Kanji makes it easier?

One of the assignments given to us by sensei was to do a skit where we have to make up and memorize our lines.  I’m finding this very difficult and am rather annoyed by the whole idea.

Okay, “rather annoyed” is something of an understatement.  I’m closer to “royally pissed” on the scale, I think.

But it is what it is, and I have a partner I can’t let down, so here we go.

Anyway, as I’m studying, I have found that one of the biggest obstacles to my memorization of the words is the syllabic system.  No, seriously.  See, English letters are very different than Japanese syllables.  English letters sometimes do not have their own identity, and several letters blend together to make a syllable.  Even though there are 15,000 or so potential syllables, it’s really easy to see the words because the letters don’t really count for much by themselves.

With the syllabic systems – hiragana and katakana – that’s not really true.  While some vowels are unvoiced, entire syllables are never, and they have the same importance mechanically when recited (I said mechanically, not grammatically).  So if you can’t get out of the mindset of sets of hiragana/kanji/ofurigana being actual words and are stuck on the syllables, memorization and fluency becomes near impossible.  This is because you’re memorizing sets of syllables rather than words for themselves.

So kanji, while a formidable challenge in their own right, takes ones mindset off of the individual syllables and puts it on the words where it belongs.  There are some nasty rules when it comes to this as well – their pronunciation changes on a whim, depending on what the context is, but the pronunciation becomes secondary to the meaning of the word.  It’s still vitally important, obviously, but it’s what pulls you out of the syllabic mindset and into the word mindset.

The textbook I’m using starts with romaji, graduates to hiragana and katakana, and only then introduces kanji.  I absolutely understand why they do that – hitting students with kanji all at once would be incredibly intimidating – but I also think that level of intimidation might be the kick in the pants needed to understand that Japanese is fundamentally different from English.  What I mean is this:  if you exposed students to kanji from the very beginning and then had them start to swim out, maybe it would be easier to toss the conventions of English that we have a tendency to stick to for as long as possible, when they just don’t apply.

In fact, I think this is such an important concept that I created my own “study kanji”.  I have kanji now for desu, deshita, masu, mashita, deshouri, and a couple of others.  I’m also learning kanji for words like “iie” and “totemo”.  They’re only for my own use, of course, but the purpose of these is to focus my mind on the “wordness” of the words and particles, rather than what they’re composed of.  It seems to be bearing fruit.  Memorization has become much easier, at least when I have whole sentences to memorize.  Like I do for this kami-forsaken test.

Of course I will cuss myself out for that choice the minute I accidentally use them when I shouldn’t.  But it is what it is, I suppose.

Wait Just a Kanji-Pickin’ Minute

I realized something today that has been kind of simmering in my consciousness lately, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

Many words in Japanese are actually compound words.  For example, 美味しい means “delicious”, but the words separately mean something like “beautiful taste”.  電車 means “train” (or that’s how it’s taught in Japanese Level Up), but the kanji separately mean “electric train”.  But 大丈夫 is not really a compound word, it means something entirely different than the three kanji separately would indicate.

So is it reasonable to teach “oishii” as “delicious”?  Is it reasonable to teach “densha” as “train”?  Or are we losing something in translation because we’re trying to force compound words with separate meanings into one English word, and losing something in context?

“Beautiful taste”, for example, is rather poetic, and is something I would expect from a society that has a very well refined and historic sense of beauty.  It says a lot about how they see food, and even so, the human experience.  But “delicious”, to us, just means something tastes good.  Or even very good.  There’s no poetry in it.  So it feels as if we’re forcing their poetry into our language, and losing a major sense of the Japanese culture while we’re at it.

This is becoming a major frustration in learning Japanese, and I’m starting to think that learning it by translating into English (even using words like “delicious” or “train” just doesn’t work.  I’m not advocating an approach like Rosetta Stone, don’t get me wrong, as their approach is frustrating and insufficient in its own way, but I am saying that I feel like I’m losing something from Japanese by trying to force kanji (and compound words) into an English mold.

Why do we have to learn it as “delicious”?  Why can’t we just use it as “beautiful taste”?  Does that somehow make Japanese easier for us to learn, while blunting the impact of the cultural difference?  Or are we trying to find areas of cultural similiarity to lessen the culture shock (such as “genki desu ka?”) and instead screwing the pooch in the process?  Or am I just overthinking it are these translations perfectly fair?

