On Kanji / 漢字について

As I prepare to head off to Japan, I’ve been making a lot of effort to review my Japanese, especially my weakest point, Kanji (漢字). Kanji are  Chinese characters that were introduced to Japan and adopted into the Japanese language a very long time ago (like, thousands of years ago). Some of them stay true to way that the original Chinese characters are written, and others were adapted and/or simplified, and don’t exist in the Chinese language at all. Kanji characters range from extremely simple to extremely complex. For example the number 1 is written as a horizontal line「一」(いち), and is only one stroke. Easy, right? However, other characters can be 15 strokes! Kanji characters comprise one of the three alphabets in the Japanese language; the other two are hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ).

There are a lot of Kanji characters. Thousands! A typical Japanese sentence can include a mixture of characters from all three Japanese alphabets, so it’s imperative to have a solid understanding of all of them.

Kanji are very difficult for Westerns to learn to read and write. I think there are several reasons for this. The sheer number of Kanji, of course, is intimidating. Compared to our 26-letter alphabet, learning how to read and write thousands of unique characters is pretty strenuous. The most effective way of learning Kanji is to write the characters literally hundreds of times until they are committed to memory. As a student of Japanese for many years, I can say with confidence, this really sucks!

Another key factor is that Kanji characters need to be proportioned and executed a certain way in order to be recognizable. English-speakers all write the same characters, but there is a lot of variation in the way the same character can be written. There may be a specific way we are all taught how to write the letter “a” in elementary school, but by the time we become adults, we develop our own comfortable way of writing, so our handwriting becomes unique. Although having legible handwriting is important to be a functional person in the U.S., it is not expected that each person writes each character in the exact same way. However, this is not how it is in Japan. There is only one single way to write a Kanji properly. In Japanese, the stroke order, stroke direction, and the way each stroke ends is meant to be written only one way, which is the correct way. Deviation from the way characters are meant to be written = illegible handwriting.

Other than issues with bad handwriting, I recall that my Japanese teacher told us his own understanding of why it’s so hard for Westerners to learn Kanji. We read and write horizontally; when we look at a text, our eyes want to scan it horizontally because that’s how we’re trained to read since childhood. However, Japanese characters are originally made to be read and written vertically. Japanese people are exposed to reading vertically and horizontally since childhood, as Japanese text is often written either way. However, the point is that the way Japanese characters are designed is all based on them being read top-to-bottom. This makes it incredibly hard for Westerners, or anyone whose native language reads horizontally, to learn how to read and write Kanji properly. Kanji characters are are designed in a fundamentally different way. An interesting point he makes!

Kanji has always been one of my biggest struggles in learning Japanese. It’s really important to know how to read and write several thousand Kanji characters in order to be able to function in Japanese society. The amount of Kanji you know correlates to your level of education, and only knowing an elementary schooler’s level of Kanji does not bode well. I really hope that during this summer my ability to read and write kanji improves, and I learn many new characters. I think being exposed to so much Kanji, and needing to read it all day, everyday, will be a huge help to me.


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