Writing Japanese – Kanji

"Japanese" in kanjiKanji are the Chinese characters that are used in writing Japanese besides Hiragana and Katakana. As they were the first system introduced to write Japanese (and both Kana systems derived from them), Kanji are used for native Japanese words and have thus a pronunciation that is different from the Chinese original. The characters themselves were subject to change over time: The Japanese simplified them early on and even added a few more characters of there own invention; and with the simplification of the characters in mainland China starting in 1956, it is now not possible – except for the simplest characters – for Japanese to read Chinese and vice versa.

Do I really need to spell it out? Kanji are the bane of every student of Japanese…

First of all, there are lots of them. Elementary school children need to learn about 1000 kanji in their first six years of school, up to the end of high school, around 2100 must be mastered. Those are called the joyo or regular use kanji – they make up about 95 % of what is used in an average newspaper. But, there is more… Another 1000 or so kanji are used only in Japanese names, and in a high level profession, fluency starts at 4000 and more. Finally, there is the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society, which offers a test that – at its highest level – requires the taker to know around 6000 kanji…

Second, a single character can have more than one meaning. For example, the three kanji in the image together mean Japanese language, but the first character can mean day or sun, and the second one book or basis/root. Finding out the meaning of a kanji is essentially done by context.

Third, knowing the meaning of a kanji does not help with pronunciation at all. Virtually every character has at least two readings, an on-yomi – based on the sound from the Chinese – and a kun-yomi – from the word in Japanese. Some can have up to ten different readings. In the image, the whole word is read as Ni-Hon-Go, but the first character can also be read as nichi, hi, or bi, and the kun-yomi reading for the second character is moto. Once again, you’ll have to discern from the context which reading is the correct one. There are some rules of course, but this language is riddled with exceptions, unfortunately…

Finally, you’ll need to know how to write the kanji in question. The stroke order was allegedly derived to ensure the most pleasing aesthetic look… However, this is of minor concern for the Japanese learner. With the advent of computers and mobile phones, even many Japanese have difficulties writing their kanji – although they can still recognize them, of course.

Sounds impossible? Don’t get disheartened – even Japanese don’t know all possible kanji. Some people carry little dictionaries around in case they encounter a character they don’t know. Finding this out made me feel a lot better about my feeble attempts!

In any case, I think the largest part of learning the kanji is pattern matching. Not that this is easy – I have found a kanji with 29 strokes, and many look deceivingly similar – but being a visual type myself here, I think this is the way to go. Writing them surely helps, but for the most part it’s learning by rote and repetition. A never ending story, really…

There are a number of kanji trainers online, this is my favourite:
http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~ik2r-myr/kanji/kanji1a.htm Enjoy!

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