each other and can only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.

For a full description of the history of this festival, please visit the Wiki page here:

The Japan Foundation in Toronto is holding festivities this week to celebrate.

As I walked into the facility, all the staff members were wearing “Yukata/浴衣,” which is a kimono that is made from a light cotton and is worn in the summer.

By the entrance stood a mini shrine for Tanabata and banners with the kanji character for “Matsuri/祭り/Festival.”

The staff had provided some paper and pens for visitors to write down their own wishes and desires in the hope that it will come true. Once, you were done writing down your wish, you were then instructed to tie the wish to a bamboo tree as it is tradition. (They had a bamboo tree in the lounge.)

I had read some wishes from past visitors to get a sense of what people were writing. For example, a child had asked for a dog as a pet, another child wanted to grow up big and strong, others had wished to be able to speak fluent English, I then decided to write a message of my own:

Sekai no heiwa wa eien ni tsuzukimasu you ni.
“(To have) world peace continue to eternity.”

(See photo to the right, click to enlarge)

Then, there was a library “research” challenge. One had to find the answers to a sheet of questions  by searching around the library. Prize winners will be contacted on August 7th to those that answered the most questions correctly. (Wish me luck! I’ll keep everyone posted if I win anything.)

For the rest of the week, they will have a “Yukata Dressing Up” demonstration followed by children being able to play with “PARO,” which is a “a therapeutic robot baby harp seal” that can interact with you when you speak to it or pet it!

It was so cute, I didn’t want to leave! I was petting him long enough that he “fell asleep” in my arms. I would love to get one of these if it didn’t cost $6,000 US!

They also had story-time for the children. The stories were all in Japanese, which was a nice way of sharpening my listening skills.

It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot more about the Japanese culture. Moreover, I got to see what it was like for Japanese people to celebrate this festival while they live or work in Toronto.

Maybe Japan is closer than I think. I hope to explore more “Japan” in my own city and will definitely share my findings with you all in the future.

I also hope that this will be an inspiration for others to go out and explore your own city and see how much “Japan” you can find.

You never know until you get out there and check it out for yourself!

For more information about the Japan Foundation, please visit the official website here:

Writing in Japanese on Your Computer

June 22nd, 2012 Posted in Learning Japanese | 1 Comment »

Perhaps you’ve just started learning Japanese and you’ve gotten the hang of writing some katakana and hiragana by hand. Maybe you’ve brought a few kanji into the mix as well. But then you’re sitting at your computer and you’re thinking “huh, I know how to write it on paper but how do Japanese type on the computer?” Well, I’m going to answer that question.

First, I’m going to start with a “dirty” secret of Japanese input; you can do it with the keyboard you already have. I’m not going to go into specifics about how to turn on Japanese input and instead link to instructions for Windows and OS X. If those don’t help, some Google searches may get you the rest of the way. Give it a try and then come back and keep reading.  =)

Okay, so I presume you’re all set now? Switch into Japanese input mode and type the words you want in romaji. You’ll notice that kana appear with an underline. Now press the spacebar. You’re presented with options on how to convert the kana you typed into the words you (hopefully) intended. In particular, if you type a word like 時間 (じかん) and hit space, you can convert it into the proper kanji characters. Pretty neat, huh? This is known as romaji input and it is actually the most common way to input Japanese on a computer, supported by virtually all full-size keyboards. Electronic dictionaries often use romaji input exclusively. Small versions of characters like あ, い, and つ can usually be produced by typing ‘xa’, ‘xi’ and ‘xtsu’ respectively.

Japanese Mac Keyboard

Now, pictured here is the Japanese version of the official Apple wireless keyboard. This is the keyboard on my desk, actually. At a glance, you’ll notice many differences from the standard US keyboard layout. Some of the control keys (Control, Tab, Backspace/Delete, Enter/Return) are smaller and in different positions than on the US keyboard. Some of the punctuation has shuffled to different keys (for example, the double-quote is on the 2 key). Also, some keys have up to four characters marked on them. But there’s also an important similarity: the English letters are in the layout that you know and love — well, unless you’re into Dvorak. So, as long as you can deal with the punctuation being in slightly different places, you can use one of these exactly like a US keyboard (and I often do).

But if that’s the case, why would anybody use one of these confusing monstrosities?

