Studying Kanji

As a Japanese tutor, a lot of questions I hear are about kanji: What are they exactly? Why do I read them one way sometimes, and another at others? How do I read them? Do I really need to study them? How do I study them?

Firstly, Kanji are Chinese-derived characters used in written Japanese to form nouns and the base of most verbs and adjectives. Many have a purely grammatical function, acting as prefixes or suffixes, or to narrow definition indicating something such as places or occupations. Many pull double duty, not only in function (noun, verb, etc), but in meaning. For instance, the character for "metal" can also mean "money," "gold" (both the metal and the color) and "Friday." Pronunciation also varied between the Chinese-approximate on'yomi (sound reading) and the native Japanese kun'yomi. The Chinese readings, borrowed throughout centuries. This lead to various readings as Chinese dynasties, and therefore national dialects, changed. Some readings have a narrower field of focus, but most often on’yomi are a more academic-sounding, much like Latinate or Grecian based words in English. Kun'yomi, however, are similar to the Germanic-based words found in English; they often slightly more rustic and "homey."

But, do you have to study them? In a word, yes. This article from the Japan Times does an excellent job at summarizing their utility. While Japanese can be written purely syllabically with kana, there are no clear divisions between words. Kanji not only parse words out, but eliminate possible misunderstandings. Try typing "kikan" and look at your options, or better yet – try reading “hashi ga kowareta!” Furthermore, Japan is very unforgiving to foreigners, and boasting a near 100% literacy rate, the country's adult population is almost universally guaranteed to read the 2,000 or so characters required by law to be taught and learned from elementary school through high school. Kanji are ubiquitous, although a knowledge of the first 1,000 or so taught in elementary school should be quite serviceable. Approximately 95% of written material will be accessible to the reader. Kanji do get easier to learn as you go on, however. 2,000 is a lot to remember, but as kanji become more specialized, their rate of usage drops, and a few are only used in combination with a handful other kanji.

My advice is to memorize kanji in compounds or in context (collocations: there are different kanji for miru, kiku, au and ageru which have VERY different connotations) and with particles as well. For instance, the transitive verb "hanasu" can take the particles wo (to speak a language), de (to speak in a language), to (to hold a conversation with someone) and ni (to speak to someone). Memorizing those particles allows one to multiply their communicative abilities almost instantly, and all of this can be learned very early on in ones' studies. Flashcards and apps like Jflash are a good tool to use, as well as reading. My advice would be to write a full compound on one side, and on the reverse include the yomikata in kana, translation and a few example sentences.

I hope this helps!
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