(This is not affiliated with JapanesePod101 in any way. It’s a personal project expressing the joy of learning Kanji/Hanzi and hopefully of some help for other students of Japanese and Chinese. The 101 logo above has been ‘enhanced’ with “Kanji Lessons” here. Hopefully the 101 poddies will not object to this liberty.
The text and images here are not copyright restricted, but dumped into the public domain. Use and distribute as you prefer, but do not hesitate to add the link to the Kanji Hanzi Hub - http://kanjihanzi.blogspot.com/ - wherever you find it appropriate. You will not reach Kanji/Hanzi heaven, though, if you pretend to have created the stuff yourself. Thanks.)
Please notice: everything below is just as useful for students of Chinese/Hanzi as for Japanese students. There are some minor differences in meaning of the characters, but nothing of any importance.
Hmmmm... This is the first time I use Google Docs and was too optimistic about how easily the files there could be shared. It seems like you have to send me an email so I can invite you as a viewer. You will also need a Google account. Will try to find a better solution later.
This is one hell of a blog post so in case you decide to read the full text, consider going straight to the much nicer pdf-file. There are probably some more proof-reading to be done there but now I offer it as is. I also have used a nice font for the text and simply copied from Microsoft Wor(d)st so I am rather clueless about how it looks on computers without this font.
First time here? Perhaps you want to read the very first post here before continuing.
As you will notice here, it’s my opinion that Japanese is an almost impossible language to learn REALLY WELL, and I have accepted the sad fact that it will take years before I will be able to express myself in writing and speaking with anything that approaches fluency. That’s the reason why I have switched to Mandarin, a VERY simple language to learn, compared with Japanese.
Despite my misgivings I have no intention to entirely give up the things I have learned so far, but intend to spend a very modest amount of time to Japanese while I focus on Mandarin. Since I am currently using chinesepod.com as one – of many – sources for learning Mandarin, I decided to take a look at japanesepod101.com, a site I haven’t visited in a couple of years or so. Nice. (To be perfectly correct: I HAVE visited the site now and then, but only the very interesting Kanji Curiosity blog by Eve Kushner.)
Personally I am not much of a blog fan. I just don’t like the inverted chronology, and the fact that blog readers expect to get THE information served in each and every top post, preferably one paragraph long or with nothing more than a link to elsewhere. Not so here. I will try to avoid repeating information already posted. As a visitor you will have to learn how to navigate the blog by using the links in the right column: archives and labels. That’s it.
There are many misconceptions about Chinese Character, i.e. Hanzi/Kanji. The first and worst is that “It’s Sooooo Difficult to Learn Kanji/Hanzi” and “The Biggest Obstacle in Learning Japanese/Chinese is the Written Language”. If that was true I would have been fluent in spoken/written Japanese many years ago, since I have never had any problem READING Japanese texts with plenty of Kanji. Trust me: Learning Kanji is a piece of cake compared with the rest of the stuff waiting ahead!
But to be able to learn Kanji as quickly as possible you will need a Strategy and Method. It’s true that the traditional way of learning Kanji/Hanzi is a messy business. One cannot learn these beauties – beasts, if you prefer – as an image or a bunch of lines. Chinese Characters – CC – is not an exact science, but there is indeed a lot of logic in what looks like madness at first. CC has developed from rather humble beginnings some 4000 years ago to the most intricate writing system ever developed in the history of mankind. The shape they have today was mostly fixed at a time where most of the Western World couldn’t write at all. History and Tradition!!!
This project owes much to James W. Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji” (RtK). This book could be the Kanji Bible (Koran or whatever) considering the amount of controversy it has created across the Japanese community seen online. There is a very vocal community of Heisig advocates and there is an almost as devoted Anti-Heisig camp, not least among the rather bully folks – some moderators, not the owner - at theJapanesePage.com. Mentioning Heisig there is as close as you get to swearing in the church online J. It’s a welcome relief to go to the other side of the coin at the Reviewing the Kanji forum http://forum.koohii.com/index.php, . No matter how devoted the members are there, they are at least polite.
