December 05, 2005

What is Kanji-Town? How did it come about? Why should you care?

I, like many students of Japanese have had to face the task of learning the many different characters. Hiragana and Katakana started, and clearly ended when I finished them all; but not is so with the kanji. There are at least 2,000 that one has to know to be considered "literate" in Japan, and these characters, unlike Hiragana and Katakana represent a concept rather than a phonetic word (Which is something that I, as an American male living in the suburban USA, native only to English and sometimes see little bit of Spanish, am not used to seeing). Like scouting out my pray, I studied how they work, and afterwards I felt very overwhelmed at what lie before me. A mountain of characters that have little visible patterns that allow for remembering.

From this point I tried to "make it on my own" and work my way through this sea of characters. Of course, all to no avail. I went through the "Japanese for Busy People" volume 2 and started by learning all of the kanji in Lesson 1. I took each character and wrote it on a piece of paper over and over, reciting the meaning in English and the pronunciation. Over and over and over and over. One I remember seeing was "sky." I wrote it over and over, saying "sky," "sora," "sky," "sora" until I wrote the same character perhaps 60 or 70 times (I frequently suffered sore fingers). And I did the same thing with the next characters, until all 10 or so kanji from lesson one were completed. But when I saw those characters again, in a different location than the textbook, I would say to myself "I know what that character is! What was it...?!" I would rack my brain for the answer, but I would end up so unsure of what I thought was right that I would abandon the idea altogether and give up. So I never mastered the characters I tried to master using this wrote system of memorization, and I never yielded good results after spending hours drilling characters. But, here's the crazy part: When I didn't get it right, I didn't question the way I was memorizing the characters, I questioned my abilities, or in this case, my apparent lack of them. "Why are you so stupid for not remembering this set of lines! Go back to your room and write them again, and no dinner until you get it right!" I would say to myself. So I repeated the same process, over and over, never achieving any sort of good result, and ending up a discouraged person that feels that he has wasted his time (That has to be one of the worst feelings in the world, to feel that the time you've spent existing has brought no benefit to yourself or anything else).

effort + no success = not a happy person.

Enter the "putting kanji off" phase. I didn't need kanji, because I'm a cool Westerner that likes art; I can talk about kanji, but I'm too good for it. Then you realize that "wait, kanji won't go away. I better do something about it." Then you start to think, "Well, I've already tried writing it over and over, and that didn't help at all. There has to be another way to remember these horrible little lines." Then goes the search on the internet for various learning techniques for remembering kanji. Finally I stumbled upon the book "Remembering the Kanji," which outlined a way to remember kanji that has given me more confidence in my abilities than I can type in front of this computer.

The book "Remembering the Kanji" started a very unconventional way to remember those lovable little shapes we call "Kanji." Rather than remembering each of them as they appear in grade level, or as your textbook demanded them, Heisig outlined a system that would start by tacking an English keyword onto each character. No pronunciations. "What the heck, I want to learn to pronounce kanji! This book doesn't help me, so now I'm an angry monkey!" many people thought (And this is the subject of almost every other review on for this book). Heisig believed in the principle "Divide and conquer" when confronting the kanji. Rather than trying to master each aspect of the kanji (Readings and meaning), they were to be dealt with separately. Before you can learn to read a gigantic set of characters that have no rhyme or reason why they are read the way they're read (Which we'll get to later), you have to become familiar with them. This is what the first book did. Assigning various meanings to the parts that make up the kanji (They are called "primitives", which are not necessarily restricted to the set of "radicals"), and you are to take those various components of the kanji and string them together to come to an English meaning.

The kanji studied are no longer a jumble of lines with no meaning, it is now an image in your head. Take this, and multiply it by 2,000 and you have the first "Remembering the Kanji" book in a nutshell. I am convinced that this is the best way for someone that isn't native to the Japanese system of writing, to learn it. But then again, I'm only an 18-year old kid; take my opinions with a grain of salt.

Let's say you finish book one. You've now got 2,000+ characters memorized with an English word, with a nice 90%+ rate of remembering stuff, which is, by all means, awesome. Now that you can decode a Japanese sentence into some weird morse-code like message, you now need to learn how to use all of that knowledge. Enter "Remembering the Kanji" book 2.

Book 2 taught a systematic way to remember the readings of each character. The bulk of the book is spent on the ON yomi rather than the KUN yomi. To teach the ON yomi, Heisig discovered a system of "signal primitives," meaning that when one sees a certain group of primitive shapes (Which one is already familiar with through book one), it is pronounced a certain way. If this principle worked for every character, there would be no need for this web page, but here is where I encountered trouble: The system for signal primitives worked for around 800 characters. That is very nice, but after those 800 characters are done, one is left to their own pure memory power to remember the others. As much as I love the systems implemented thus far to learn kanji, I totally understand that at some point you can't find mnemonics for everything. But I didn't think that this was one of those cases.
I then set out on a journey to figure out a way to systematically remember ON yomi through some manner, which I assumed would be a mnemonic manner. Because Heisig's method of learning kanji was not very popular, I sought help through the internet, mainly through message boards (Forums), and I asked around "How do you learn ONyomi after you've studied using Heisig's method?" and I got mixed responses, but the breakthrough I found was when someone linked me to the following page ( that brought forth the idea of "phonetic grouping" for the kanji. I would group the kanji together that were pronounced in one way, and then create a story that linked them all together. The example story given on the web page didn't work very well for me, but when a member of the forum posted that he/she could 'remember every kanji sitting on a hanger in a closet', or something to that effect, I thought "Hey, this might be what I'm looking for."

Over the next several days, I thought about the whole "location" thing. I happen to be a fan of the show "The Simpsons," a popular cartoon on Fox. Although I don't care for the newer episodes, I have watched my share of this show. And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that Matt Groening and his team of animators have created in my head a town that doesn't exist. When I hear "Moe's Tavern" an image immediately jumps into my mind. Not just the location, the objects around the bar, the people in the bar, and so on. Then I think "Simpsons family room," and another image pops into my mind. Then "Bart's bedroom," "Lisa's bedroom," "Marge and Homer's bedroom," "the backyard," "church where they all attend,": and so on. These locations which are nothing but pictures and drawings are a reality to me. Not only this, but then one thinks of movies, books, video games, etc., and your mind is filled with locations and things that are fake and were created by people.

So the precedent had been set. Others had created a world with a distinct feel to it without it actually existing, and now I must try to do the same for Kanji. I must create a set of locations that each carry a distinct feel to it, so when I see any character, I find its location within this set of locations, which came to be called "KanjiTown."

So I tested this by creating an Ice Rink with the ON yomi "rin." I then "placed" each of the characters in that location, and all of it had to do with an ice rink. I associated it with the various roller skating parties that I had been to in the past, and I had that general "atmosphere" in mind when I was working this out. When I was finished making this ice rink, I sat back and reviewed all of the characters I had learned, and they all had meaning to me, for they were all located within the "Ice Rink," and were therefore all pronounced "RIN." When thumbing through various reading materials, I encountered this character, I immediately thought back to the ice rink, and what role that character played in my exploration of this location. It worked, and there seemed to be no problems in my figuring out what the kanji meant, as well as where it was located (Which instantly signaled how it was pronounced). After all of my searching, I had found the silver bullet I was looking for.

(Continued in post "How does Kanji-Town work? How do I create my own Kanji-Town?" Will be posted in the next day or so...)


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