Japanese/Kanji

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Kanji (漢字(かんじ)) characters are based on Chinese characters transmitted to Japan during the spread of Buddhism in the 5th century. A large percentage (approx. 70%) of Japanese vocabulary comes from Chinese or Chinese-derived words. While the meaning of individual characters is fairly consistent between the languages, compound words often have different meanings.

Kanji are inflected by hiragana that follow and particles give the case. Most words are written using kanji, though some have none and loan-words from other languages are generally written in katakana. The large number of homophones makes it highly desirable to use kanji and knowing them can help with memorising new words.

Note that writing kanji skillfully is significantly harder than reading kanji skillfully, since one must recall characters, not simply recognize them. Further, with Input Methods allowing one to write Japanese on a computer phonetically (by recognizing the kanji, not needing to produce them), the practical need for kanji writing skills is lower than in the past, but it is still fundamental to mastery of Japanese.

Study methods[edit]

Kanji can form a difficult hurdle for some in their study of Japanese. Their nature as graphic representations of concepts translating to sounds gives rise to the particularly diverse methods employed for the study of kanji.

Fundamentally, one’s goal is to learn Japanese, not kanji per se and this has two main implications. Firstly, as many words are written as compounds of multiple kanji it is not sufficient learn the individual two thousand odd characters, but also their combinations. Furthermore, just as learning vocabulary in any language, these must be learnt in the context of the language. Not only does it aid memorisation of terms, but enforces the understanding of their nuance. It is finally worth mentioning that one can learn to speak Japanese without learning to read or write it, just as with any language. If one is, however, ever to learn to read, it is advisable to start right away and learn the characters in parallel with vocabulary and phrases.

Throughout, understand that one’s mastery of any skill is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete (see 侘寂, wabi-sabi) – while perfection is a worthy goal, it should not be expected nor demanded – mistakes should be expected, and accept that there are further levels of mastery: not 300 people a year pass the Kanji kentei level 1.

Basic issues, regardless of study method:

start early
Kanji take a long time to learn; if you start early, kanji will not be the limiting factor, but if you start later in your studies, there will be a dispiriting quantity of catch-up to do.
It is not simply an issue of memorizing 1,945 characters (or more for names) – the same character is pronounced in different ways and used in different contexts. Kanji are simply a large amount of data, and this is best learned over a long period of time.
review regularly
Kanji are easily forgotten, and subtle details and differences fade without review. Regular review, particularly via electronic flashcard programs such as Anki or Mnemosyne, are essential to mastery.
make connections
Rather than learning characters in isolation, drawing connections helps memory. For example, learning a character as part of several words, or learning graphically similar or etymologically related characters can help make them more easily remembered.
detail
It is easy to make minor mistakes with kanji, be it missing a stroke or forgetting a rarely used kanji. A high level of mastery requires attention to detail, as detailed below.

Because there are so many kanji, and they are relatively sparse (of 1,945 kanji, most will not be used and reinforced in any sample of text, unlike kana) simply memorizing the forms and pronunciations (as one does for the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet or the 46 kana, twice) is less practical and effective, and one instead uses more structured mnemonic methods.

There are three aspects to a particular kanji:

form
The character shape – the strokes.
sound
The pronunciations, of which there are generally many.
meaning
The meanings, both of the individual kanji and its combinations.

There are a number of ways to learn the kanji. Rather than pick one, try to see how each of these works for you and combine them in your study.

Rote[edit]

The most straight forward way of learning kanji is by rote. While few will succeed in retaining even a portion of the two thousand basic characters — not to mention their compounds — rote learning is a good way to practice mnemonic devices such as those mentioned in the following sections. Writing reinforces character details, builds muscle memory and improves handwriting. Thus, regardless of learning system, practicing writing the kanji is a valuable aspect of learning.

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Make flash-cards with one or more characters on one side, the meaning and reading on the other and drill yourself. Make another set of cards with the meaning on one side and the characters and readings on the other and drill yourself on writing the kanji. There are several programs and website applications that offer kanji drilling. Notable spaced recognition software include Anki and Mnemosyne.

Forgetting a rarely used kanji is easy so it is important to regularly review these.

Handwriting[edit]

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Note that characters have a generally accepted stroke order. While this may seem an extra burden at first, the order is highly regular and will vastly improve your ability to read other people's handwriting, not to mention make yours more intelligible.

As with the handwriting of most scripts, Japanese calligraphy has a long history and is greatly revered to this day. As kanji are somewhat more intricate than Latin characters, the quality of handwriting and the order the strokes are written in matter a great deal. In fact, without a commonly accepted system, cursive styles and hurried handwriting would be illegible, indeed.

There is, of course, only one way to practice handwriting: By writing. Get yourself a nice notebook, preferable one with good sized squares, and practice, practice, practice.

Context[edit]

The Kanji in Context texts from the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies emphasizes the value of learning not so much kanji characters in isolation, but kanji-based vocabulary, particularly as part of phrases or idioms. In this approach, when learning a kanji, one learns important words that it is part of. Further, one will learn kanji that make up a given word at the same time – for example, one will learn the word 日本 (Nihon, Japan) and, at the same time, the characters 日 (nichi, ni, sun) and 本 (hon, root).

Recognising the constituent parts[edit]

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As you progress in learning kanji, you'll start to see patterns emerge; constituent parts of characters that are common among many characters. Recognising these will allow you to see the characters as made up of shapes rather than just strokes and thus simplify retaining them. The general method is to systematically break up characters into graphical components, some of which may not be used as separate characters. Next, one systematically maps these elements to some mnemonic, and then builds a picture or story combining these.

