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What Exactly are Kanji?

I think one of the most difficult things for a westerner to wrap their minds around is kanji.

I don’t mean memorizing the kanji or their readings, but exactly what they are in the first place.

We think of them as words, but I don’t really think that’s what they are, not really.  I think they are, instead, concepts, and those concepts are represented as logographs.  But I think you don’t really directly translate a kanji.  I think you take the concept that the kanji represents, crystallize a contextual meaning out of it, and then that is what you translate.

I think the different readings are, themselves, also crystallized out of kanji.  But the kanji itself is just an abstract representation of a concept with no definite meaning of its own.  That’s why it can mean many different things, and I think that’s also why kanji can modify each other where two or three of them together mean more than the sum of their parts.

We memorize the kanji when learning Japanese as meaning a word, but that’s not entirely the case.  We’re, instead, peeking into one representation of the concept represented by the kanji, and the actual underlying concept is often far broader and wider than the English word used to represent it indicates.

Perhaps this is another situation where our language forces us into a paradigm that isn’t really useful when trying to incorporate that of another culture.

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