Recently I was introduced to a book that has had quite an impact on me and has led me to see the Japanese writing system in a new light.
As I have never formally studied Japanese here or at home, living in Japan these past 5 years have naturally led me to acquire some of the language. Of course I have done self study and used textbooks to learn new vocabulary and grammar. However, the biggest challenge for me is in understanding the kanji. Perhaps there are others reading this who are in the same boat. I tried writing and rewriting kanji over and over again until I understood the stroke order. However, that habit quickly died… 4 years later I stumble upon a book that has changed my perception of writing kanji.
As I have not yet finished the book, I cannot fully confirm its practicality in the long term study of kanji. What I can confirm however is that with a great deal of ease, very little time, and a lot of imagination, I have been able to quite effortlessly write about 1700 kanji. The book contains 2042 kanji. This is just around the number needed to read a Japanese newspaper and falls into the 1945 general-use kanji. However, it won’t teach you how to read it… That would be in volume 2.
Basically, the book teaches you how to recognize the different “primitive elements” within a kanji through “imaginative memory”. When given a key word, you associate that word with a picture, and through that picture you recall the elements or “building blocks” that are based in that story. It sounds complicated at first, however, the book takes you step by step for the first 500 or so kanji. From there, you and your imagination are free to create whatever image you wish. The book is not based on mnemonics, as that would be impossible for thousands of kanji, but it has a similar concept to that.
Now, the steps that really boosted my enthusiasm and ability to recall these kanji is when I found 2 websites devoted to this book. The first, David Hallgren’s Japanese Page. This website is a flashcard based web page that allows you to study straight from your computer. It will flash the key word in front of you, then you simply draw the kanji in your mind. No pencil, no paper. Just in your minds eye
The other site was this one, Reviewing the Kanji. This site is directly linked to the book and is a forum for others to share their characters and stories for each and every one of the kanji. I must say, the stories and characters created by some people are so out of this world, it is impossible to forget how to write even the most complicated of kanji. With characters such as Data from Star Trek, Mr. T and the A team, Grandpa’s dentures and Lance Armstrong, it has made the daunting task of writing and recognizing kanji a joy and an adventure.
I’d suggest looking at this article as well for another review of the book. At the bottom of the review, there is a link to the introduction and the first 500 kanji all for free.