That leads into the other type of text input that Japanese use: direct input, also known as kana input. The keyboard provides a couple of keys that allow you to switch input modes. This is considerably more convenient than switching modes in the Japanese input menu in OS X or Windows, even if you have already set up keyboard shortcuts for switching modes. At the press of a key, you can switch from かな to 英数 (Alphanumeric). When you’re in kana mode and you hit a key, you get the character displayed at the bottom. So hit the Z key while in かな mode and you get つ. If you hold shift and press a key, you get the character displayed on the right. This is commonly used for getting the small version of characters like あ, い, and つ. In 英数 mode, you get the character at the left when you press the key and the one at the top when you hold shift and press that key. Once you’ve gotten the hang of that (and it takes a while!), it’s apparently considerably faster than romaji input. In the same way as romaji input, you press space to convert the kana into kanji.

What about katakana, you ask? If you look at the keyboard carefully, there’s no katakana on it. Some Japanese keyboards provide a button specifically for katakana but in my case I’ve set up my caps key to produce katakana when turned on in かな mode. Also, many common katakana words can be typed in hiragana and then converted by pressing the spacebar. So really, you only need to explicitly switch into katakana input to type things that the software won’t convert for you.

You may be able to touch-type English but you probably can’t touch-type kana. The good news is that there are sites out there that give lessons in how to type Japanese using kana input. The one I’ve been using is here. But, as you might expect, such lessons are given in Japanese. You might be able to get by just looking at some pictures and trying the exercises but if you need a bit more hand-holding, you might want to try kana input when you can read enough Japanese to learn about it. (If you know of a kana input tutorial in English, please let us know!)

So, those are the basics of how to type Japanese into a computer. If you’re interested in having a Japanese layout keyboard, JBox/JList sells them or if you want an official Apple one like I have, you can actually get it from the US Apple Store. Just go to the product page for the keyboard and then select the Japanese version of it from the drop-down menu.

How do you usually input Japanese on your computer? Send an e-mail to or share with us on Google+ and Facebook.

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Spring 2012 Anime Review: Lupin the Third, Fujiko Mine

June 1st, 2012 Posted in Japanese Culture | No Comments »

This is the fourth and last post in our four-part mini-series about anime airing this season in Japan. Check out last week’s post about Kids on the Slope.

Lupin III is a name that I think many old-time anime fans will be familiar with. The Japanese spin-off of Maurice LeBlanc’s master thief, Arsène Lupin, has been a household name in anime and manga since the 70’s. But this mini-series is about modern TV anime, right? What’s the old-timer doing here? Well, it turns out that one of the special productions being released to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Lupin III animated series is a new series called Lupin the Third, Fujiko Mine (Lupin III – 峰不二子という女).

For those who have never heard of him, Lupin III is descended from the world famous gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin. Like his grandfather, he’s incredibly clever and resourceful and obtains what he sets out to steal almost without fail. He even keeps with the tradition of sending out calling cards to warn the authorities of his targets. But no matter what they try, Interpol just can’t seem to catch him. The manga and animated series follows the capers of Lupin III and his crew as they try to steal the most valuable and rare treasures in the world and more often than not end up in way more trouble than they could ever have imagined.

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Spring 2012 Anime Review: Kids on the Slope (坂道のアポロン)

May 25th, 2012 Posted in Japanese Culture | 1 Comment »

This is the third post in our mini-series about the anime series currently being broadcast in Japan

Last week, I wrote about the incredibly odd high school love story, Mysterious Girlfriend X. If you were hoping for something with a bit more drama and a bit less drool, or if you really love jazz music, this week I’m writing about Kids on the Slope (坂道のアポロン).

Like Hyouka, I consider Kids on the Slope to be one of the season’s most promising shows, but for a slightly different reason: the distinguishing feature of this series is the jazz standards that help to tell the story, played in live sessions produced by none other than Yoko Kanno. Yes, that Yoko Kanno, the one who has brought us the incredibly memorable themes of Cowboy Bebop, The Vision of Escaflowne, Wolf’s Rain, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, and Genesis of Aquarion, among many others. If you haven’t heard Yoko Kanno’s work, I highly recommend it. In my humble opinion, she stands among the greatest anime composers of all time and is easily one of the most versatile.

But, well, if you just want to listen to Yoko Kanno’s music, there are plenty of CDs out there. For Kids on the Slope to be really promising, it has to have more than just good music. What really gives this series its edge is the way that beautiful music combines with good characterization and a deceptively simplem, if standard, romantic plot to create something even greater.

