(mi kara deta sabi–rust from yourself–i.e., you reap what you sow)
When I moved back to Japan in 2007, my Japanese was rusty.
I doubted I could possibly re-learn the many kanji (Chinese characters) I had forgotten. At times I wondered if I had even memorised them properly at university in the first place. (I did have a LOT of important discussions to attend in the university coffee shop.)
Around that time, I came across the work of the late Shizuka Shirakawa, who broke new ground in the study of the origins of kanji（成り立ち naritachi). Many books have been written based on his work, to assist kanji memorisation through an understanding of how they were formed, with a focus on the pictographic and ideographic origins.
These ideas were an inspiration to me (there are some similar books in English).
By copying out the ancient form of the characters as a part of my study, I felt that I was drawing pictures, rather than writing kanji. They left a deeper impression in my mind. Suddenly I found myself memorising kanji with greater ease.
The story behind each character stuck in my mind, providing memory hooks.
The links between seemingly unrelated kanji became clearer and kanji came alive again.
But as I took harder levels of the Japanese national kanji exam, Kanji Kentei, my inspiration started running dry.
It was at this point that I remembered a book which I found hidden away in the library during my university days–The Study of Kanji by Michael Pye.
Kanji dictionaries generally group characters together by the radical (semantic/signific) part of the kanji, arranging them by related meaning (trees, fish, birds etc.) However Pye’s book groups kanji by the non-meaning component (tsukuri)–which is phonetic.
90% of kanji are keisei moji（形成文字）combining semantic and phonetic elements. Arranging kanji according to their phonetic element, the on-yomi （音読み）or Chinese-influenced (original) pronunciation of the kanji, can assist memorisation. Whole groups of kanji can thus be tackled in one hit. I couldn’t believe this hadn’t occurred to me earlier, and wondered why kanji weren’t taught this way.
It struck me that the “inventors” of kanji had been conscious of this. Words exist in verbal form before written form in any language. When creating a character in Chinese for an existing word, people combined a familiar sound-symbol with a known meaning-symbol. Once I realised this, kanji started to seem systematic rather than random.
The Japanese pronunciations of kanji obscure the original Chinese pronunciations to a degree, and they have lost their distinguishing tones. In addition, characters or reading introduced during different historical periods take the dialect of the region which ruled China at that moment in time. (Wu, Han and Tang pronunciations–呉音、漢音、唐音). But essentially, there is an underlying system which indicates the pronunciation. (How else could Chinese children learn so many characters?) Writing was invented to make communication easier, not harder.
I later found a similar, more recent dictionary, by a Japanese author.（漢字音符辞典・山本康喬 Kanji Onpu Jiten by Yasutaka Yamamoto). He groups kanji by sound components (音符 onpu) using a system he devised based on his own research. The book is especially designed for Kanji Kentei study, with characters colour-coded to distinguish upper-level kanji. It has some structural drawbacks, but is an incredible work and an invaluable tool for studying to sit the Kanji Kentei pre-level 1 and level 1 exams.
While I haven’t discovered a philosopher’s stone for kanji study, these books have helped me to find ways to study kanji other than rote memorisation.
I have come to believe that there are no limits to the amount of new knowledge I can acquire if I am willing to have an open mind and experiment with new and stimulating learning techniques.