A friend asked me for tips on kanji study.

She sent me some of the materials provided at her university and they are not very inspiring.

She described how she attempts to memorise kanji each day but finds she forgets them soon after.

My university Japanese studies were not a good example. We had kanji tests each week. We also had a great coffee shop where I could meet friends to chat. I also was busy attending Bible studies, prayer groups and committee meetings of the Evangelical Union. My study was all done in the hour before each test.

(Some years passed, much water under the bridge.)

Since returning to Japan in 2007, I’ve got serious. Gone are my platinum bleached crew cuts, shiny hot pants and body glitter.

I’ve regretted the time wasted until now and all the brain cells sacrificed on dance floors across the globe.

But there is no Mardi Gras in Odawara.

At last I can study in peace.

Encounters with much older people who have performed incredible feats of learning convinced me that memorising a Tokyo Dome’s worth of kanji is possible, depending on the methods used.

I went outside the box.

I discovered Shizuka Shirakawa 白川静 and how his study into the origins of kanji was used in some schools to teach Japanese children kanji.

Kanji came alive.

They all became tiny pictures and diagrams that told a story.

Using Shirakawa’s dictionary, I can look up old forms of kanji, and read how they were formed.

Many of his descriptions relate to primitive religious rites and superstition. This makes sense and also leaves a strong impression.

When you discover that babies were once marked or written upon to protect them from evil spirits, suddenly the ‘child’ 子 in kanji for ‘letter/character’ 字 comes alive.

I found understanding this and seeing the old forms of kanji helped them to stick in my memory. It seems to take longer, but the effect is long-term.

The fact that when enemies were killed, their heads were removed (stops people coming back from the dead, etc.) and buried under roads makes the ‘neck’ 首 in the character for ‘road’ 道 come alive.

But remembering what kanji look like is only half the battle.

I’ll draw the earlier forms of kanji and then the modern form. If there is an older form pre-simplification, I’ll throw that in too. It helps connect kanji better.

Sakura 桜 looks all alone in it’s modern form, but in the earlier form 櫻 the two ‘shells’ 貝 above the ‘woman’ 女 are still shown. The on-yomi ‘ou’ おう you may know from Obirin University 桜美林大学. Then it is easier to connect to other kanji like parrot 鸚鵡. The second character is related to the ‘mu’ in Musashi 武蔵. Using this, you can correctly deduce the pronunciation of parrot as ‘oumu’. But this is not foolproof. More later.

It brings me to the second major technique I discovered, learning kanji by on-yomi sound using ‘sound tags’ 音符(おんぷ). The sound tag is usually the other half of the kanji to the radical. In sakura, the tree on the left is the radical, indicating a meaning of ‘tree’, and the right hand portion indicates the sound. So the kanji is ‘the tree with a name that sounds like OU’.

Yes, it is intended to be systematic. Why would it be randomly determined?

I only know of two books that list kanji by sound. See my blog entry on books for kanji study for this info. If you don’t have access to such a book, the reading index of a kanji dictionary can help, although you might miss kanji that no longer look similar due to simplification or that are not listed nearby due to the on-yomi being different.

Example: kou 公, shou 松 訟

Not the same sound, not listed together in the dictionary, but I still find them similar enough to help memorisation by knowing the connection.

In addition to making notes of each kanji with origin, and information on the sound tag, I take note of compounds.

I also make kanji cards, using mini books of blank cards that can be readily bought in Japan. Physically writing the cards (and making mistakes) reinforces then in my mind.

And I test myself. Writing the kanji from the reading. Over and over again. I have pocket note books that I can use on the train to write the answers in. This turns more heads on trains than ever turned to watch my shimmying buttocks on any dance floor.

Copying the kanji should only be necessary a few times, as you repeat the story of the origin of the parts in your mind. For me, real memorisation comes through reading real Japanese and repeated testing.