So you’ve set out to master Japanese and decided to learn kanji. Well, before you march further into the ranks of people who have devoted their lives to learning this arcane form of communication, it might help to step back and take an overview of the entire process.
Phase 1: Learn the Individual Kanji
Well, there’s only 2,136 joyo kanji, so how hard could it be? Riiiight. Over the years, people have proposed lots of different ways of learning them. Learn only the meanings and forget the readings (Heisig Method). Learn them in context of words, write them, don’t write them, create mnemonics, make them into funny pictures, dissect them into their component parts. Somehow you’ll need to find a way to sandwich them into your brain.
Phase 2: Learn the Compound Kanji and Words
Individual kanji are limited in their usefulness. It’s only when you start creating words and sentences with them that they start to take on true meaning. This is also about the time that the Japanese writing system becomes either endlessly fascinating or just plain stupid, depending upon how you look at it.
For example, 天 means “heaven” and 気 means “spirit.” But when you put them together they mean “weather.” You’d probably have a hard time guessing that heaven + spirit = weather, but at least you can make some sense out of it once you know, even if it’s a stretch. Unfortunately, a lot of Japanese isn’t even that clear. Let’s see how you do with one more example: 気, meaning “spirit” + 象, meaning “elephant” or “phenomenon.” So what does 気象 mean? Hint: it does not mean the spirit of a dead elephant.
And there’s the problem. Even if you know all 2,136 kanji perfectly, you still can’t read Japanese. Because reading Japanese requires not only a knowledge of all the individual kanji, but also a solid understanding of how they are used in combination to form words, and those words number in the tens of thousands. It is, in other words, a bigger problem than it first appears.
Phase 3: Reading in Context
Now let me throw one more challenge into the mix. (Oh, and by the way, 気象 also means “weather.” Don’t ask why.) The final challenge is reading kanji in context. Just as everyone can sit on their couch and know exactly what the quarterback should do to win the game, it’s easy to go through flash cards and have an overinflated sense of your language ability. In real life kanji rarely comes in nice pairs of characters. It comes in huge blocks of text that overwhelm your working memory. It comes when you’re standing on a moving train simultaneously listening to an announcement, talking to your Japanese colleague, and looking up something on your iPhone.
Where as phases 1 and 2 are primarily knowledge-based, phase 3 requires both knowledge and skill. It’s the skill of being able to tune out non-essential information and focus on certain key terms in order to construct meaning, much in the way one would speed-read a book in English. At such times, it’s not uncommon to be unable to recall even kanji that you know perfectly and wrote hundreds of times, simply because of the information and sensory overload. Hey, your brain’s still human.
So let me leave you with two things. The first is the heretical notion that you don’t need to learn all of the joyo kanji at once. The Japanese don’t. They learn the about a thousand in grade school, but they learn them through all 3 phases. With roughly 1200 of the most-often used kanji, you can easily (okay, well, not easily) form over 10,000 of the most essential words of the language, and begin to use them in meaningful ways. In other words, it’s reasonable and valid to consider delaying learning the rest of the kanji.
The second thing is that learning to read Japanese is actually a bigger project than it may appear at first. You may be able to learn cursory meanings for all the joyo kanji in a few months, but learning how to read is a bigger can of worms. It’s good to know what you’re getting into.