Let’s Talk Kanji

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Hi Guys,

Before I shower you with about 80 Kanji to start memorizing, I want to just talk a little bit about what exactly Kanji are and why they’re difficult to learn.

Kanji are a set of characters coming from or inspired by Chinese logograms. They’re logograms, not ideograms. An ideogram is like the man that’s on a men’s restroom sign. Logograms are not quite as explicit with that. They don’t mean one thing. They represent a concept. That concept interacts with other concepts in compound words to create a new concept.

So, let’s say 小, the concept is “small.” By itself, it means “small.” But when paired with 米, which by itself means “rice”, the phrase means “crushed rice.” You get there from the concepts of “small” and “rice” and in order to make rice small (or smaller than it already is), you have to crush it. That’s how it generally works.

How many Kanji exist? Really, any logogram that exists in traditional Chinese can potentially become a Kanji, well over 50,000 already have. However, nobody knows 50,000. The Kanji one needs to know for regular reading (so no ancient texts or anything like that) are 2,136. These are the Kanji the Japanese government requires students to learn. These are known as the Jouyou Kanji. I’ve referred to them many times already. Then you may want to add to this the Jinmeiyou Kanji, which are the Kanji used for people’s names, which are 861 Kanji not in the Jouyou Kanji list. Add 2,136 and 861 and you get 2,997 Kanji one should learn. That’s a lot.

Add to this the fact that most Kanji have multiple readings (I’m not going to get into the whole Kun’yomi and On’yomi thing now because it’s not helpful.) and you have close to 10,000 things to learn.

Now, the Japanese can afford to learn them in a slow and wholesome way because 1) they live surrounded by Kanji and 2) they have all their schooling to do it. You finish learning the Jouyou Kanji in high school, after all. We, however, do not have 12 years to learn Kanji– and we will learn the Kanji– so we’re going to learn them in big sets.

So how exactly are we going to do this? We’re going to do something similar to the Heisig Method. The Heisig Method breaks down Kanji learning into 3 steps: 1) stroke order and concept, 2) readings, 3) same as the first two steps with some supplementary Kanji, which are mostly Jinmeiyou Kanji. If I were allowed to, I’d gladly make tutorials for this method if it were not someone else’s intellectual property, particularly the little stories Heisig creates out of the components of the Kanji. So, I’m going to do something similar with the Kanji in the order students learn them in Japan. If I don’t follow that order, I’d have to make up my own order; and we don’t have time for that.

Therefore, my first recommendation for learning Kanji will be to invest in the Remembering the Kanji series by James W. Heisig. If you cannot afford that, stick around and we’ll get through the Kanji together in a similar way.

Don’t be scared. Be patient. Take the time to learn them. You cannot understand Japanese without them.