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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. =)