Let’s talk about kanji

Back in January, I started studying Japanese more seriously, going to a language school for 3 and a half hours every weekday. My first goal is to improve my speaking skills, but the classes focus more on grammar, vocabulary, and reading—which makes sense given that most students aim to go on to further studies (trade school or university) in Japan and therefore they need to take lots of exams. I actually really like studying grammar and have been inspired to think about becoming a translator (someday…).

One very daunting challenge for any Japanese language learner is reading and writing, which explains why I’m studying during any free moment rather than writing on this blog!

Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are not too difficult to learn, although I’m still pretty slow at reading katakana (which is mainly used to write words of foreign origin). And, there is kanji (Chinese characters).

To compare:

“Japanese language” (Nihongo)
Hiragana: にほんご
Katakana: ニホンゴ (this would never be written in katakana, but just for the sake of comparison)
Kanji: 日本語

So my goal in this post is to explain why I agonize so much about learning kanji.

To “learn” a character, you have to memorize:

  • How to write it: the strokes go in a particular order. You also have to know how many strokes there are if you want to look it up in a print dictionary!
  • The readings. Most kanji can be pronounced in at least two different ways, although often there are three or four or more.
  • The meaning. Sometimes a single character has a meaning, although sometimes they only represent a pronunciation in a particular context.
  • Combinations. Beyond the basic kanji, you can’t really learn the characters on their own. You have to learn them in combination with other kanji to make words.

So here is an example.

水 = water みず (mizu)

水着 = bathing suit みずぎ (mizugi), with the second kanji meaning “wear”

So far so good. Then:

水曜日 = Wednesday すいようび (suiyoubi)

水準 = level, standard すいじゅん (suijyun)

水泳 = swimming すいえい (suiei). Yes, the ei part 泳 looks very similar to 水!

Then 泳

泳ぐ = to swim およぐ (oyogu)

Then another similar (but different!) kanji 永, also ei but a different meaning:

永続 = permanence, continuation えいぞく (eizoku)

Another famous example is:


“Sangatsu tsuitachi wa nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”

The character 日 (day) is pronounced: tachi, nichi, bi, jitsu, and hi in that sentence. There’s no way of knowing which reading to use other than by memorization.

There are 2,136 “regular use” kanji that a person with basic literacy should know, and I’ve studied about 500 so far, although I don’t know all of the readings of those. But again, “knowing” involves knowing words in context as well as the various readings. That is, even if you memorize all possible readings, you still can’t automatically “read” the kanji when it’s combined with others. According to Wikipedia, a “total of 13,108 characters can be encoded in various Japanese Industrial Standards for kanji.”

It’s really fascinating to learn kanji and start to unlock the mysterious symbols around you (literacy = empowerment!), but it takes so much work, essentially memorization, that can go on for a lifetime.

Some homework

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