I have been studying Japanese for the past few months and in particular remembering Kanji, which are one kind of Japanese characters, has slowly changed from an initially painfully slow task to a much more pleasant exercise and challenge. I think many people, even or maybe especially those not using any writing system similar to that of Japanese, see beauty in those characters. It may be one of the reasons why I see quite a few people with Kanji tattoos in America or there are framed pictures with calligraphy of Kanji sold in various stores such as Bed, Bath and Beyond.
As an aside, I often wonder how many of them actually know Japanese or at least what their tattoos are saying. Kanji as tattoos have lost their appeal for me about since when I was a teenager and they seem more like imitation and lack of creativity to me now, because they seem so overused, but they are in that regard still one step up from tattoos with tribal patterns. I also wonder if their appeal comes in large part from them seeming foreign to those who cannot read Japanese and get such tattoos. I can relate to getting a Kanji tattoo because it represents a special, personal meaning to me, such as a visit to Japan or the name of a loved one from Japan. If they simple express a term that may just as well had been written in English or whatever your native language may be (with the exception of German, since you would probably have to have a very tiny tattoo or be a very big guy to express anything meaningful in German :P) then I think it only displays a fascination for the foreign that is rooted in ignorance – your own or that of your onlookers. If you actually were fluent in Japanese, would these Kanji still be so special?
Regardless of the fascination with Kanji that other people may have, I have been trying to study Japanese for some time now and have – this time quite like many other – always found remembering Kanji one of the most challenging aspects in all of this. I may still change my opinion about the most challenging aspect to being Japanese grammar in the future, but the few and basic concepts I have learnt in that regard I think I have comprehended with relative ease. Kanji were hard for me remember at first, because they seemed more or less like random strokes to me. As mentioned above, I think there is a great inherent beauty in them, and now I do see that there is a great deal of structure to them, but when learning the first bunch of Kanji I felt that I might as well have tried to remember random lines. The simpler Kanji may be easy to remember, even for a beginner, because there are plenty of associations that can serve as mnemonics and they have few lines. An example of such a Kanji is the one for “day” or “sun”:
It was easy for me to remember it, because it does not seem to hard for most people to overlay this Kanji with a mental image of the sun and thus retain its meaning. I don’t think it is my lack of imagination, but from the few hundred Kanji I have learnt so far, the Kanji that graphically so clearly represent their meanings is in a very small minority.
A Popular Mnemonic?
Other purely visual mnemonics, such as the occasionally repeated myth that Kanji with a “box” or “square” around them always represent objects that “can be found underneath something”, such as a rock, fail as well. I have only heard this rule from some friends or acquaintances, none of them proficient in Japanese as far as I know, so I do no have any references to cite. The test for this is very easy: think of 10 things that would typically be “found underneath something”, which I’m not even quite sure what it means, look up their Kanji and see how many of them have a any rectangular shapes in them. Check if the reverse applies: pick out 10 Kanji that do contain a square shape and see what concepts they represent.
Here is a sample for the first. I realized how much trouble I had even thinking of things that are “found underneath something” so that already appears to indicate the lack of usefulness of that rule. Please apologize if you disagree with the words I picked. Feel free to do this exercise with words you picked yourself.
- Rock: 岩
- Desk: 机
- Chair: 椅子
- Carpet: 絨毯
- Pillow: 枕
- Basement: 地下室
- Shoe: 靴
- Napkin: 口拭き
- Plate: 皿
- Earth: 地
I am still learning Japanese, so some of these translations may not have been the most suitable or commonly used. Please correct me if any of these translations are poor. In case these translations are accurate, I think we can see that only two or three of them contain any rectangular shapes, namely those for “rock”, “napkin”, and “plate”. Even in those cases, though, this rule (even if it is just a rule of thumb) does not seem all that helpful, because there there is still enough other complexity in those Kanji that needs to be remembered.
