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Let’s talk Kanji

The more you study kanji (the Japanese characters based on Chinese,) the more you begin to see and understand the patterns behind its uses. One of the major failings of my formal Japanese education was that it never taught me any of the etymology, or any of the radicals of the characters I was learning. They’d just give you the weekly list and say: “Go for it!” Maybe they don’t teach it because they don’t think it’s useful during class time. Granted, it would take quite a long time to explain. But even a little introduction to it would have been a massive boon to my ability not only to learn kanji, but also to look them up in a dictionary, or learn how to write them.

Since beginning my independent study of kanji I’ve discovered so many crazy little stories and similarities, it has made studying kanji enjoyable. Now that I know there are methods to the madness I don’t feel so utterly lost and it has helped me come quite a long way in a relatively short amount of time. I am at the point now where I can read many kanji without even knowing their meanings just by knowing what it looks like. This is a holdover from the Chinese characters kanji are based off of. In Chinese each character has a section dedicated to the meaning and a section dedicated to how it’s pronounced, meaning that if you know the system you should technically be able to read all of the Chinese script even if you don’t know the meaning behind each individual character. Japanese has evolved since adopting the writing system, adding its own characters and changing some meanings and pronuncations. This means that it’s not as fool-proof as Chinese is, but it’s still an invaluable thing to know. Let me give you some examples those of you who aren’t studying Japanese probably won’t care one bit about! 😀

1. You can reasonably assume that more often than not, a kanji which includes 反 can be read as “han.” Examples include: 反、版、販、叛、板、阪 and there are quite a few more. This doesn’t mean that it’s so every time, but knowing this definitely helps!
2. Kanji which include 見 will often be pronounced “kan.” 観、寛, etc. Again, certainly not fool proof.
3. This method does not work for the Japanese pronunciations of the kanji. This means it’s only helpful in compound words (words with more than one character) which use the Chinese pronunciations.

As I said before, in Chinese there is a part of the character designated for pronuncation and a part designated for meaning. These meanings, even more than pronunciations, remain true in Japanese as well.

I used to have a terrible time keeping 待 and 持 apart. The one on the left means to wait, the one on the right means to hold. The right part of the character is the same, so the only thing distinguishing these two kanji is the front radical. Had, however, my education told me that the radical of “to hold” was 手, or hand, I would never have had any problems! Indeed you hold stuff with your hands, so the radical in front gives you a pretty good idea of what the kanji is all about. Since then I’ve looked into it further and discovered that pretty much every single character that has the radical 手 on the left side has something to do with hands, or holding. Let me give you some examples.

*Often times the radical and the chinese character it’s based off are slightly different, so if you’re wondering why 手 doesn’t quite look like 扌 , it’s because it’s been changed slightly as a radical. In this same way, water (水) becomes 氵 *

打つ (utsu), to hit.
払う (harau), to pay
扱う (atsukau), to handle
投げる (nageru), to throw
技 (waza), a skill, ability.

I suppose 払う, to pay, is a little bit of a stretch, as is 技, a skill/ability, but really if you think about it it’s not so strange. How do you pay? You hand over money to the other person. Skills are overwhelmingly accomplished with your hands, whether you’re a skilled craftsman or a musician playing an instrument. Throwing, handling, hitting, they all use hands. Having this information is invaluable both in remembering new kanji and inferring meanings of kanji you’ve never seen, something which happens on a daily basis here in Japan.

It’s something I feel strongly would have been a huge help from the beginning of my Japanese study.

A little more insightful today 🙂


Categories: Pre-Japan
  1. Shirin
    June 14, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Awesome 🙂 Yeah, I wish we’d had a more radical education too! badam bum chhhh.
    We too had a passage and had to learn the ridiculous kanji in the passages… very insightful indeed, and to the contrary, I didnt think ‘to pay’ or ‘skills’ were a stretch… it makes perfect sense when you think about the gestures…also, ‘skillful’ is 上手 which is literally ‘upper hand’ ie. good at. it all comes back to the hands! 🙂 Good post 🙂 Now you should write one about how you need an indian to role perfect circles when making pizza from scratch…just an idea incase you’ve got writer’s block 🙂

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