Remembering the fracking Kanji

I mention James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 1 a lot (hereafter referred to as RTK). I see it bandied about in forum posts a lot by people who love and hate it. I thought I would share my experience with it and why count myself among those who like it.

Kanji is a tough sell for us westerners. There’s no good entry point to learn them, there are seemingly an endless number of them that look the same, and they form a seemingly endless number of words that can be read a myriad of ways depending on what sits next to it. Simply put, they’re daunting.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept behind RTK, it’s rather unorthodox. The first book (there are three) teaches you only to write 2,042 kanji. You don’t learn the readings. You memorize each kanji by a single (English) key word, which is loosely what the kanji means. You create a story to help you remember the various pieces that make up the kanji. You then test yourself by writing the kanji associated with the keyword only once (assuming you get it right on the first try). You never test yourself from kanji to key word. The kanji are grouped based on their shapes, which build upon each other, and not by standard grade level.

I was initially afraid of kanji. I didn’t really want to learn them (and no one was forcing me because I was self-studying in the beginning.) but I had bought a video game 牧場物語ふたごの村 (Harvest Moon a Tale of Two Towns)—my first non-Pokémon Japanese game—and suddenly I was confronted with kanji. Not only kanji, but kanji without furigana. I am nothing if not stubborn. I really wanted to play that game. And so I started doing RTK.

This was actually my second attempt at RTK, though the first one doesn’t really count. My first attempt I thought I would just read through the chapters and not write any of the kanji. Bad idea. I was loathe to sit down and write out the kanji. I was very anti rote-memorization. And anti-writing.

But the second time I bit the bullet. I found Anki. I downloaded the RTK deck, got myself a mechanical pencil and some graph paper and began my foray into writing the kanji. The beginning wasn’t so bad because Heisig has created stories about the kanji for you. But after while, the stories stop. Fear not, there is a wonderful website called Reviewing the Kanji (RevTK) where those who have gone before you have entered their stories. The site also has a flashcard program, but I had already begun using Anki, so I didn’t take advantage of it.

The elephant in the room is most likely: “What is the point of learning to write all of the kanji when everything is going digital and I won’t ever have to write them?” Writing the kanji is an excellent way to become familiar with them at their basest level, their bones if you will, without all of the meaning and reading weighing them down. Before I began studying with RTK all the kanji looked the same to me. I looked at 天 (heaven) and 夫 (husband) or 牛 (cow) and 午 (noon) and it wasn’t immediately clear that they were different. As you move through RTK the differences become glaringly evident. You will gracefully pick out a kanji that contains heaven rather than husband. And if you need to look up a kanji, multi-radical searching becomes far easier because RTK teaches you the base of shapes that have mutated. It doesn’t actually teach you the standard radicals, so you may have issues with that but if you ever invest in a 電子辞書 (electronic dictionary) looking up words by writing them will be child’s play.

The downside of RTK is that after you finish the book you’re in a strange limbo. You feel superior because you can write scads of characters on command. You have a vague idea of what they mean and so you can puzzle out the meaning of asian store signs, but you can’t actually read a single one. The next logical step would be to pick up RTK2 and start the whole process anew. Alas, while RTK1 was well organized with each shape leading to the next, RTK2 is…not. I tried to use it briefly and gave up.

My post RTK struggle was just that, a struggle. I wanted to mine sentences from manga and learn that way, but my grammar knowledge really wasn’t ready for that. So I flailed around a lot. My advice to you (and what I’m doing now) would be to pick up a normal kanji workbook such as the Japan Times’ Kanji Look and Learn Workbook or the Basic Kanji Book. Make flashcards for the words. I went through the Look and Learn workbook just by doing the exercises and at the end of the book I couldn’t remember half of what I had learned, so I’m redoing it in flashcard format… I really like the Japan Times book because it teaches you the words in context, but I think the Basic Kanji book teaches you the different readings a little more thoroughly. I’m now at the point where I see a new compound word and I don’t know what the heck it means (because my English Heisig keywords are getting a bit fuzzy) but I can read it and write it.

And the kanji books and flashcards? I write the words out. That’s the easy part now.