Let’s try it the other way around now. Let’s pick a few Kanji with square shapes in them and let’s look at what they mean. Do they have anything to do with being situated beneath another object? For this I have used the site jisho.org, which I find is amazing and excellent! It allows you to look up Kanji given a certain “radical”. According to Wikipedia, a radical is “is a graphical component of a Chinese character under which the character is traditionally listed in a Chinese dictionary”. So I have used the radical 口 (ku-chi, くち) to pick out a few:
- 囚: Prisoner
- 悃: Sincerity
- 回: Counter for occurrences
- 図: Plan
- 国: Country
- 四: Four (the number)
- 囗: Mouth, Opening
- 園: Garden, Park
- 同: Same, Equal
- 圓: Yen, Circle, Round
Looking at these meanings, the mnemonic of each representing a concept of something being beneath something seems to hold in none of them. Even if one would want to come up with a better rule of thumb, these Kanji seem to have little to do with each other in meaning. It may be a consolation, though, that at least two of them, mouth and prisoner, have meanings that do seem graphically quite intuitively represented. In the case of the prisoner it might be helpful for many people, though, to know the character for “person” 人 (jin, じん), because it may not be apparent to everyone that just those two strokes, in the absence of anything resembling arms, represents a human. Once you do know the character for human, though, it is even easier for you to remember that the very first character in the list above represents a prisoner, because it is even easier to see then that it looks like a caged person.
A Different Way to Remember Kanji
And this bring us to both where I feel the usefulness of graphical analogies as mnemonics for kanji unfortunately ends and where my newly found, improved substitute for such crutches begins. In the beginning of this post I said that early on in my effort to learn Japanese many kanji seemed a bit like arbitrary strokes or shapes at various angles. With kanji like 艤 even a native Japanese speaker might be able to relate to this. However, as illustrated with the character for “prisoner” above, once one has done the effort to learn a few characters and has a decent repertoire of maybe not even a hundred kanji, one will increasingly see kanji that are already familiar repeated in other kanji. For example, the kanji for “bright” 明 consists of the characters for “month” or “moon” 月 and the one for “sun” or “day” 日. Thus, instead of trying to graphically remember each stroke in the more complex character, one could simply remember that bright consists of “day” and “moon”. Semantically it may still not make much sense that these two concepts yield the third, but as for writing or recognizing that character I feel it is tremendously helpful to have already had firmly committed the constituent characters to memory. There are many other kanji for which this works and it is certainly no secret for anyone having spent any significant amount of time studying kanji, but I think it is encouraging to know for beginning students of Japanese and maybe even a useful technique to more consciously employ for intermediate students.
The problem with many other kanji is that they are complex or unfamiliar enough that simply remembering all components one has seen from other kanji is not enough to fully remember the kanji – at least that is my experience. Even if I remembered all the components, the kanji has so many strokes that knowing the radical and all other components does not make it obvious how these are arranged. There seems to be no way around simply committing this particular arrangement of strokes of that one kanji to memory through raw studying. As for doing so there is a very helpful phenomenon that is well-known in learning psychology, has been proven in various studies, and I have found tremendously useful for learning in general. I am referring to the “Test Effect“. The idea is that memory retention is far higher if a given subject material is repeatedly recalled from memory, instead of just repeatedly reviewed. For example, instead of reading a text five times, reading it twice and taking a test in by answering questions about that text three times on average yields a higher memory retention.
I am a software engineer, so I find analogies from computer science most illustrative: it is like the read-paths in our brain are separate from the write-paths. A write-path wires the information into the brain, or writes it onto a hard disk. However, the memory is ephemeral so the information dissipates over time. The read-path, on the other hand, reads the information back, which corresponds from trying to recall it or being tested on it. It is as if reading from your hard disk commits the information more firmly into your memory by exercise the exact neurological pathways that will be exercised in the future when you are trying to recall that information – and possibly fail, because you had only exercised the write-paths of your brain.
Back to kanji, I have employed the above principle with great success. I cannot make you amazing promises like the ads elsewhere on the Internet, claiming you would learn Japanese in just two weeks, or ridiculous things like that, but the kanji I am learning this way are more quickly and more firmly committed to my memory than any other way I have been learning them. I can learn a kanji, never look at it a second time, and still recall it weeks afterwards without having to refresh on it.
I’m sorry I left you hanging so long. I didn’t mean for it to be like one of those ads that entice you to click on them by promising you unknown riches and having you sit through a fifteen minute flash animation just to sell you some product on the final slide (yes, in this case it would probably have been that “Pimsleur” method you see all over when looking for language training on the Internet, although it seems it does try to monetize a similar idea).
