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More and more people are deciding to take up Japanese. A proof of this are limited places on university majors involving this language. However, because Japanese is nowhere close to resembling any European language, it has a high entry threshold for us. It takes plenty of time to start understanding it. It concerns not only listening, but also, or even mainly, reading comprehension, as the Japanese writing system is fairly different from any European one.

What does Japanese writing system consist of? – Japanese writing systems (and the Latin alphabet)

Basically, the Japanese language can be written in four ways:

First is romaji, used rather as a mean of decoration or convenience for foreigners, it’s basically, the Latin alphabet, in which this article is written. Then, there are two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana – systems of phonetic characters, where one character represents one syllable
(e.g. か・カ ka, に・ニ ni, え・エ  e). And finally, the kanji characters, which derive from Chinese characters, but are often different, as seen in the image below (dark blue characters are the Chinese ones). In Japanese, a kanji has an assigned meaning, but just as our Arabic numerals, it does not suggest the reading. Therefore, the character 水 is read mizu in modern Japanese, but shuǐ in Chinese, yet in both languages it means “water”. That’s why studying the Japanese writing system requires not only learning the meaning of a character, but also the reading, which makes the whole process two times longer.

czym różnią się od siebie znaki japońskie od chińskich

What is a syllabary?

HIRAGANA (ひらがな) – soft and round strokes. Hiragana and katakana have only 46 characters each and you see them so often while studying Japanese that they are hard to forget. They help in easy transcription of Japanese. Every hiragana character has its counterpart in katakana.

In Japanese, hiragana is used to write:

  • grammatical endings
  • basically everything else that can’t be written in kanji or that you can’t remember the kanji

KATAKANA (カタカナ– more blocky and spiky strokes. Both syllabaries derive from simplified Chinese characters, but katakana resembles them more.

It’s used to write:

  • foreign words (unless they are from Chinese)
  • non-japanese people’s names
  • scientific names in biology
  • colloquial phrases, slang and curse words.
  • Sometimes you just want to use katakana to write usual Japanese words to highlight them in the text, just as we do with CAPS LOCK

However, there are some kanji characters which are indistinguishable from katakana in handwriting. It’s only natural, since katakana characters are simplified kanji. Examples: 口(“kuchi” – mouth)、ロ(“ro”), 力(“chikara” – strength)、カ (“ka”) 二 (“ni” – two)、ニ (“ni”). In spite of these similarities, learning the syllabaries is the most pleasant thing that awaits you at the beginning of studying Japanese.

This is what the syllabaries and their Chinese origins look like:

jak powstały hiragana i katakana, jak szybko nauczyć się pisać po japońsku

漢字 – what are kanji characters?

Originally they were created to write the Chinese language and then adapted to Japanese language’s needs. Japanese quickly adapted to the new graphic conditions. Because Japanese and Chinese use the same characters, they are mutually intelligible in writing, but many words change the meaning radically. Perhaps the most known example is 手紙 (hand + paper), which in Japanese means “a letter”, but in Chinese, “toilet paper”.

How many characters are there?

The easiest answer to this question is, we don’t know exactly. All the possible characters? Over 50 thousand. The ones used daily? Somewhere above 3 thousand. Absolutely obligatory ones? Exactly 2136. And the characters that we can learn by using only two books? Whole 2200! And that’s the number on which we will focus today.

It’s good to explain two notions related to modern Japanese characters:

  • Jouyou kanji(常用漢字), that is, common use character list established in 1981 – the absolute minimum needed to learn if you want to read Japanese texts fluently. In fact, more characters are used, but this is a good basis with which you can safely go for content for natives and look for new words there.
  • Jinmeiyou kanji (人名用漢字), – characters used to write names and surnames. Ther aren’t used to write usual Japanese words and (at least at the beginning) you shouldn’t pay much attention to them, because they aren’t the part of commonly used characters.
zabawne wytłumaczenie tego, jak działa japoński system pisma

Kanji division method useful in learning the writing system

Of all Japanese writing systems, the kanji are the most intricate. Even if we don’t know a character’s sound, we might be able deduce its meaning based off its looks alone. Just as our Latin letters are made of sticks and loops, the Japanese language uses kanji, which are made of components helping us invaluably in effective learning. For example, this character: 休 consists of “human” component and “tree” component and it means “to rest”.