The first lessons on JapanesePod101.com offer a very representative sample of the situation a newbie encounters: a mixture of basic Kanji and very complex Kanji. This is not a promise, but merely an optimistic desire: I would like to present Kanji in the first several lessons the way I have learned them myself. In the future I might even do like everybody else: charge a bit for the services here.
The first step is to remove one of the stickiest Heisig dogmas: YOU HAVE TO LEARN 2000 KANJI before actually STUDYING JAPANESE.
As I will report in more detail later, the ARE some merits to this notion, but there are equally many benefits to entirely skip this strategy. It took me three attempts to get through RtK and I very much regret that I didn’t learn at least the ON-readings (based on the Chinese pronunciation) the two last rounds. More later on this hot topic.
The first Kanji in lesson one is
as in hajimemashite (“Nice to meet you”) which is Kanji 2-4 above. So what about the first one?!?! A CC – Kanji/Hanzi – is created from smaller compontents, usually from an abbreviated or simplified full character. The black part in kanji 3 above is nothing but a variant of the first, full Kanji for “garment/clothes”.
Heisig has no or very little faith in our ability to memorize SHAPES and insists on adding a mnemonic STORY to each and every Kanji. Not so here. A basic CC as those above do not really need any handholding to be remembered, in my not so humble opinion. If you need some additional visual input I strongly recommend that you look at the origin of the character at chineseetymology.com: look at 衣 there and you will find numerous examples of how this character has evolved from its roots. This is a typical example of a character with pictorial roots evolving into a more abstract – or here: stylized – shape over the millennia. (Hint, hint: Chinese Etymology is a HUGE undertaking, so please consider a donation to the creator!!!!!)
I have my own dogmas. One is that you are not fully fluent in Japanese and/or Chinese unless you are able to express yourself with an old-fashioned pen/pencil in your hand! Another one is that you learn the characters a lot more efficiently – and profoundly – when you write them. Thus I will focus a lot on writing Japanese/Chinese here. Write, write, write.
“OK, how do I get along writing??” First you have to learn the almost holy STROKE ORDER of each and every character. This may sound intimidating, but it’s not. There are a few and very basic rules you need become familiar with, and this is a process that I almost automatic when you start to learn characters. I have not yet found a way to include stroke order animations here, but there are several sites offering this: the eminent Chinese more-than-a-dictionary nciku.com. Since there is usually no difference between a Kanji and its grandfather Hanzi, you can input the Kanji there too. Bottom of page for “clothes” and same for “hajime”-Kanji 初.
OK…. Back to Kanji One in Lesson One. Now it’s downhill ahead….
Having covered the clothes aspect, we have the component to the right. This is even simpler: a knife. The full Kanji for knife looks exactly the same, apart from being a bit wider. So now we have learned the hard facts of Japanese greetings: It’s a cloak-and-dagger game! Watch your back when you say sayonara! :-)!
Next in line is Private Me above. Students of Hanzi will meet General Zong soon, so considered this as a member of his army. There are several first personal pronouns – I – in Japanese/Kanji and Chinese/Hanzi. This is not what is used in Chinese as the first choice where it’s meaning is more close to the Heisig keyword “private”. (In Chinese we use what I think is an older way to say me/we in
Personally I find that the watashi character is slightly difficult to keep cemented in memory. Probably the reason for this is that there are few hints to anything strictly personal in the components. The important one is found in example 3 above: a tree. To this has been added a small drop (2) of something to signify it’s more diminutive nature: a cereal of some sort, wheat or whatever you prefer. Heisig uses wheat, but there is really no such historical connection with this particular cereal. Just don’t use RICE to add a label to this very common component and all is well.
For me, I am sure it’s the extremely abstract nature of the shape to the right in Private. I have never really sort of gotten a deeper relationship with it, so it tends to slip away too easy now and then. There is every reason in the world to look at how the Heisig community uses the beautifully functional Reviewing the Kanji site. If you would strictly stick to the Heisig method would not encounter WATASHI until learning 901 other more or less useful characters. Take a look at the very creative use of stories to learn the characters!
