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.

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