Picture this: you have just barely finished learning the two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, which probably took much more time than you thought that it would. You are now able to read a simple text about Mearii, who’s American, and Sumisu-san, who’s British, both of whom speak eigo but chose to speak nihongo because Takeshi doesn’t seem to leave their side. It seems like someone threw them all in Japan and forgot about any other topic of conversation besides nationality, weather and hobbies. Bored with the same questions being repeated over and over again, you ask yourself if there is anything more to Japanese than this inane kind of conversation.
And, there is! But, in order to open the door to unlimited vocabulary and relevant conversations, you need to defeat one terrible monster. You turn the page and it appears right there, in front of your eyes. It takes many shapes, all mighty and frightening, an army of them, and it bears one name: kanji.
Breathe deeply: it’s OK. You’ve just had a kanji panic attack. But don’t worry, it’s nothing that you can’t overcome with just a bit of patience and love for the Japanese language. I hope that answering the next six questions will help you to conquer your fear of kanji and allow you to embrace both this writing system’s utility and beauty.
Why can’t Japanese people just write in the Latin script or stick to the syllabaries?
The answer to this question is in the syllabaries themselves. Simply put, every consonant (besides n) must be followed by a vowel in Japanese, which gives us a limited number of potential combinations between the syllables and many, many homophones (words that sound the same, but have different meanings).
The only way to differentiate between these homophones is by writing them. For example:
きょうかい can be:
- 教会 (church)
- 協会 (association, society)
- 境界 (border, boundary)
The meaning of these homophones is not always obvious from their context, so you might occasionally see Japanese people drawing the kanji in the air to make sure that the person they are speaking to understands their message correctly. Only a few words, like 飴 (あめ) for “candy” and 雨 (あめ) for “rain” can be distinguished through intonation or accent. Then again, if they sounded different, then they wouldn’t really be called homophones anymore.
Who invented these signs and why did they make them so complicated?
The first kanjis reached Japan some 2,000 years ago on an official seal from China, but it wasn’t until the Heian period (794 - 1185) that this system was adapted to fit the Japanese language. The first adaptation actually involved writing words in Chinese with annotations indicating order that the characters were supposed to be read in. This was in accordance with classical Japanese syntax.
Later on, a few of these Chinese characters started to be used for their sound rather than for their meaning, giving birth to the man'yōgana writing system (first used in the ancient poetry anthology Man'yōshū). Man'yōgana was then simplified to become hiragana, a system that soon became popular among the noble ladies of Heian. These women started writing amazing texts, such as Genji monogatari (Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji) and Makura no sōshi (Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book).
Both Japan and China went through later orthographic reforms, which has resulted in many kanji being written differently in Japan, China and Taiwan. In Japan, reforms started during the Meiji period. China also simplified their characters. However, in Taiwan, traditional Chinese characters are still the norm.
How many are they?
The 大漢和辞典 / Dai Kan-Wa Jiten (The Great Han–Japanese Dictionary) lists over 50,000 kanji characters, but you only need to learn the basic 2,136 jōyō kanji to be able to read a Japanese newspaper or understand the texts seen on TV, billboards, in your lease and in your phone contract. Admittedly, you will only understand parts of the last two, being that official documents use vocabulary that you don’t ordinarily see in everyday life (you should ask a Japanese friend to help you read them through before signing them).
While 2,136 kanjis might seem like a big number, you will be able to learn them systematically. This is because all respectable textbooks for Japanese have a kanji list for each lesson and integrate new kanjis within the topic of the lesson.
Are there any rules for their composition?
Of course there are! I hope you didn’t think that they just consisted of random lines thrown on a page! But this is OK, because if there are rules, then all you have to do is learn them to make kanji more accessible!
So, first things first. The most simple kanjis, like those for person 人 / hito (person), 山 / yama (mountain), 川 / kawa (river) and 木 / ki (tree), were inspired by the very shape of the thing that they describe. Therefore, this resemblance can help you to remember the meaning of the character. Many of these simple characters can also become bushu (radicals) of other characters, which at times preserve a semantic connection to the radical. Here are some examples:
木 appears as a radical of
- 林 / hayashi (grove)
- 森 / mori (woods)
- 桜 / sakura (cherry tree)
- 梅 / ume (plum tree)
- 板 / ita (board)
氵, the radical for 水 / mizu (water), appears in:
- 泳ぐ / oyogu (to swim)
- 海 / umi (ocean)
- 涙 / namida (tear)
- 沈む / shizumu (to sink)
How will you remember them all?
This is made so easy nowadays due to the various mobile phone apps, websites and computerized learning programs that can help you to memorize them. You can also buy the Kanji Flashcards from White Rabbit Press, but if I were to do it all over again, I would only use electronic methods.
As your vocabulary increases, so too will your Japanese reading ability, so don’t stop learning. If you’re living or traveling in Japan, keep your eyes open and try to make sense of the kanji on billboards and in the train stations. If you’re a fan of karaoke, sing Japanese songs and pay attention to both the kanji writing and hiragana transcripts in the subtitles. Watch Japanese television programs with subtitles (news and owarai programs also have “subtitles,” but be careful because they don’t reproduce the exact wording of the presenter or his guests).
Also, don’t let yourself be tricked by websites that make claims like “How to learn 2,000 Kanji in three months.” This is unattainable, and you will be disappointed with yourself for failing at this task without knowing that it was a lost cause right from the start. Be patient and try to learn and review them consistently over time.
How can you learn to write them?
Follow the basic stroke order and pay close attention to it when learning your first kanji until it becomes more natural.
If you’re having trouble or are unsure about it, kakijun.jp is a great site where you can find animations for any Japanese kanji that you need. Try to write them some twenty to thirty times each in the beginning, until you get used to the writing order. I highly recommend Bonjinsha’s Basic Kanji Book to start. However, I would recommend staying away from the Kanji through Stories book because I think it just makes remembering kanji more complicated. It might work for a few of them, but it’s just not possible to memorize stories for all 2,136.
Finally, repeat kanji readings while writing them down until they stick in your mind. This will help create an overlap between the image of the kanji and how it is written. If you can’t afford to buy this book or can’t find it in your library, then just use kakijun.jp and learn each new kanji in your textbook thoroughly.
Hero Image by Travis Juntara (CC BY 2.0)