Another characteristic of kanji is that all of them have their own stroke order. Curiously, there is a portion of Japanese characters which look the same as Chinese ones, but they have a different customary stroke order. Here, (Japanese top, Chinese bottom) we can see that the third and the fourth stroke are swapped in the order.

Japanese order: 冂 + | + 二

Chinese order: 冂 + 土 

pismo chińskie, czym różni się chiński zapis od japońskiego

Without delving into the arbitrary and heavily history-dependent, common scientific division system of kanji characters, for our practical reasons we will divide the characters into:

  • pictures  (mountain)、火 (fire)、木 (tree)、馬 (horse)

    Learning kanji starts with these ones, because they are the easiest to understand for the people only starting the time-consuming challenge of studying Japanese. They are nothing more than simplified pictures of real, physical objects, with which they correspond. They are very easy to learn because once you see the object in the kanji, it’s impossible to unsee it. 

jak nauczyć się znaków kanji, japońskie znaki, chińskie znaki
  • concepts (up)、下 (down)、三 (three)

There are relatively few such characters in Japanese, but it’s pretty easy to guess what they mean. They are different from the first group in the way that they represent concepts and not real physical objects.

  • duplicated pictures 林 (木+木 grove)、森 (林+木 forest)、炎 (火+火flame)

These ones are self-explanatory. The more trees in a character the more trees we mean. You don’t need a special Japanese course to get the gist of that.

  • combination of meaning 男 ( field + strength = man)

Very useful, but sadly not so abundant group of characters, whose meaning you can guess by knowing the components. They are extremely intuitive to learn, but you won’t guess the meaning by their appearance.

  • meaning hint + reading hint 持 (hand + temple = to hold)

This group of characters is our main interest, because it’s the easiest to apply mnemonics to it, which I’ll present later in this article. Most often, their left side contributes to the meaning part and the right side is semantically unrelated sound hint. If we wanted to translate this method into English, we could imagine such a rebus: think of a tree that rhymes with “fur”.

If you like the idea of furry trees and solving rebuses, the Japanese language is made for you! Luckily, this kind of compounds constitute about half of the jouyou characters, which means that by learning several dozen of reading hints, you can learn to read even hundreds of characters.

  • all the others (imperial seal) (cause)

Japanese uses also, sadly, such characters, which are unlearnable otherwise than cramming them with force or a very clever mnemonic. They require more time, but the good news is they are either so common that it’s impossible to forget them or so rare and obscure that even the Japanese might get surprised by them.

Kanji readings and Japanese word spelling variations

Whichever kanji handbook you choose, you will encounter the division of reading types into kun’yomi (Japanese readings) and on’yomi (Chinese readings). The former are traditionally written in hiragana and the latter in katakana – for better remembering which one is which. But several more traps await us in real life, which we should be aware of not to lose motivation too early.

You should also notice that all kanji may have a couple of kun- and on’yomi readings. There is no rule for that. There are some characters read always the same, whatever their position in the sentence is, and there are characters used so often that they have a different reading in every word. 

1. Japanese readings (訓読み kun’yomi – “reading by meaning”)

Reading which base on the Japanese language. Most of the times, if you see a single character (like 水 mizu, “water”), you read it in Japanese. You use it also when there is a grammatical ending attached (like 書く ka-ku, “to write”).

2. Chinese readings (音読み on’yomi – “reading by sound”)

Despite the name, they aren’t fully Chinese. As we probably know, the Japanese language is much less abundant in sounds than Chinese. The Japanese encounter big hardship when studying foreign languages, because their language isn’t very flexible when it comes to pronunciation. That’s why on’yomi readings are in fact a Japanese idea of Chinese pronunciation from hundreds of years ago. Then, it’s only natural that the characters read the same in Japanese obviously differ in tone or consonant for Chinese speakers. In Japanese, the Chinese readings can be found mostly in compounds, or words which consist of multiple characters. For example, 水曜日 sui-you-bi, “Wednesday”) or (読書 doku-sho, “lecture; reading”). Due to that, words of Chinese origin are easier to recognize by seeing them, than by hearing, since you don’t always remember which character of the same pronunciation someone means when talking.