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Spring 2012 Anime Review: Mysterious Girlfriend X (謎の彼女X)

May 20th, 2012 Posted in Japanese Culture | 1 Comment »

This is the second post in our mini-series about the anime series currently being broadcast in Japan.

Last week I wrote about Hyouka, a slice-of-life mystery series from the same studio that worked on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Staying with the high school theme, this week I’ll be writing about Mysterious Girlfriend X (謎の彼女X). But before I jump into it, a couple of words of warning: if you’re the sort who gets queasy around bodily fluids, this might not be your show. But, if you like the romance plot, you might be able to get by just by averting your eyes every so often.  ;)

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Spring 2012 Anime Review: Hyouka (氷菓)

May 11th, 2012 Posted in Japanese Culture | 2 Comments »

Spring 2012 has been, in my humble opinion, an excellent season for anime. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d lost faith as an anime fan because the quality of the shows being broadcast just wasn’t as great as it used to be. If I was lucky, I could find maybe one or two shows that I would want to follow during a season. But in Spring 2012, I have found as many as six series that I really like.

So, I’m running a mini-series of posts on The Japanese Learner about my favorite shows of the season. I hope that these will help you find more anime to watch. Immersion is one of the most important aspects of Japanese learning and it’s also so much easier to study when you can enjoy the material, too.

This week I’m writing about Hyouka (氷菓), a slice-of-life mystery series surrounding a high school’s classic literature club.

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From The Trenches: More Than One Month into Heisig

May 4th, 2012 Posted in Learning Japanese | No Comments »

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a review of Remembering the Kanji: Volume 1 by Dr. James Heisig. At that time, I had gotten only a bit over 200 characters into the book. Now, I’ve reached almost 700 characters, which is getting to the boundary of the number of characters I used to know how to write when I was taking Japanese classes in university. This week, I’m going to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned from applying Heisig’s method over a longer period of time. You may have seen bits and pieces of this if you follow myself and/or The Japanese Learner on Google+ (which sometimes gets cross-posted to Facebook), but in this post I’m going to stitch it all together and flesh it out some more.

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Electronic Dictionaries (電気辞書)

April 19th, 2012 Posted in Learning Japanese, Tools and Resources | No Comments »

There are many good Japanese dictionaries (and similar) online — I personally recommend, which I’ve started using over WWWJDIC because I find the interface is much nicer. But you can’t always have your computer with you, so if you’re studying on the go or you’re taking Japanese courses in a classroom setting, you need something you can use as a reference when you need to know what a word means or need help with translation.

A paper dictionary is always a solution. Entry-level dictionaries are fairly easy to find in print, published by names you’re familiar with from English dictionaries like Random House and Webster. At the beginner level, I personally recommend Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary (not an affiliate link!) because it’s good to start working with hiragana and katakana as soon as you can and the ordering of the entries will get you used to the way that Japanese words are ordered phonetically. But you’ll soon find that unlike, say, French or Spanish, you can’t get by with just a dictionary for translating words between languages, no matter how large it is. You’ll soon need a kanji dictionary, a dictionary particularly for looking up kanji characters, which will help you to read/write unfamiliar words. And for more advanced reading, there’s nothing quite like a straight Japanese dictionary, which gives definitions of Japanese words in Japanese.

As you progress, those books will become bigger and more numerous until it just isn’t practical to carry them with you anymore. It is at precisely that point that you should consider an electronic dictionary. Electronic dictionaries, or 電子辞書, have a number of key advantages over paper dictionaries:

  • They are portable. A copy of  広辞苑 (one of the more popular dictionaries in print in Japan), is quite a thick volume. Those ~240,000 entries can fit in the palm of your hand with an electronic dictionary.
  • They tend to contain multiple volumes. The one I have contains 広辞苑 along with 明鏡 (another Japanese dictionary), a kanji dictionary, two encyclopedias, J-E and E-J dictionaries, and more.
  • They serve specialized needs well. You can probably find an electronic dictionary loaded with specialized content for your particular field, including science, computing, and medicine.
  • They tend to have features for easy lookup. For example, many models have a touch panel to allow you to look up entries by hand writing. With multiple volumes, good models provide a “jump” feature to allow you to jump from one entry to another, or even between volumes!

