Japanese Kanji & Kana
A Complete Guide to the Japanese Writing System
Authors: Wolfgang Hadamitzky & Mark Spahn
Paperback: 424 pages
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing; Revised edition (April 10, 2012)
Order direct from Tuttle Publishing here:
Tuttle Language Books
This book is designed to help students of Japanese learn the first 92 basic kana characters and the 2,136 standard jōyō (officially sanctioned “daily use”) kanji characters. Clearly it is meant to be a study aid for the complete spectrum of ability from true beginners to advanced. The book is divided into two main sections: the introductory chapters and the kanji listings. I will review each in turn.
Part 1: The Introductory Chapters
The first section of the book consists of 60 pages that give a thorough explanation of the development and organization of the Japanese writing system. A lot of the information given here is interesting but fairly academic, so after you read it once you may not need to refer to it again. There are some sections that are worthy of note though, both here and in the study tips given at the end of this section.
Good points in Part 1:
- Table 16. This is a list of the 214 traditional radicals (the common elements that are used to classify the kanji) and their meanings. This is probably the most important thing in the book. You should photocopy these pages, blow them up large and pin them up over your desk. They are invaluable.
- Table 12. Punctuation Marks & their explanations on pages 34-38. It’s amazing but I have never formally studied Japanese punctuation before! This helped clarify a few things for me, and there were some I was unfamiliar with. This will be a useful reference tool in the future.
- Tips on Learning Kanji. There are some good tips here. For example, I wish someone had told me to prioritize and not to overload myself when I first started to study kanji. Too often in the early days I felt overwhelmed by what seemed like the endless readings for some kanji (the kun and on readings for 上 and 下 for example). The authors of this book suggest however, “it can make sense to learn at first only one on reading and one kun reading… Trying to take in too much information all at once can detract from concentrating on what is important”. Wise words.
- Another tip I agree wholeheartedly with is to learn the appearance, readings and meanings of a character together. This runs counter to the Heisig method which demands that you learn only the meaning of the kanji first and their readings later (in a second book). I never liked that method as it seemed to double the length of the learning process, and I have always found that studying the meanings and readings together strengthened my own learning process.
- Finally, it’s not really a strong point as such but I rather liked the fact that the old Iroha syllable order was listed. The Iroha is an ancient poem which contains every character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once, but the poem also means something of course and the English translation is also given. It’s nice to see that included in the book, but ultimately it probably won’t help you with your studies!
Potential weak points in Part 1:
- At a couple of points in the book the writers encourage students to use the game “Kanji in Motion” and the web-based kanji dictionary “KanjiVision”. To date, a full two years after this edition of the book was published, both of these web-based learning aids are listed on Hadamitzky’s website, but neither are available for use.
- We are encouraged to use writing practice manuals to practice the correct stroke order. However, though useful at the beginning of your kanji studies, I don’t believe that this is necessary for the full 2,136 kanji listed. Although many Japanese swear blind by this method, because it is the one they are familiar with, it does take them the full 12 years of elementary and high school education to learn kanji this way. Most foreign students would like to pick up the pace a bit! At some point you will need to move on from simply repetitive writing and use flash cards and some form of mnemonic system. But more about that later.
Part 2: The Kanji Listings
The bulk of the book, the second half, consists of a little over 300 pages of jōyō kanji listings. The individual kanji therein can be looked up via three indexes which are organized by radicals, stroke counts and readings. With each kanji, are presented its meanings, readings, stroke-count, radicals and example compounds. This is the most practical part of the book which can be used either as a reference tool or simply as a course book of kanji that can be studied and memorized from start to finish.
Strong points in Part 2:
- It contains a complete and up-to-date listing of the jōyō kanji and these are listed in a sensible fashion: from the simplest and most frequent kanji to those that are more complex and less commonly used.
- The example compounds given for each kanji always consist of characters that have been listed before, so if you work through the book in the order it is presented you will be reviewing previous kanji as you go.
- In the index by readings, kanji with the same on reading are grouped together by common components. For example kanji with the on reading SEI and the common component 生 are listed like this 生、姓、性、星、醒、牲. This is fairly standard practice but the really good part comes next. At the end of the list those kanji that contain the same component, but have a different reading are also listed with their correct reading given in brackets: 産 (SAN). Trust me when I tell you that this will be a really useful tool to help you find a kanji when you recognise its components but can’t remember how to pronounce it correctly!
Potential weak points in Part 2:
- There is no mnemonic system in this book. If you wish to learn and remember the kanji at a reasonable pace, then a mnemonic system is essential. To be fair though, no given mnemonic system is perfect, and you might be better off using your own creative imagination to make up a personal mnemonic system. You can use the meanings of the kanji radicals and components listed in the book and build memorable but simple stories from them. For examples of how to do this I recommend following Hiroshi Kawada on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KawadaHiroshi. He posts simple yet memorable mnemonics on a regular basis. This one for example:
- Japanese grammar guru Tae Kim, in his own review of this book, suggests that it has no real value as a study aid, because a lot of the material in the introductory chapter is available online (on Wikipedia for example) and you can also find a lot of free kanji dictionaries online that could be used instead of this book’s kanji listings. He has a point. Personally though I find the internet such a constant source of distraction that when I study, I prefer to turn my computer off and simply focus on my books. It really does depend on how you personally prefer to study, so I would encourage you to read Tae Kim’s review and think hard about your own preferred method before you buy this book.
How I would use this book to study kanji:
Everybody has to find the best way to study for themselves and the only way you can do that is by trial and error. However, based on my own experiences of studying Japanese I would focus on the kanji listings in the second part of the book, and work through them in the order prescribed.
To practice writing the kanji according to their proper stroke count, you can download writing sheets for the first 300 kanji from author Hadamitzky’s website here: Writing Templates. Beyond the first 300 kanji you can purchase writing manuals. However, I believe beyond the first 300 kanji, further writing drills are unnecessary as you are likely to start feeling frustrated by your slow progress, and some kind of mnemonic system will become essential to aid your memory retention.
If you are in Japan you can buy blank flashcards in any convenience store or even 100 yen shops. You should write the kanji according to its correct stroke order on one side and its readings, meanings and a simple mnemonic sentence on the other. Mnemonics can be built up using the radical meanings listed in Table 16 (see above) of this book.
Overall I think this is a good book and could be a useful study aid for a student of Japanese kanji. If you wish to order it, you can do so directly from Tuttle here: Japanese Kanji & Kana.
I am about to embark on a summer of intense study so be prepared for more Japanese language textbook reviews over the coming months!