3. Personal name readings

The main rule is that the characters in names can be read however the parents decide. Even though, this trend is in decline and you can’t just make up a new reading, so called kira kira name (shiny name).

For the characters in names, sometimes the Japanese reading is used and sometimes, Chinese and in some cases, yet another, special one. So there is no use being down low about not being able to read someone’s name just like that.

Even the Japanese have problems with that.

przybory do kaligrafowania, jak nauczyć się pisać po japońsku

4. Buddhist readings

Even though it is a subcategory of Chinese readings, the Buddhist readings are something completely different. Some characters have a secret alternative reading used specifically in words related to religious rites. For instance, the word 境内 (temple grounds) should normally be read kyoun-nai, but since it is a Buddhism-related word, we read it sa kei-dai.

5. Special readings

Sometimes, a character just doesn’t give a whit about its kun or on reading and when another kanji comes around, together they suddenly form a word easier to understand by hearing than by looking at it. For example, the Japanese words for “glasses” is written like this: 眼鏡 (eyeball + mirror). It’s read as “megane”, but if you consider the sound, it is definitely “eye metal” and not “eyeball mirror”. If you were to read the kanji using normal readings, you would get gan-kyou (which is an archaic word meaning “glasses”) or manako-kagami, which sounds just like two random words sticked together.

* 6. Ateji

This graphemic phenomenon doesn’t really cause any trouble with reading it, but it does complicate the comprehension. Ateji, which means literally “spot-on characters”, are words written using only the Chinese pronunciation of given characters so if you don’t know the word, you just can’t guess its meaning. For example, “wound” is kega in Japanese, but it can be written as 怪我 (suspicious + me).

jak pisać japońskie znaki, jak się uczyć japońskich znaków

Alright, but how do I start learning kanji?

How do the Japanese do that?

They often say that you should learn a language the way the native speakers do, but in case of learning to read Japanese, it’s unachievable for us. Japanese children have the advantage of being able to communicate effectively in Japanese so they have ease in remembering the words. What is more, the Japanese spend a dozen of years in school to remember the whole jouyou. We would like to do that a bit faster, wouldn’t we? Depening on how determined you are to devote few hours a day to study Japanese every day, you can manage to do jouyou kanji in under a year.

It should be noted that learning to read is not the same as learning to speak and you mustn’t neglect the grammar are pronunciation. But should you rush difficult Japanese words before learning a plenty of kanji? Not really. Typical kanji words are easier to remember once you know what they are made of.

How do they teach Japanese at the university?

If you choose a Japanese major, you will be taught the characters in a way that allows you to read as much as possible in the classes. First, the numbers and then days of the week, family members, basic verbs, etc. To be able to use the characters to their full potential, you will be taught everything at once: the meaning, the stroke order, all the readings and the most common words with a given kanji. It is by no means an illogical approach, a recommended one even, in a holistic view. However from the perspective of reading competence itself, it’s quite a slow and frustrating process; comparable to starting the construction of a house with choosing the curtains.

duży ładny znak japoński, napisany nie jakoś super, ale kto się zorientuje w sumie

So how to do it right?

Now I’d like to strongly recommend series of handbooks about absorbing the Japanese characters by James Heisig called Remembering the Kanji, which helps us build a solid basis for our reading competence. Of course, no magic will make the studying effort for you, but the process can be personalized and made as fun as your imagination allows. The handbook is available in PolishSpanishPortugueseItalian and German. Still, you have to remember that it’s not a guidebook to Japanese language history and the information provided doesn’t reflect the origin of the characters.

Book parts

The series is divided in three parts. Though it might be surprising, the first part teaches us 2200 kanji characters with their meaning and stroke placing order. Once you learn them all, the second part will present to you again the same characters, but this time focusing on the on’yomi reading. (The kun’yomi reading willcome to you naturally, while learning basic words). The third part is dedicated to other characters worth knowing from outside the jouyou list, so you don’t have to worry about it for now.

