Why You Must Learn Kanji

April 18th, 2012By Category: Learning Japanese

Illustration from Kanji Academy at Japanese LinguaLift

Illustration from Kanji Academy at Japanese LinguaLift

For a lot of people, kanji is about on par with natto. A huge sticky mess, difficult to consume, and not nearly as tasty as it is troublesome. Plus it makes your breath smell like the wrong end of a dog, which is rarely a good thing. I mean natto, that is. Kanji does nothing for your breath. Anyway, me personally, I never wanted to spend years studying kanji; I just wanted to speak well enough to communicate (read “drink beer”) with people. Funny how things work out.

Hiragana? Fine. Katakana? Piece of cake. There’s not that many of them, so whatever. But kanji? Yeah, let me get back to you on that. I mean, who wants to take the long route to learning Japanese? I was determined to find a shortcut.

If you, like me, love shortcuts and have the approximate attention span of a gerbil, then let’s jump right to the conclusion:

1. Kanji is the shortcut to learning Japanese, even if you only care about speaking.
2. If you know the kanji, you can make sense of every word in the Japanese language.
3. Every word. Think about it.

How can kanji be the shortcut when it’s so impossible? First of all, you’re trying to learn an entire freaking language here, and that’s a huge task. People say learning Japanese is easy. Yeah, like swimming the English Channel is easy. It’s just swimming. How hard could it be?

Microwave and Light Bulb, Not Friendly?

But anyway, okay, think about a Japanese person learning English. They’re going to need everyday words like:

  • Microwave oven
  • Telephone
  • Light bulb

Sucks to be them, because those words bear no relationship to one another. “Light bulb” looks and sounds nothing like “microwave oven.” Learning English requires remembering a ton of unrelated stuff, using only letters and sounds. It’s like a pure memory exercise. You know how many words there are in a language? Okay, well I don’t either, but I’m sure somebody on Wikipedia does. For now, let’s just use the term “a shitload.”

If only there were an easier way. Welcome to Japanese. You learn a couple thousand kanji and Boom, you’re done. Okay, not done, but you’ve got great leverage. Check out the same three words in Japanese:

  • 電子レンジ
  • 電話
  • 電球

Everybody’s friendly. It’s clear they all use 電, which means “electric.” That’s because, unless you’re using two tin cans and a string, they’re all electrical appliances. And there’s the shortcut. With a six-degrees-of-separation-like magic, knowing one word immediately helps you understand and learn other words. Learn five kanji and you can make sense of ten words. Learn ten kanji and you can make sense of thirty words. That’s leverage, and Japanese is cool like that. Since all the appliances in Japan use electricity(電), you’ve just learned a big chunk of Japanese vocabulary. You’re welcome.

We Need to Talk in the Den

Let me be honest with you. If you’re trying to learn Japanese without learning kanji, you are making a huge mistake.

I’m telling you this as a friend. That’s why we’re all gathered here in the family room, with your mom, the friends who care about you, and your Uncle Frank. If you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to him. Cause, you know, Uncle Frank had to go away for a couple of years.

Okay, right, I know. It doesn’t seem efficient to memorize a couple thousand complicated kanji when you just want to have a conversation with the attractive person on the barstool next to you. All you want to do is learn to speak.

Yeah, that’s not going to work. Here’s why:

Daily-conversation Japanese doesn’t cut it. You’ll be out of material in five minutes, at which point the other person will either excuse themselves to go the bathroom and climb out the window, or start speaking English. You need vocabulary. And to learn vocabulary, you’ve got to remember stuff, somehow.

Japanese Homos

But Japanese has a bunch of homonyms, which means that everything sounds like everything else. You know how English has three words for one sound: “to,” “too,” and “two”? That’s nothing. Japanese has like fifty words for the sounds “sho” and “shou.” You can’t understand the language based upon the sounds. You have to see it written.

Japanese people make the opposite mistake when learning English. They focus on reading and writing when they should invest time in listening. English is an impossible language to make sense of through the writing system, because it doesn’t have enough letters. Or maybe it has too many, whatever. I don’t know. “Guess” and “Scene”? Please. You’ll never figure out how to say them by reading. To make the sounds of the English language, the letters are forced into double-duty or mashed into peculiar combinations. Then you’ve got phonics, where someone has essentially reinvented the alphabet so that it might make more sense. And you’d still probably mispronounce “epitome.”

Japanese people learning English would be well advised to put down their books and focus on listening. For English speakers learning Japanese, it’s the opposite. Both groups are trying to use the method that works best in their own language, when the languages are constructed differently. That’s a problem.

Some Monk on a Mountain Top

Japanese is a written language first, and a spoken language second. The sounds hardly even matter. Some monk a million years ago sat down in a temple on top of Mt. Fuji (or such is my understanding) and worked out a thorough relationship between all of the visual characters, so that they all relate to one another in a reasonable fashion. All of the words are networked. Using that network is how you build vocabulary and learn Japanese.

English is the opposite. People just started speaking it, like in caves a thousand years ago. And then somewhere around the Middle Ages somebody said, Oh, maybe we ought to start writing this shit down, and then they came up with some letters in an attempt to represent the sounds they were making. But the letters don’t really even matter. That’s why you’ve got all those extra letters cluttering up so many words. It’s the sounds that matter, not the letters.

As an oral language, Japanese is hard to parse, partly due to all the homonyms. You said “sho”? Oh, I thought you meant “sho.” But it’s a breeze to understand once you see it written. And from the sounds, you’d never know that “kuruma” and “sharin” were related, but see them on paper and it’s immediately obvious: 車 and 車輪. “Car” and “wheel.” Well, there it is. Again, Japanese speakers learning English don’t get this advantage. They just simply have to remember stuff. Yeah, sorry about that.

