So you want to learn Japanese. It’s a common story. Just think of all the manga you could read, all the anime you could watch, and all the people you could no doubt impress by needlessly saying ‘karaoke’ with the original Japanese pronunciation. Maybe you could even go to Japan. In that case, just think of all the places you could see, all the interesting people you could meet, and – statistically speaking if you’re a white man – all the Japanese women you could pursue with a single-mindedness bordering on mania.
So you buy a textbook, sign up for weekend classes, and everything goes well at first. After a little while you feel like you’re making real progress. You’ve memorised hiragana and katakana – Japan’s two phonetic alphabets. Your listening skills are improving. You’ve got your ‘sumimasen‘ (excuse me), your ‘arigatō‘ (thank you), and your ‘琴奨菊さんが１番好きな力士だ。’ (Kotoshōgiku is my favourite sumo wrestler) all sorted out.
You’re dimly aware that there’s something out there waiting for you, though. Something that’s eaten linguistically-better men and women alive. Something every single one of your teachers and textbooks warned you about from the very beginning.
And eventually kanji catches up with you. One day you’re foolish enough to think ‘I’ll just learn a few kanji and we’ll see how it goes’ and the next thing you know you’re tearing you hair out. About the three different readings for each kanji. About the 2000+ hideously complex characters you’ll have to learn. And about why exactly and ‘happy’ (幸) and ‘spicy’ (辛) have to look almost bloody identical.
After a brief, bloody skirmish you delete the app off your phone, abandon your textbook on the shelf between your copies of Russian Fluency in 30 Days and Legerdemain & Skulduggery: A Beginner’s Guide, and you give up. You’ll just focus on speaking and listening for now. Kanji can come later. Maybe.
I said it was a common story, and it is. People who study Japanese absolutely bloody love this story, in the sense that misery absolutely bloody loves company. Especially new, wide-eyed company that is about to go through the same misery you had to endure, but has no idea what they’re getting themselves into just yet. Learners of Japanese love telling beginners horror stories about how awful kanji is, before informing them that one day they’ll understand.
Yup, kanji isn’t easy. It would be so much easier to learn Spanish, with its Latin roots and its lovely, lovely single alphabet. And yes, the official list of Jōyō kanji – i.e. the list of kanji in everyday usage – currently stands at 2,136. That’s like learning the Latin alphabet (upper and lower case), and then learning it 40 more times. But harder. Impossible, right?
Well, no. It’s not exactly easy, but it’s also not one of the twelve labours of Hercules. This post is the first in a series of advice about learning kanji – all written by an amateur who, at the time of writing knows around 1,400 Jōyō and 100 non-Jōyō kanji, but who can only just about call his overall Japanese skills ‘lower-intermediate’. And who makes mistakes as often and as embarrassingly as any other bumpkin.
Future posts will deal with advice and small warnings and so on, but the rest of this post will deal with the common story I told you above, why it happens, and why the standard approaches to both teaching and learning kanji are incredibly stupid.
Why They’re Incredibly Stupid:
Now, when I say that the standard approaches to kanji are incredibly stupid, I’m not trying to hype up my new, patent-pending method of learning kanji. I’m also not criticising any specific methods of learning kanji. Whatever works for you is great, and different methods work for different people (though the people who champion one specific method often act as if theirs is the only good one (sometimes it seems like every article or YouTube video about how to learn kanji is titled ‘Learn Kanji – The Right Way!‘), which is not only wrong but also leads to people getting disheartened when that specific method doesn’t gel with their way of learning. Instead of thinking “Maybe I just need to try a different method” it’s very easy and understandable to think “Maybe I’m just no good at learning kanji”).