The problem is that ELBOW has been of little help to me. Neither is the fact that “the elbow” actually is half a (silk etc.) cocoon from a strictly etymological point of view, according to some experts, even though chineseetymology.org suggests a mouth. As I said: not an exact science and I will dig deeper into these layers later. Simply use your imagination and decide what this common component should mean.
A very prominent role is played in the character for public 公 so one might be tempted to contrast the Private Cereal with its Public Self. Looking at this character, so it might indeed be sound to think of it as a “public mouth”, in the proper character for Public there is actually “Eight Public Spokespersons”, with the two upper lines being the character for 8.
Before we follow the strict order we have to add the most basic character of all: The Moon and the Sun, the Yin and Yang of human existence:
The proper character for Moon is to the very left. Next is what we can call a crescent moon as in the character for evening/night. Now it also happens that there has been an overlap from meat/flesh and the moon. What we might be tempted to think is a moon is actually a signal that something corporeal is taking place. “The Moon” is very frequent in characters for body parts, organs etc. All in due time.
Then we of course have the Sun. Note the difference between a very similar-looking character meaning To Say. The difference between the two is in both size and orientation: the sun is slightly smaller and rectangular with more height. You will not encounter the latter character very frequently, though.
The next character in line is
This time it sometimes has rather different connotations in Chinese vs. Japanese, but the primary Chinese meaning “suitable” can be found in some Japanese words. Here it is a rather ambiguous “be kind” meaning in yoroshiku.
The origin of this character can also be disputed. Above, to the left, we have the crescent moons between a roof and a floor (where the character for “one” is stand-in): many, much etc. That was plenty of something in this particular house, with other words. (To complicate matters a bit there are also proponents of the interpretation of the moons as two pieces of sacrificial meat on an altar… )
The evolution of characters then decided that plenty was enough and reduced the two moons to the more shelf-like component we see today. Shelf is the Heisig keyword and I have used it myself with no problems. “Too many greeting cards to my house will eventually fill the mail shelf” or whatever. So don’t be too polite J
Learn the top part as a roof with a chimney since there will be many other characters symbolizing dwellings of various types.
Ouch! A Freudian slip! I missed one of my least likeable characters according to the Heisig method:
The character for onegai – please/wish – is the forth one above. This is built from characters 1) primary/original and 3) page/head. Number 2) is what one can use as the start for 3): a shellfish often used as a symbol for money (which is what was used as money at “that” time: shells as in Shell Out). Heisig has used MEADOW as the keyword for character 1), a fact that causes me endless irritation, since this is not at all the primary meaning of the character and he also uses a particularly silly story with heads on a meadow making requests. Yikes.
For those studying simplified Chinese Characters the versions are
Actually the simplified version is ‘better’ with the heart component at the bottom as the origin of wishes/aspirations. I used the extra space at 4) to show that head/page is not actuall derived from shellfish, but from the character for head/neck where we have the three strokes on top as hair above the character/component used for nose (as well as me/self/etc.). With this brief summary, it’s goodbye to this character, onegai shimasu.
We have already covered the ni-part in Nihon (
This is such a simple character that I don’t dissect its two parts: a tree with a line crossing the stem below the branches. Heisig goes straight to the book-meaning of this character. In both Chinese and Japanese there is also the meaning of “basis, origin”, i.e. roots. The small part of the stem below the horizontal line is thus its ROOTS.
(In Chinese this is not a book per se, but a measure word used for books. Number two and three above is the simplified and traditional character for book. I have ordered “Remember the Hanzi”, volume 1, but it’s not still here yet. Now it happened that the character for “book” was available in a errata file at Heisig’s web site, so I could see what he wrote there:
The character in this frame will take special attention and require ome ingenuity on your part. It begins with key and clothes hanger (note the doubling up of the stroke), and then is followed by a walking stick and a single drop. You might think of a particular book you are fond of when inventing your story.