The principles at work are:

analytic
Break up a complex character into simple components.
Example: The character 認 which means to notice or to judge is made up of 15 strokes but may be a little bit easier to remember it as a combination of 言, 刃 and 心; word, blade and heart, respectively.
associative
Associate components across characters.
Example: 売 means "to sell", but along with "word", 読, it becomes "to read" and along with "thread", 続, it becomes to continue. This further builds links between characters that share graphical elements or compositional similarities.
narrative
Associating stories with characters is a powerful method to remember which components it is made up of.
Example: The character 暖 means "warm weather" and can be broken down into the components 日, 爫, 一 and 友 meaning "sun", "caress", "one" and "friend". This can then be memorised as warm weather being when "the sun caresses a friend".

Useful resources for diagnosing these constituent parts are the book and online version of Kanji ABC. James Heisig's well-known series Remembering the Kanji is the best known study aid that uses this method. Alternatives include Smart Kanji Book which only includes common kanji and the primitives that form them and the Kanji Pictographix which uses a graphic approach instead of mnemonic stories. A further such resource is Genki’s Kanji Look and Learn. These may not be sufficient in themselves, as they focus purely on the characters, but can be valuable components of one’s learning, helping with remembering character forms and especially minor details.

Chinese-derived reading[edit]

The vast majority of Chinese characters are composed as phono-semantic compounds: one component (generally the radical) is semantic (about the meaning), and the other component is used for its phonetic value (sound) called . Note that this is how the character as used in Chinese is composed. As kanji usually have several readings, including a Chinese-derived one, this can be used to remember the character and one of its readings.

Understanding this, and decomposing characters into Phonetic + Semantic components and relating them to similar characters using either of these components helps with remembering the character’s form, its meaning, and a Chinese-derived pronunciation (on yomi, 音読み).

For example, the character for small is 小 which has the Chinese-derived reading shō. The characters 少, 炒, 抄, 省, 称, 鈔 and 渉 all share that same Chinese reading. Again, keep in mind that these are only the Chinese readings and the each of these has other different readings as well.

Attention to detail[edit]

It is easy to make minor mistakes with both recognizing and writing kanji. A high level of mastery requires attention to detail and continual polish (see 改善, kaizen). Even at lower levels, attention to detail yields overlearning and deepens understanding; if you are worrying about the stroke order, you are likely not forgetting the character outright.

Minor errors can be made in writing (e.g. incorrect strokes, strokes touching when they should not, or incorrect stroke order) and pronunciation (e.g. incorrect voicing; especially rendaku/euphonic changes). To achieve a high level requires detecting and correcting such errors. Realizing that one has forgotten a kanji is easy enough. For other errors, one may not notice them, or one may feel a lack of confidence reflecting imperfect mastery. To detect such errors one must review regularly and ensure that all these details are correct.

Particularly useful in subtle errors is to study the character in question with various related characters (both graphically, as in Wiktionary:Appendix:Easily confused Chinese characters, and etymologically), and in the context of various words: this allows one to contrast the character, rather than trying to retain it in isolation.

Readings[edit]

A single Kanji letter can be read (pronounced) in many different ways, depending on its context. These readings are categorized into two main groups - that of Chinese origin (on-yomi, 音読(おんよ)み) and Japanese origin (kun-yomi, 訓読(くんよ)み). A third group, the nanoriyomi, is used for the names of people and places.

It is often the case that a Kanji letter has more than one reading of Chinese origin. This is because the importing of Chinese letters (with their readings) did not occur just at one time from one region.

Onyomi[edit]

Onyomi (音読み) is the Chinese-derived reading, which is most commonly used in compound words and for the numbers.

It may be useful to note that in most kanji databases, the on reading is written in katakana instead of hiragana.

一 (イチ), 二 (ニ), 三 (サン), 四 (シ) are the first four numbers and all are onyomi.

Kunyomi[edit]

Kunyomi (訓読み) is the Japanese reading, which can be read as a separate word or can be used in compounds.

This reading is generally written in hiragana in kanji lists.

月 (つき, tsuki) and 日 (ひ, hi) are the moon and sun and are in kunyomi.

Nanoriyomi[edit]

Nanoriyomi (名乗り読み) is the name reading, which is used for people's names and for places.

Both "康", read as "やす" (e.g. 徳川家康), and "信", read as "のぶ" (e.g. 織田信長), are written in nanoriyomi.

Kanji Repetition[edit]

The noma: (々), symbol indicates the repetition of a Kanji. The word われわれ indicates "us" or "our group" and is written as "我々" instead of "我我", although they are both the same. The same is true with "人々" (ひとびと), meaning people).

JLPT[edit]

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The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語(にほんご)能力(のうりょく)試験(しけん)), or JLPT, is a standardized test to evaluate and certify the language proficiency of non-native Japanese speakers. The JLPT has five levels beginning at level N5 and progressing to level N1 - the most difficult.

Each level has a certain set of kanji.

JLPT level N5[edit]

The N5 test tests students' recognition of about 100 kanji.

For the time being, the completion index is as follows:
  • 00%.svg: Some characters are missing.
  • 25%.svg: All characters are there, but there are readings missing.
  • 50%.svg: All characters have both onyomi and kunyomi readings, but not all have example words.
  • 75%.svg: All characters have example words, but a template or a stroke order image is missing.
  • 100 percents.svg: All characters have all their information set up in the template.