Learning Kanji – Beginner Concepts and Simple Strategies

2009 September 17

The most daunting yet fulfilling to learn alphabet in Japanese is Kanji. Kanji literally means “Chinese character,” because literally the alphabet derived from Chinese characters. In English, it’s similar in that the roman alphabet came from Latin, however Japanese Kanji words and Chinese words are actually quite similar. So much so that Japanese speakers can look at a Chinese newspaper or book and get at least a general understanding of what’s going on, I myself could do a job search in Chinese without ever learning how to speak a word of the language. Unlike learning latin however, Kanji is central to the Japanese language and must be learned if a Japanese language learner is to attain any form of reading fluency. This article will touch on some basics of learning Kanji, and hopefully get readers started in the right direction to learn Kanji efficiently.

Before diving into Kanji it’s important that the reader know the differences between the three main alphabets, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana covers all the Japanese basic sounds, and is central to understanding the language for a beginner of learning Japanese. Katakana is also used frequently, however mainly for foreign words, and it’s also essential that Japanese language learners eventually learn Katakana. The catch to both these alphabets is that they have about 50 characters each to learn, and each character only has one reading, no matter where it is. Kanji on the other hand have two readings, both a Japanese only reading called “kun” and a Chinese only reading, called “on”. (pronounced with a long o) While Hiragana and Katakana have 50 characters each, Kanji is limitless. The suggested numbers for newspaper, book and general fluency is between 1-2,000. Although this article today will not teach the reader 1-2,000, hopefully it will introduce concepts that make learning Kanji easier and more effective.

First of all Kanji have a history, and have global reach. This alphabet as mentioned earlier derived from China, the oldest standing civilization on the planet. China’s reach went all over Asia, both south into Vietnam and Laos, and north to Korea and yes to Japan. Therefore this system of thinking and communicating has been around for thousands of years, and has influenced most of asia and southeast asia. So when learning Kanji, it’s important to keep in mind you’re not just learning a system that is central to Japan, but also you’ll also find traces of Kanji characters in China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and possibly even Laos.

When learning Kanji there is a central strategy in mind, and that is each Kanji character is a picture. Each picture has a story behind it, or a logic as to why it was created. Especially for native English speakers who are not used to learning a character alphabet, learning the etimology of a Kanji character helps with memorization. Let’s take one of the most simple examples, the character below:

What do you think it means? What does this look like to you? It’s actually a person, with their arms outstretched reaching out to the reader. The person is trying to explain the concept of “big”, hence this character literally means “big.” When learning Kanji however it’s also important to learn both readings, to illustrate the differences in readings:

The Kun, or Japanese reading for this character is “oki”, pronounced O –key (The o is long). The ki is like the ki in kimono. Okki is the adjective for big.

The On, or Chinese reading, is “dai”. When learning Kanji, the On reading will be used in combination with other characters. Let’s take the below example:

大臣 – you read this as “daijin”, or important person. When talking about the prime minister, he’s referred to as “soridaijin”.

So to reiterate, there’s a few concepts here. First, Kanji represent pictures, and each character has a story or at least some kind of logic behind it. Although it’s not necessary to learn the logic, it does sometimes help with memorization. Secondly there are two readings to learn, both the on (Chinese reading) and kun (Japanese reading). Third, like words in english depending on context Kanji can mean slightly different things. In the example of daijin big actually means important.

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