But there are also a few disadvantages:

  • They are usually quite expensive. I paid around $300 for mine when I bought it a couple of years ago.
  • They’re quite hard to get outside of Japan. Then again, so are many of the best Japanese dictionaries in print (though even those aren’t too difficult to obtain if you’re lucky enough to have a Japanese bookstore nearby, like Kinokuniya).
  • They aren’t typically designed for foreign learners of Japanese. But I wouldn’t recommend buying an electronic dictionary unless you’ve gotten to at least an intermediate or pre-advanced proficiency in Japanese, so this is probably less of an issue than the two points above.

So maybe after reading all of that, you’ve decided to buy an electronic dictionary. What do you need to look for, you ask? Well, it turns out that somebody on the Japan subreddit posted a pretty thorough guide to electronic dictionaries. To summarize it very briefly, you want to find something that comes with dictionaries and reference books that you need and will actually use and you will probably want to aim for models that cost $300 or more (cheaper ones will tend to be outclassed by other portable dictionary options like smartphone apps, which we will cover in more detail in future posts).

Here are the features I really appreciate in my electronic dictionary, a Canon EX-word Data Plus 4 XD-SP6700:

  • Twin touch panel: the lower touch panel can be used to look up entries by hand writing but the main display is also touchable. You can use the stylus to click on entries while browsing, or in combination with the jump function to select which word you want to jump from, among other things.
  • Backlight: because sometimes the lighting isn’t the best when I’m using my electronic dictionary. The backlight is just about perfect for reading the LCD display, providing just enough light to clearly read it without overwhelming the eyes.
  • Specialized volumes: in particular, there are some books on medicine and computing.

This all said, when my study of Japanese was slipping more, I got much less use out of my electronic dictionary, and looking at it now I think I could have done a bit more research to pick an even better model for my needs. There are quite a few parts of it that I have absolutely no use for at all. But since it, like many others, is designed with native Japanese speakers in mind, maybe that can’t be helped.

Do you have an electronic dictionary? Which model do you own? We’d love to see recommendations, especially since it has been a long time since I was in the market for an electronic dictionary. Leave a comment here or send an e-mail to!


Book Review: Remembering the Kanji Volume 1

April 13th, 2012 Posted in Learning Japanese, Reviews | No Comments »

Our usual review disclaimer applies: The Japanese Learner links to the listing for this book but is not affiliated with Amazon. We don’t make a single penny if you click the link and buy the book. The Japanese Learner is also not affiliated with the publisher, University of Hawaii Press.


One thing that I’ve noticed slips quite quickly when I’m not studying Japanese everyday is kanji. It’s a pretty tall order to remember the 2000+ characters set out by Japan’s Ministry of Education as the 常用 (Common Use) kanji, which are said to appear in 99.9% of all written Japanese. But once you’ve mastered these characters and their combinations, you are well on your way to full literacy and fluency in Japanese. It makes sense for Japanese school children to learn them by rote in the grade order that they’re given by the Ministry, but for the adult learner that’s much less effective. For one thing, it takes quite a lot more time than we’d like to spend. However, open just about any kanji textbook and the exact same techniques are in play: character, readings, compounds, drill, drill, drill.

James Heisig, author of the 3-part series “Remembering the Kanji,” has a different idea, and it is one that seems to have quite a following in the Japanese learning community. So, I grabbed a copy of the first book and started to work through it. At this point, I’ve read and studied the first 10 lessons out of 56. Out of the 2042 characters presented in the book, I have studied 234. I have been reviewing the characters using a publicly-shared Anki deck that has the kanji’s keyword on one side and the character itself on the other.

The basic theory behind Heisig’s course on how not to forget kanji characters and what they mean is simple; Chinese students of Japanese, having thoroughly studied their native writing system, have a distinct advantage over students of Japanese whose first language doesn’t involve Chinese characters. While there are some minor differences (Japan has effectively “forked” the Chinese writing system), Chinese natives basically know what the kanji mean and how to write them, just not how to pronounce them and not the particulars of how they combine. Traditional approaches to teaching kanji to speakers of other languages involve presenting the characters in some logical order (e.g. frequency of use, Japanese grade level) along with readings and sample compounds. These approaches thus mix learning how to write kanji characters with learning their core meaning, how they are pronounced, and how they combine together to form other Japanese words. The result can feel like drinking from a firehose. Heisig cuts away a lot of that and asks the reader to focus on one thing: associating the written character with its core meaning. And the way he proposes to do this is by engaging the “imaginative memory” to give students a tool for recalling a kanji character given its keyword.