This would go the other way too, but I’m not sure quite as easily.  To a Japanese, they might have the concept of “delicious”, but the translation to English is one word.  Perhaps they are missing the nuance in our language, that we don’t have a sense of beauty in the sensual aspects of food that they do?  Or again, perhaps I’m overthinking that too.

I don’t know the answer.  This is an exploratory post  But the more I’m learning about Japanese, the more I see some very difficult cultural differences brewing just beneath the surface, and I feel as if those differences may be being deliberately glossed over in the name of learning quickly.  I’m not sure I like that, honestly.

Still plugging along…

I feel as if, if I even come close to mastering Japanese, I’ll be able to learn any other language I want.  Japanese is hard.

Crazy hard.

But I keep encountering ways to look at it that make it easier, and sometimes it feels like you just kind of have to luck your way into learning these things, as there seems to be nowhere that has everything you need in one place.  Every site or book seems to have parts of it, but you have to spend months just piecing it all together until it just clicks.  I know I’ve said something similar to this before, but it’s still true.

Take learning kanji, for example.  When you first start Japanese, you have this big ol’ pile of thousands of characters in front of you, and you think the best way is to just pick them up one by one, stomp them into your memory, and then eventually you’ll master it.  But that’s really not how it works.

Here’s what kanji really are (for the purposes of memorizing):  They are a multivariate grid of a little over 200 different axes.  Each of those axes is a “radical”.  Kanji Damage (and “Remembering the Kanji”) gives each of those radicals a name, and that’s a really wise thing to do.  What I’ve been doing is just giving them my *own* name.  It’s probably not the wisest thing to do, but it works.

For example, 外, meaning “outside”, I call a “ta” and a “to”, because that’s what the two katakana characters look like.  時, or “time”, I call “sun temple”, because that’s the two characters.  And 寺, or “temple”, I call “ground on measurement”.  I make other mnemonics too…  “long ta” for one component of 各 (“long ta over mouth”, “half a give” for one component of 号, etc.  It works for me, but it may not work for most.

The point, though, is not so much what you call it – though most of those radicals do have names that it would be helpful to learn at some point, but that it works for you to help you remember where on that 200 and some dimensional space a particular kanji falls.  Obviously it works a bit for me because I called those up – even though I did have to look up the pronunciation.  That comes a bit later.

What I’m trying to say is, that it’s not insurmountable, but you can’t approach it as just a pile of kanji you sweep up into the middle of the room, pick one out, and hope that it’s useful to you.  You gotta organize them in a way that makes sense to you and use that to your advantage.

I’ll tell you, there’s a sense of accomplishment when you look at a name like “Takahashi”  (高橋), and think “hey!  I know that first kanji!  It means “expensive”!  Or “敦子” (Atsuko) and realize “hey!  I know that last kanji!  And I know how to pronounce it! Or a word like “気楽” and have a pretty good idea of how to pronounce it because you’ve seen both of the kanji before and recognized them!

The tools you use are important – some are better than others.  The books you use are also important – some are better than others.  But the most important thing is to figure out how to make it make sense to you, and build on that.  Because you’re not learning Japanese for someone else – you’re learning it for yourself.  And, other than whether people can understand you or not, You are the only one who gets to judge whether you are happy with your progress.

Hope this helps.

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.


One thing I love about learning a new language, is that once you get past the basics, there is always something to discover.  I’m still a beginner by all means, but I consider having learned hiragana and katakana, and getting to the point where I understand the language enough to actually discover things, to be “getting past the basics”.

Even though arguably I have not.

Yesterday, I encountered the word “大日本”, which means “greater Japan”.  I found that it was pronounced “dai-nihon”.  I knew the characters for “nihon” (日本), and I know that 大 means “big” and is pronounced おおき in on-yomi, but when I saw how 大 was pronounced in kun-yomi, the wheels in my brain started turning.  Is this, I said to myself, the same character that is in 大好き, which means to love very much?

Yes!  It is!

So I looked up 好き, and realized that both of those words mean love, but 大好き is something greater in scale, like “I love you” vs. “I love you very much”.  And so now I know the kun-yomi pronunciation, or at least one of them.

So then I thought of the word 大人, which means “adult”, and I thought “why isn’t that pronounced “daijin”?  Turns out, it’s not.  Turns out I just stumbled on one of the few exceptions to the rule of compound words in Japanese.  It’s pronounced “おとな”, and who knows why.