Mnemonics – how to study Japanese on your own without language lessons?

書き方 (kakikata) - WRITING

The first part of the guidebook consists of 5 lessons, which gradually teach you how to write Japanese characters. The book assumes that you know how to write numbers from 1 to 10; apart from that, it’s a complete beginner’s course. As I mentioned earlier, kanji characters are made of simple elements. One feature of this handbook is that it doesn’t present the characters by their usefulness, but by the level of complexity. Regardless of whether a character comes up in more advanced words or rather easy ones, Heisig introduces one component at a time and shows all characters possible to build with the blocks that you already know. And when they’re up, a new component is introduced, and so on.

But how does the author exactly teach you the characters? With funny, vibrant stories! Each component has its own meaning assigned (sometimes according with its etymology, sometimes completely random) and the whole tricks is to create an absurd image, which contains all the elements.

If I show you the character “to overcome” – 克 and tell you to remember it, after some time you might confuse it with 党 or with 況. But if I tell you that the plus sign on top is a needle and the square with legs is a teenager, you can imagine what needle-related thing might a teenager overcome and create a picture in your head. Just 2199 such stories left!

読み方 (yomikata) - READING

The second book teaches you how to read kanji and divides them all into digestible chapters; this time not by the components, but by signal primitives. Signal primitive is a character element hinting the sound. As I said earlier, about half of the obligatory kanji has such components. Therefore, by learning one signal primitive, you can learn the reading of up to 10 different characters.

Let’s for example analyze the primitive 白, meaning “white”. If you encounter it situated on the right side of a character, you can be sure that it’s read as haku. So all the following kanji are read the same: 白、拍、泊、迫、珀、舶、伯. The right position is crucial, since characters such as: 泉 (sen)、的(teki)、皇(nou) don’t follow the haku rule. As you can see, you can master the pronunciation with less effort than by cramming them one after another.

japońskie znaki ładnie zapisane na papierze

[Tips] How to effectively learn Japanese characters?

As it is with all languages – FLASH CARDS. You can either make them yourself or use some available online, such as Anki or Quizlet. Another good site is Kanji Koohii, where by “custom review”, you can choose which lesson you want to revise.

  • Always revise starting with the meaning, then look at the character – if you get used to imagining the character by its meaning, you will be far ahead of people who learn the characters in the order of usefulness, which means, honestly, by force. At the same time you learn how to write the character.
  • Don’t skip the characters that you already know – each character is unique and deserves its own story. If you skip a kanji, your bases will be incomplete.
  • Don’t flip the book – the order is there to be kept. The components follow a unique logic of the language’s writing system and are introduced at optimal pace, which allows you to remember them well and never forget.
  • Take some time to learn one character – at the beginning, it might seem that you can remember an obvious definition, but if when looking at a character, the picture doesn’t pop up, come back to it and study it again, so that the kanji stay with you for long.
  • ALWAYS learn the kanji in specific words – remember this especially when learning from flash cards with pronunciation; the pronunciation might slightly differ depending on the position in the word.

How long is it going to take?

Surely less than learning the syllabaries. But on a more serious note, the answer is the same to all questions about languages – it depends. I think that a persistent speedrunner might get through the challenge of writing the characters from memory even in a month. The question is, how much will he or she remember in a long run? And if doesn’t he or she neglect basic Japanese grammar or vocabulary? Even if you work yourself into a frenzy of remembering hundreds of characters as fast as possible, you mustn’t forget the non-graphic side of the language. As a student who had classes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. almost every day, I can say that if you study Japanese as a post-school pastime, a year of time is more than enough – you will still have some time for revision.

If you are interested in the Japanese language and want to learn more about it, we kindly invite you to Univesirty of Warsaw Nippo Scientific Club’s Instagram profile!!

And if not Japanese, we encourage you to take a look at the list of languages worth learning.

Author: Łukasz Wiśnioch

Translation: Kacper Kacperski