Let’s Talk About Kanji!
Kanji are logograms of Chinese origin. A logogram is a script character that designates a notion, idea, or a semantic range. This is different from an ideogram, which has a form that in itself reminiscent of the thing it refers to. (The woman on the women’s restroom is an example of an ideogram.)
Kanji, because they are borrowed from Chinese, were not made to work with the Japanese language. Kanji are used for lexemes, fragments of words with external, rather than functional, meaning. Most of the time they’re used for central, or most important, lexeme, and not the prefix or suffixes. (There are exceptions, though; and many prefixes and suffixes have Kanji even if they are not in popular use.)
To add another layer of complexity, Japanese has been very influenced lexically (in terms of borrowing words and terms) from Chinese, meaning that there may be a Chinese lexeme and Japanese lexeme for the same thing. This is similar to how in English there are terms of Germanic origin and terms of Latin origin for the same thing. (Cow and Beef, for example.) Both lexemes, nevertheless, with use the same Kanji. 牛, for example, means “cow.” The Japanese lexeme is “ushi” and the Chinese lexeme is “gyuu.” Both use the same Kanji. So one must learn both the Japanese and Chinese reading. There are sometimes more than those two readings, but these are the most prominent.
All this makes Japanese writing one of the most inefficient writing systems in the world. From kindergarten to the last year of high school, one is learning Kanji one will see in one’s everyday life in Japanese.
The Japanese government decides which are the Kanji that should be considered “standard,” with all other Kanji being annotated with its reading in small script called “furigana.” The Standard Kanji, called the Jouyou Kanji, or regular-use Kanji, are 2,136. We would say that one needs to know a few more than that, however, rounding up to about 3,000.
There are two types of people in the world, those who want to avoid Kanji and try to learn Kanji and really don’t succeed, and those who bash their heads into the wall that is Kanji and eventually make some little dent through which knowledge trickles down into their fractured skulls.
We propose a third path, which is to be a bit like the Japanese and just accept them as they come. What do we mean by that? Firstly, we mean that it’s best to accept Japanese where they are with the reading they have instead of just trying to get everything into Kana and associating one Kanji is a specific reading. Secondly, we mean that you should accept that you have to learn many of them, and that you do it bit by bit over an expended period of time.
We are working on a curriculum that will make the process work alongside the regular posts and parsings; until then, here is what we recommend you do.
1) Find a list of the Jouyou Kanji and just write them out. You don’t have to learn them or memorize their meanings, but just write them out. (If you can find it with the stroke order, better; because it helps you write it and realize the differences between fonts.) The amount of components in Kanji are less than the Kanji themselves. Once you know the components, they seems a lot less exotic, so to speak.
2) Our posts include Kanji (we very rarely swap out Kanji for Kana). Look at the Kanji; and look at the reading. There are some Kanji that are so popular that one will naturally just remember its reading.
3) Remember that there are “families” of Kanji that have Chinese readings based on certain components. An example of this is 性, 生, and 姓, which all have the same component on the right pronounced “sei.” This is a small trick, but it will get you out of a few pinches.
4) Download one of the Rikai plug-ins. Rikaichan and Rikaikun are plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome, respectively, that let one hover over a Japanese word and get its reading and a short definition. Take the definitions with a grain of salt, though, because the dictionary Rikai uses is one that is meant to be displayed in small spaces and thus does not provide much context on when a certain definition is used. If you need a more thorough definition, look up a Japanese-English dictionary, which are many and which one is best depends on your taste. Just Google 和英辞典 (“Waei-Jiten” Japanese-English Dictionary) and you’ll find a few.
We tell you the reading of all the Kanji, and we define every word; so you don’t have to worry about that right now. Our stuff are still accessible to you!
So here’s what we mean about Kanji being an overlay and not a writing system in itself.
If you only had Hiragana and Katakana, you could write any Japanese sentence without a problem. If you had Kanji, this wouldn’t be possible. Kanji are optional, inasmuch as one’s goal is to communicate. (Socially one is required to use Kanji, but a Kana-only text is far from illegible.) When one doesn’t know the Kanji, one defaults to Kana; and Kanji are in fact often supplemented with their readings in Kana. So I propose that you think of Kana as a single, fundamental, layer of text and of Kanji as a supplementary set of script that overlays lexemes.
In Part 4, we’re going to talk about Nouns and Adverbs!