But, you know, I’m just pleased that I know enough to ask the questions!

I’m still studying kanji and vocabulary, but I think this kind of discovery is honestly the best way to learn.  It’s just not a very quick way.  But what you discover in this way, you’re probably never going to forget.

A Post About Actually Learning Japanese

After all of the posts about Japanese culture I’ve been spewing forth, I thought I’d write one about actually learning Japanese.

I finally found a tool that I actually like, and I finally feel like I’m actually learning things.

Putting the effort into learning hiragana and katakana has been completely invaluable.  I say this because it underpins absolutely everything else, and I think that this is probably the first thing that needs to be done – before kanji, before pronunciation, before everything.  Because it makes everything past that so much easier.  In fact, I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that it opens up entirely new worlds – even if you don’t know the vocabulary yet, you can sound it out and at least you have something to look up.  And with katakana, you’re about halfway certain it’s a borrowed word, and sometimes it’s even an English borrowed word!  Of course, this is probably completely obvious to someone who has studied Japanese, but for someone just starting out, this is actually not obvious.  It’s very tempting to go right for the vocabulary and to learn conversational phrases, but I’m actually thinking that’s a pretty bad idea, unless you’re heading to Japan in two weeks.  Then I guess you do what you have to.

The tool I found is Japanese Level Up.  Specifically, Jalup NEXT.  It’s like Anki flashcards, but more portable (anki doesn’t work well on a chromebook, if at all).  I didn’t need to take the hiragana and katakana courses, but it’s there if you need them.  I’d suggest taking that, making sure you’re solid on those, then taking the kanji and beginner courses at the same time.  If you’re familiar with even the basics of Japanese, you’ll sail through at least the first few flash cards of the beginner course.  The kanji is a little more difficult, but even after a few repetitions, you’ll look at something written in Japanese and even recognize a few kanji!  You won’t know how to pronounce them, necessarily, but I guess that comes in time.  Of course I want it all now now now, but it’s a big topic, and that won’t happen.

One thing I also like about Jalup is that you can buy the flashcards as you need them – they’re about $8 for a set of 100.  Of course, that will get spendy after a while, but you can space it out over a long period of time, and you get indefinite access to what you’ve bought, unlike Rosetta Stone, which you lose access to when you stop paying (and Rosetta Stone isn’t all that effective anyway, in my opinion).

I’m going to work with that, probably even after I start community college classes.  Hopefully, with all of these things working in concert, I’ll at least get to a point where I don’t feel like a complete fraud when I start trying to speak Japanese.



Perhaps one of the most challenging things about learning Japanese is that it does not have an alphabet – but it appears to have an alphabet.  So we, as English speakers, try to overlay what we know about alphabets onto Japanese, and then it simply doesn’t work.

Japanese, instead, has syllabaries – which are very different animals.  They are more like a grid than anything else.  There is no set order – in fact, any order that we put them into when we learn Japanese is based upon the romaji order – a b c, etc.  They don’t even have names, like romaji characters do – they are basically named after the sounds they make.

And the syllabaries aren’t an alphabet in another important way – they were created from kanji as a simplified way of representing syllable sounds.  The true alphabet in Japanese is in the kanji, as pointed out by kanji damage.  This alphabet is in the form of radicals, many of which were actually abstracted out into the syllabaries.  There does not seem to be an order there, either, but those symbols are used to build up words in the form of kanji.

But not only are we not taught/do not recognize that, we even come into the whole deal thinking that kanji that have the same radicals are related to each other.  But they’re not, in the same way that the word “add” is not related to the word “ade”, even though they have two letters in common.

So while memorizing the syllabaries is absolutely necessary to learn Japanese, it’s not at all learning the alphabet in the same way that we learn the alphabet in English as children.  It’s learning the phonetic building blocks of Japanese.  The letters of the romaji alphabet are not the phonetic building blocks of English language.  We have special, not widely known characters for that purpose.

So in learning the Japanese syllabaries, you are learning the sounds.  The letters (which are not related to the sounds in any but a superficial way) are actually the kanji radicals.

Basically, unlearn everything you knew when learning English.  It really doesn’t apply – at least not in anywhere near the same way.  That’s the only way, I think, one can start understanding Japanese.