Two Jews Walk into a Bar

One extra, challenging aspect of Japanese as an oral language is that it doesn’t lend itself very well to mnemonics, at least for English speakers. The sounds are so different that it’s difficult to come up with good mnemonics. Like how are you going to remember “nyuukokukanrikyoku”? Yeah, good luck. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that hiragana and katakana are going to help you either. It’s the same problem. にゅうこくかんりきょく isn’t any better. You need kanji to make any sense of the words.

Even sounds that can be easily represented in mnemonics are problematic. Because of all the Japanese homonyms, the same sounds have to be used over and over again. You’ll have Kens and Jews running around everywhere. Worse, you’ll end up making the wrong connections. If you use the image of a Jewish person for the sound “jyuu” (sorry, but really what other association are going to make?), you run the risk of mentally connecting “veterinarian” with “carpet,” since they both begin with the sound “jyuu.” But if you saw them written in kanji, you’d never make that mistake, because they’re clearly different characters.

There is no Try

Here’s the deal with learning kanji. It’s not easy. But it’s the only way to learn Japanese. Books can help a bit, like Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig, or Kanji ABC (which I prefer). You can also put sentences into Anki, and start writing things out. But anyway you approach it, it’s going to take you a long time. Which is why you should start today.

Don’t spend time learning how to speak and think you can learn kanji at a later stage. You’ll only hit a wall and realize, a year later, that if you’d started kanji a year ago, you’d be much further ahead. Even if you memorize a couple thousand words of vocabulary, it won’t be enough. You need more words. And words, in Japanese, are kanji. Enough said. Now go eat some natto, and get busy.

Illustration from Kanji Academy at Japanese LinguaLift

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Author of this article

Ken Seeroi

I'm that guy who writes JapaneseRuleof7, bringing knowledge to your brain straight from Japan. My writings are mostly humor mixed with social commentary, plus an occasional foray into language education.

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  • Elizabeth Marks

    Well, actually Japanese was a spoken language for a long time before it was a written language- before the system of representing the sounds of Japanese was imported from China. Really, to use your metaphor, it was a Chinese monk and the Japanese eventually went “oh, hm, maybe we should write this shiz down- a lot of these words sound the same. Hey, China’s system looks interesting.”

    Okay, so that’s not really how it happened.
    Otherwise I agree with you.

  • jasonbroccoli

    I loved your paper – even though, yes I think it might have been a little off on the facts at times. But still, you are hilarious and inspirational, actually! I’m going to start studying kanji. :)

  • http://twitter.com/gordonmhiggins Gordon Higgins

    Not well researched but I now am gonna pick up my kanji book and study!

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

     Hi Elizabeth,

    I agree with you.  My meaning was slightly different and I see now that I didn’t communicate it well.  To say that “Japanese *was* a written language first” would have been describing the origins of the language.

    By using “is” instead of “was,” I was referring to the way Japanese functions as a language.  I also probably shouldn’t have used the word “first,” which also carries a temporal connotation.  I further confused the issue by switching to a mock-historical account in the next sentence.  That’s just my brain getting all ADHD on me.  Anyway, sorry about that . . . The point I was driving at was that Japanese is best understood as a written language.  It has a certain amount of logical organization that is apparent when seen visually, and which is not easily understood through the sounds.

    Whew.  All this thinking sure makes a brother thirsty.

  • http://twitter.com/angelainjapan Angela Kennewell

    great article, thanks! i only wish i’d read it 8 years ago when i first put down my kanji books (“wtf do i need this nasty stuff for, i just wanna chat!”) and just learned by listening… dammit. recently picked the books up again and am now thoroughly regretting all the wasted time. your article is motivational and also induces a strong desire to  “face-palm” myself

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

     I know, right?  It’s absolutely not obvious that kanji is essential for learning the language (or at least it wasn’t to me).  For years, I viewed it as merely a complicated annoyance.  Only in hindsight did I realize the error of my ways.  Darned hindsight, so 20-20. 

  • http://twitter.com/origamiliving Origamiliving

    I’d best get down to learning more kanji!

  • Luke McGinty

    Hi Ken love your posts. You mentioned “Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig” I was wondering if there were any other learning resources that you would recommend for someone just getting into Japanese as a second language.

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Thanks for reading. I always recommend the Japanese Graded Reader series, since it gets you started on reading right away. You’ll also need a basic textbook to cover some of the basics, and Genki is a fairly good one. Enrolling in a class would probably also be a good idea. If you want some more details, hit me up on my site at JapaneseRuleof7.

  • John Doe

    I could have done without having to filter out your lame jokes. Make up your mind, are you trying to be informative or funny, I don’t have time for a mix

  • David Curry

    Great article and I completely agree– as long as I’m learning Japanese, learning 2000 kanji was the best thing I ever did. Maybe it’s hard, but life is hard. Learning radicals, and just memorizing the kanji themselves before learning the actual readings, made things less of a pain.

  • Ryan Paroñgan

    I don’t know where you get those knowledge but yes your are PERFECTLY, ABSOLUTELY and DEFINITELY C-O-R-R-E-C-T. Way back in college we are just being taught of Hiragana and Katakana and ofcourse the grammar, totally NO KANJI. Then when I am trying to read Japanese texts, I felt like I’m at the bottom of those people sorted according to literacy rate. KUDOS for your works and I wish I could talk to in private regarding my Japanese studies. @SavingKuyaRyan in Twitter

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