I Think I’m Learning Japanese, Part III: Kanji!

みんな おはよう! That’s “Minna ohayou,” or, “Good morning everyone!”

I’m back with another progress report on my Japanese self-study.

I’ve gotten just about all of the hiragana memorized, but I’m lagging on the katakana, so I have to get on that! My verbal Japanese is coming along nicely. I’m able to introduce myself pretty easily now, say where I’m from, and ask simple questions. It’s all very, very basic stuff, but it feels great and I have confidence I’m on the right path this time, versus the many false starts I have had.

So that brings another topic. One that is very intimidating. Kanji.

Unlike hiragana and katakana, which are really just alphabets like ours, kanji is a pictorial system borrowed from the Chinese that represents ideas and sounds with pictures. There are, I think, two things that make kanji appear intimidating: how bizarre it looks, at first, and the sheer amount of them.

I work in the video game industry, and I have sometimes assisted in language localization on some projects. When converting to Japanese, one of the technical challenges faced by developers is a font may have something like 5000 kanji characters in the font, yet the actual Japanese language has tens of thousands of kanji. While many of these are out-of-use characters from the past, not all of them are, and invariably the translators we hire choose one that isn’t actually in the font! When this happens, the computer renders a plane square or some other “error” character, telling us there is a problem.

So when studying Japanese as a beginner, kanji seems horrifying. However, Lee has a great collection of Japanese learning books at home, and I found a terrific one that has made the process of kanji learning fun! It’s called Read Japanese Today by Len Walsh.

What makes this book fun is that Len takes the time to explain the etymology, or history, of the most common kanji a new visitor to Japan sees. Right away you learn how to spell and recognize things like Tokyo and Haneda Airport. But even better, it demystifies the characters. It is so much fun to discover the logical progression that made these otherwise alien looking characters take their current modern day shape. Finally, you learn that many kanji are actually just combinations of other kanji, so once you understand the meaning of one, you unlock partial meanings of others! Very cool!

For me, the coolest thing about this is I can already begin to find clues in words I otherwise have no idea about!

I also learned something really cool from Lee: Kanji really help to break apart sentences in Japanese. Unlike English, Japanese doesn’t put gaps in between the words. When a sentence is all alphabet letters (the kana), it just looks like a long endless string. It is easy, especially as a beginner, to get lost. But the kanji add natural breaks, since many Japanese words are kanji with some kana at the end.

So, along with the other resources I’ve mentioned previously, I would highly recommend it!

じゃまたね! Or ja mata ne see you later!


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