Remembering the Kanji

Any journey through an East Asian language begins with a single brushstroke. That one line begets others, which eventually become a jumble of seemingly indecipherable marks on a page. When I first started my Japanese studies more than two decades ago, I depended on rote memorization for these complex characters, the kanji. I learned to reproduce each symbol by feel rather than thought, a failed strategy as it turns out.

Then I discovered James Heisig and his landmark book Remembering the Kanji. This nearly forty-year-old work brought order to what had been until then a losing game of pickup sticks. Heisig’s method involves telling stories, using one or two keywords for each character as the starting point for the imagination. For some of the earliest and simplest kanji, there’s not much of a story to tell. The character for “five,” 五, gets little more than the “just remember it already” treatment. But once you get a few glyphs under your belt, Heisig starts to combine them and weave tales that bring the kanji to life. “Bright” (明) is built from “day/sun” (日) and “month/moon” (月) components, and his story speaks of “nature’s bright lights,” the sun and the moon, being the source of not only “bright” light, but “bright” inspiration for poets and thinkers.

After 500 or so characters, Heisig lets you take control of story creation for most of the remaining 1,700 characters. Stories that are out of the ordinary or are tied to personal experiences make for the best memories. My story for “post” (職, made from the character for “ear”/耳 and a “primitive” invented by Heisig that means “kazoo”) references Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke comes out of the Millennium Falcon wearing a stormtrooper’s uniform and a supervisor asks him through the kazoo-quality transmitter, “Why aren’t you at your post?” There’s no rule in Heisig’s book about not leaning on George Lucas’ imagination for your stories.

I first discovered RTK more than fifteen years ago when a friend gave me his lightly used First Edition. I began in earnest, yet even with the great focus on stories, the need to come up with those narratives for hundreds of characters was daunting, and I aborted the process twice. Last year, I decided I would push through. As incentive, I purchased the latest Sixth Edition, a major update that adds the Japanese government’s newest additions to the official list of joyo kanji that all schoolchildren must learn. At about ten new characters/stories per day, I was able to complete the entire book in nine months.

I wouldn’t have made it without the support of an online community of Japanese-learners who cling to the Heisig method. Reviewing the Kanji is a place for mutual encouragement, and also a repository of user-submitted stories for every kanji character in the book. More than half of the stories I hand-wrote in my textbook sprang from the imaginations of other Heisig readers.

Remembering the Kanji is a fantastic resource, but not everyone finds it useful. The focus of the book is found in its subtitle: “How not to forget the meaning and writing of Japanese Characters.” It’s this focus that turns some language learners off. Heisig will not teach you how to pronounce any of the kanji, nor introduce you to meanings or combinations beyond a single, sometimes misleading keyword for each character. It’s all about writing. And yet, this focus on reproduction-from-keyword does bring reason and order to the Sino-Japanese characters, opening a world of language that includes writing, reading, and speaking Japanese.

This article was posted on January 23, 2014. Related articles: Other Books, , .

Footnotes for “Review: Remembering the Kanji”

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