So how does this “imaginative memory” work? Parts that appear in many kanji characters (not necessarily radicals) become primitive elements. Whole characters may also become primitive elements and sometimes the meaning of the primitive element is only loosely related to the character. Sometimes, it isn’t even related at all. For example, 里, the kanji for the Japanese unit of distance “ri,” becomes a “computer” when used as a primitive element. The primitive elements that make up a kanji are worked into a story and that story, once internalized, can be used to recall the kanji character given its keyword. As a brief example, I introduced 里 as computer, and can use that to create a story that helps me to remember 埋. On the left we have soil (土), so imagine burying a computer that has now become obsolete in the soil. If you can recall that image when you see the word bury, you can use it to produce the character. This process of building up full characters from primitive elements only loosely follows and sometimes steers completely away from the actual etymology of characters and the actual radicals that form them.

It sounds completely silly at times. Strange (奇) becomes the image of an article in a “Strange but True” column about a St. Bernard (大) who hit the brandy keg around its neck a bit too hard and, as a result, has had its mouth (口) nailed (丁) shut. I mean, in the first place, isn’t that kind of cruel to the dog? But these stories are meant to tickle the imagination and having put it into use for a while, it is surprisingly effective. Before, when I couldn’t forgot a character, I almost always had no hope of recalling it from my memory. There was no tool that I could use to bring it back, it was just gone. Since it was only ever a series of strokes, that’s to be expected. But while reviewing the kanji via my Anki deck, I have surprised myself several times by being able to dig a character out of my memory by using the story. As Tofugu writes in their 30-day eBook, being able to recall something after you’ve forgotten it is much better than trying to power through on rote memory alone, with absolutely no backup for when that fails you.

The book is also very good about providing some advice on how to follow the method and even some remedies for when things seem to be going horribly wrong. Lesson 11, in particular, only introduces 15 new characters but includes a thorough treatment of the common problems one might have in following the method. If you’re a stickler for classic pen/marker and paper flash cards, Heisig even has some advice for you there, too.

There are some drawbacks to Heisig’s method. Firstly, the method is fundamentally incompatible with just about any other traditional method of studying kanji. Heisig warns that you will very likely have trouble combining this with a traditional Japanese textbook and course. Another downside is that for all of the study of kanji characters and their meanings, you won’t learn to read and write any words. This method is not for building vocabulary; it is purely for remembering the kanji and its core meaning. Heisig argues that once you’ve learned to associate the kanji with its meaning, learning the readings and compounds comes easily enough. I’m actually fine with this, since even before Heisig’s book I could recognize many characters and even know what they mean, but didn’t know how to read them. It is possible to separate these aspects of kanji from each other and there are even benefits to doing so. Even if you don’t know how to read kanji compounds, you can often guess at their meaning by looking at the individual kanji, so a method for memorizing that for all of the characters in common use will certainly be valuable in vocabulary acquisition. Another thing that is missing from the book is help with handwriting. Other kanji textbooks in my collection include some tips on how to render characters neatly and even include the common handwritten version alongside the print and/or brush version, but Heisig’s book doesn’t. If you need a little help learning to write characters neatly, you might need another book.

So, it’s a bit of a leap of faith, but having taken the time to really try it, I can honestly say that I feel like it is working. And really, that’s the most important thing. Sure, the method is unconventional and even silly at times, but if it works for you, this book may be the most valuable addition to your Japanese learning bookshelf. If you’re not enthused about putting down your money to own this without getting to try the method, you might want to try borrowing a copy. Alternatively, you can try poking around this website, which acts as a sort of complement to the book, allowing you to record your own stories for kanji and exchange them with others. You can study the kanji through that site too, though you will definitely want to make sure you’re actually putting pen to paper as you’re working your way through the lessons. If you’re using the same publicly-shared Anki deck that I’m using, the keyword is actually a hyperlink to that same website.

While I did say that this book doesn’t cover readings and compounds, the next book in the series does try to provide a system for memorizing the readings of kanji characters. When I get there, I’ll be sure to write another review. For now, I’m pretty happy with my progress in learning the meaning and writing of kanji characters.  =)