This is rather unnecessary, in my opinion. OK, I have a long experience with Kanji and the simplified characters are sort breaking the tradition with the roots of CC, but I nevertheless didn’t require a single glance and practising writing it a few before it stuck. Visual memory, James W.?? To make this parenthesis complete: the third character above is how the traditionalists write it in Chinese. As things often happened it got a different meaning in
The character for person is also one of those simple learn. Nothing to dissect so I use to space to show how it looks using various fonts:
When you write this character forget the two outer variants ONLY intended for printing, not writing/painting by hand. I am sure you need a break from this now so take a look at the first and last Radical Show at chinesepod.com. Due to some mysterious overreaction there the audience could not accept the light-hearted way the team present this particular “radical” (component/grapheme etc.). A pity, even if I think it was too much to cover only a single “radical” in the show. More is better, as you can see here :-).
What’s in a name (na)?
Nothing more than 1) a crescent moon and 2) a mouth. Of course we can use the flesh metaphor here too: mama’s mouth is telling the name to the newborn Baby Flesh J. Otherwise we have to be satisfied with the theory that names where given or uttered in the evenings only. Secret.
It’s actually “in front” but behind the na-part here: mae (zen in Japanese on-reading and qián in Mandarin).
This is a great example where Heisig’s often vivid and brilliant mnemonic stories are right on the spot: sort of a butchers shop with a pair of horns in front. The horns are of course the top component 2), flesh is 3) and 4) is nothing but a knife as a component variant; think of it as a sword or a particular type of knife. Easy as pork pie. Chop, chop, said the butcher.
As sometimes – rather often, actually – happens, there is no connection with the more ancient character and the one in use today. This is really not something you have to bother about, but it’s perhaps not to know? The seal characters at ChineseEtymology.org is quite enlightening.
The old character for “in front” was composed of 1) a foot (now meaning stop) and 2) a boat. It would indeed be very interesting to know how this became the components in the current version.
I intentionally skip the first two characters in Katakana 片仮名
since they are overkill here at present. Later.
Finally we have a rather difficult word not really used in the lesson: kokuseki for “nationality”. The first character (koku/kuni) is very easy to learn as is:
Please, take a look at the stroke order animation here. As you will notice the outer stuff is written first apart from the bottom stroke. This is the rule for all characters where the enclosure (pen or whatever) component appears. Next there is a king pent up (3). Due to some mysterious aversion to monarchy someone added a dot (4) to the king and made him into a jewel/jade. So this is not the leader of the nation, but rather the national treasury. Strange, but true.
Finally – YES: FINALLY!!! – we have a too complex Kanji/CC to be included in a very first lesson, but here we go with seki in kokuseki:
One may wonder how this character ended up in the word for “nationality”, but it’s there in both Chinese (guójí) and Japanese. On top we have the abbreviated version of “bamboo”. IN this case I have used the Heisig method and rechristened this component as “The Bamboo Boys”, actually two cute and funny Pandas. They are doing tricks all over Kanji/Hanziland where they appear. But by alls means be free to to skip this rather silly label/keyword.
Next is what Heisig calls a Christmas Tree, but I sort of dislike that, despite the fact that it looks like a tree with two additional branches at the top. It’s not. Actually it is more of a plough, than anything else and the component appears in the proper for “to plough” in both
Finally the third component is Once Upon A Time, which starts many a story in
So to sum this character up: The keyword and one of the meanings in Japanese is To Enrol. So my little crazy story has been “Once upon a time the Bamboo Boys used to enrol people to a plowing contest (or Christmas tree club, before learning the proper etymology).” This is not optimal since the story should follow the order you write the components, but it has worked for me.
That’s it: End of Lesson One.
Apart from my trips outside the strict topic here and there I hope I have managed to communicate my conviction that Kanji/Hanzi are not difficult to learn. It takes lot of time and some effort when you start on this path to Kanji/Hanzi literacy, but the more characters you learn, the less time and effort do you have to spend.