Decoding Kanji: A Practical Approach to Learning Look-Alike Characters

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9784770024985: Decoding Kanji: A Practical Approach to Learning Look-Alike Characters

There are many things that make learning to read Japanese difficult, and all of them have to do with kanji. It has been suggested that kanji be banned from use, which might prove awkward considering that they have been a part of the language for over a 1,400 years. It has also been suggested that they be simplified, and a half-hearted attempt was actually made to do just that. But, in the end, the student has only one recourse-which is, to learn them.

Of the many difficulties presented by kanji, this book takes up one: the fact that many of them look so very much alike. In your early years as a student, you may think that what you see before you is the simple character for "big," only to be told that, sorry, that's its look-alike, "dog." Later on in your career, you see what you believe to be the recently learned "rope," only to be told that it is its kissing cousin "steel." Years later, with a great deal of experience under your belt, you are still caught flat-footed when you mistake "samurai" for "wait."

This book helps the student to overcome this problem of kissing cousins and spitting images, to become aware of the subtle differences that distinguish one kanji from another. With numerous exercises and charts, the tell-tale signs that give each kanji away are indelibly imprinted on the mind.

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About the Author:

YAEKO S. HABEIN was formerly an instructor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, now retired. GERALD B. MATHIAL was formerly associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, now retired.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Decoding Kanji has been written for serious students who want to read Japanese. There are many students of the language nowadays who have studied Japanese for several years at school, lived in Japan for a few years, or have Japanese-speaking family members, and are able to speak and communicate in Japanese. However, many students have major problems when it comes to reading Japanese.

The biggest stumbling block is the large number of kanji that have to be learned before one can read almost anything in Japanese. Kanji are visual images; they cannot be learned by ear, the way students pick up their speaking ability. At the same time, students with a limited knowledge of kanji will almost certainly have difficulty in understanding the news on TV or radio, because their Japanese vocabulary will be too limited. Due to the nature of the language, the breadth of one's vocabulary in Japanese depends in good measure upon the number of kanji one has acquired.

In order to start reading Japanese newspapers and magazines, students need a minimum reading knowledge of around eight hundred to a thousand commonly used kanji. The more kanji they can recognize, the better they will be positioned for reading; of course, they can always use a kanji dictionary for less frequently occurring kanji. Judging from our teaching experience, it is not easy for students to reach the stage where they can readily pick up and read Japanese newspapers or magazines. Those who happen to live in Japan have the advantage of being exposed to kanji every day, but it is still far from easy. For those who do not live in a kanji environment, that stage is even harder to achieve.

One of the things that make kanji study difficult is the lack of study and teaching materials in languages other than Japanese. Japanese kanji specialists are not oriented to teach non-Japanese students, nor are they versed in languages other than Japanese, or perhaps Chinese. Many books are published for Japanese children studying kanji but few students of Japanese as a second language are ten-year-olds with hours every day for years ahead to spend learning kanji, nor do they have the photographic memory that young children learning kanji seem to develop.

Decoding Kanji has been written to make this situation a little better, to make the study of kanji a little easier by giving structure to it. Our approach is to make students understand, as much as possible, (1) the relationship between each kanji form and its meaning, and (2) the relationship between a kanji form and its on (Sino-Japanese) reading. It is our hope and belief that this method will free students from the cumbersome task of rote memorization of kanji one by one.

The emphasis throughout the book is on the importance of learning kanji forms accurately. Learning the forms of kanji accurately from the very beginning is crucial for later success in mastering more and more kanji. We have seen many students start out with too vague a knowledge of kanji forms and have great difficulty later, as they encounter increasing numbers of similar-looking kanji. To avoid this, we use a contrasting approach right from the start.....

... When students see these kanji explicitly contrasted, they become sharply aware of the differences between them, negating the impression that these kanji are vaguely similar, which they are liable to pick up when they learn them separately.

The discussion of kanji in Part 1 is crucial to understanding Part 2, and to successfully doing the exercises there. The exercises are arranged to make students understand the form-to-meaning relationship first, and then the form-to-on-reading relationship. Sections A and B contain simpler kanji, in less complex contexts, and are aimed at beginning to intermediate students. The last two sections, C and D, introduce more complex kanji, in more complicated contexts, for intermediate to advanced students.

In total some seven hundred kanji are treated in the text and exercises of this book, kanji that are commonly used in newspapers and magazines. Including the kanji in the appendixes, the number exceeds twelve hundred, more than adequate for reading newspapers and magazines with the occasional aid of a kanji dictionary. The terminology of specialized fields may use less common kanji; however, the emphasis of this book on the relation of kanji forms with their meanings and on-readings should provide a solid foundation for further study of less frequent kanji.

The etymological study of kanji is extremely complicated, because the history of kanji is so long. Thus, determining the structure of kanji is fraught with difficulty, and does not allow an easy shortcut for kanji study. Nevertheless, we hope that this book will be a stepping stone for further study of kanji itself, in addition to being a useful guide for the study of reading Japanese.

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