What is stupid, then, is not any one specific method of learning kanji, but instead how teachers and ex-students tend to think about it, and as a result how we make new learners think about it. This problem leads to the story above, where the new learner is stopped dead in their tracks by the chthonic horror that is kanji. This problem comes in two main parts:
(1) People tell you that kanji is one of the scariest things in the world
Like I said before, people are weirdly into telling Japanese beginners about how awful kanji is, and how they’re just going to hate it. But lots of teachers also do this. Every teacher I’ve had except one, actually. Even Japanese textbooks – including textbooks specifically designed to teach you kanji – do this. This is not only incredibly annoying, it’s setting you up to fail from the very beginning. If you approach kanji knowing only that everyone thinks it’s awful, endless, near-impossible, you’re going to have a much harder time than if you approach it with an open mind.
I’m not saying that learning kanji isn’t difficult – it is, and, like most things, the beginning stages of the learning process are probably the hardest. But nothing else I know has such a poisonous popular image. And that changes beginners’ experiences of it, and only pushes people to give up where they might not otherwise. When you’re studying Japanese vocabulary and you forget a word, or five, or ten – even ones you’ve reviewed dozens of times – the natural reaction is to shrug it off and think “Oh well, I’ll get it next time”. But the moment you forget a kanji character all that baggage comes up and it’s amazingly easy to throw up your hands and think ‘For god’s sake, I guess kanji really is impossible’ and inch towards giving up, rather than taking a step back and realising that frequent roadblocks are a part of any learning process.
Learning anything is difficult – learning thousands of Japanese words, many of which sound incredibly similar, is really, really difficult. And it takes a really, really long time. But there isn’t a culture of fear and anger surrounding it. People just accept it as part of the territory of learning a language. The moment someone starts learning kanji, however, everyone warns them how awful it is, how long it will take, how many mistakes they’ll make, and no one actually seems interested in giving practical advice about how to learn, or how useful kanji can be. So it remains something weird and different and apparently impossible, rather than what it actually is, which is something that’s difficult, useful, and doable. Something that with the rise of electronic dictionaries, memorisation apps, and new methods of learning and has become far easier over time, but which still retains its reputation as the academic equivalent of just punching yourself in the kidneys over and over again until you die.
(2) They coddle you, letting you avoid it for far too long
I don’t know if you should start learning kanji on your first day of studying Japanese, but that’s definitely a far better idea than what 95% of students are pushed towards – i.e. learning almost no kanji for months and months and years.
If you’re going to read Japanese you’re going to have to learn to read kanji, full stop. But Japanese text books, even up to a pretty high level, rarely make you do this, and in my experience teachers almost never do. Which is largely down to the aforementioned ‘It’s impossible, you’re never going to learn it’ attitude that hangs around the Japanese-education community like the ghost of a bad fart.
What this attempt to shield you from kanji means is that, while you could be going at a steady, manageable pace – learning a few kanji a week alongside your regular studying and steadily getting better over time, instead you’re left functionally illiterate for years, and then you’re suddenly faced with the prospect of cramming thousands of kanji all at once somewhere awful down the line. Which is about as appetising as eating the fetid, meaningless apparently-food Japanese people call Nattō.
So, I guess if you come out of this with anything it should be that kanji is difficult, but doable. You can learn kanji – literally everyone can. It’s not only for people who are great at languages (I’m pretty rubbish at languages – 10 years of French and I could barely say “Where is the cake? In the dustbin.”), or only for people who are geniuses (I still sometimes get mixed up on the whole ‘small/far away’ thing). You can learn kanji, but like everything else it takes time and consistent effort. There are tricks that will make it easier, but they’re the ‘how to make sure you’re not wasting those 20 minutes of studying per day/every other day’ kind of tricks, rather than the ‘this one quick trick a mom discovered to learn kanji instantly that doctors hate’ kind of trick.
Just don’t let people turn you against it before you’ve even started. Take it from me – it’s not impossible and it’s not evil and it’s not out to get you. You can start whenever you want, going at your own pace and you’ll make progress so long as you try. You’ll make mistakes and get frustrated at times but the most important thing to remember is that even then you’re always making progress.
[Next time we’ll talk about some practical tips for learning kanji, and some of the genuinely-great benefits that starting to learn kanji can bring.]