So, without further delay, here is what I do to remember a new kanji, particularly complicated, unfamiliar ones:
- Take your time to look at the Kanji. Pay attention to every stroke. It doesn’t hurt at this stage if there are some mnemonics you can employ after all, such as a familiar shape.
- Now close your eyes and visualize the kanji. At this point I still have a bit of an after glow of the kanji in front of my mental eye. In case of a particularly complex kanji, I may not even be able to fully see the kanji in front of me, even if I have just looked at it. That’s okay. Open and close your eyes until you can at least fully retain the mental image of the kanji.
- Now let the mental image of the kanji go. Forget what you just saw, which should not be too hard, because it is the undesired consequence of attempting to learn a complex kanji you are not yet familiar with. Either wait for the image to disappear or go on to the next kanji. For me, it usually just takes a few seconds of looking away until the mental afterglow of the kanji, which I think corresponds to the image I have retained in my short term memory, has faded.
- Close your eyes again and try to recall the kanji. Do not just recall the general shape of the kanji, but imagine you are writing the kanji stroke by stroke, i.e. recall each stroke one by one. This is where the test effect I mentioned above comes in: by recalling the exact information you want to retain you train the “read paths” of your brain. The first attempt may very well be a failure. You are not quite sure about a particular stroke or may have forgotten or misplaced another. That is okay and probably to be expected. Simply give yourself a little bit of time and when you are certain that you cannot recall, go back to step one and repeat this.
Do the above until you can fully visualize the kanji and remember all strokes in step 4. If you simply want to be able to be able to recognize the character and not even shoot for being able to write it, it is okay to not remember the stroke order in step 4. Simply make sure that you can mentally place all strokes (although eventually being able to remember the stroke order would be certainly be your goal if you wanted to be able to write Japanese). It usually only takes me a few iterations of the above steps until I can confidently place all strokes in my mind, even of complex kanji with relatively many strokes. Even if I’d have to do it a dozen times, the good thing about this technique is that I can repeat it in relatively short succession. If I simply keep looking at the character over and over again, without trying to recall it inbetween, I can repeat that process just as many times and do not appear to have half the memory retention. Even if both ways of learning took just as much time, I am almost completely certain that I remember kanji far better now than any other way I have tried.
I have been trying to learn Japanese off and on for about a year now. Only in the last few months have I intensified my studies and it has been a very rewarding experience. The number one reason for my newly found eagerness I attribute to the lack of pressure with which I am learning. Despite often used methods in our education system to cram knowledge into student’s heads and hang Damocles swords over their heads through exams, I have found that I have never been more motivated to study as I have been now as I feel left to my own devices with absolute freedom. I am the driver of my success and there is no one to prove anything to, no one to impress, and no one to judge. There is only a personal eagerness to pry into a previously unexplored culture, which can only ever fully be done through the native language, a means of communication that both requires and conveys a way of thinking so particular to the culture as could never fully or succinctly be expressed in any other way.
Kanji are so numerous and some receive so little use that even well-educated, native speakers of Japanese do not know all of them. To many students of Japanese this thought appears daunting, but I strangely derive motivation from it. There is not a fixed goal or a set of kanji I have to learn. There may be guidelines, such as the joyo kanji, as to which kanji should be learned by what grade for a typical education of a Japanese student, but even many native Japanese being unfamiliar with a number of kanji shows that there is always more to learn. There not being a fixed goal, something to attain to be “done”, makes learning kanji feel like an ongoing exercise to me. It is a pleasant exercise to me now and I vaguely equate it with how I imagine other people collecting stamps. I take my time with each and every kanji, until it is fully committed to memory and it has started feeling like collecting little pieces of art, one by one. It is not a laborious task anymore, but an almost spiritual exercise I currently feel like I would not mind following for all my life.
What I have said at the beginning of this article about some people seemingly having an infatuation with kanji borne out of ignorance may have seemed condescending (in which case I apologize), but in some ways I think I have to admit to the same fascination with the foreign. Japanese and, the writing system in particular, are still a largely unexplored realm to me. While I do not claim to nearly know everything there is to know about western culture, I feel it follows certain themes and patterns that are quite familiar to me now, and Japanese as a culture entices with a body of literature, culture, and art I have not yet explored to nearly the same degree. So, I may be guilty of the same fascination with the foreign, but I do hope that it is not borne out of ignorance but out of an eagerness to learn and a hunger for knowledge.