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Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters by Eve Kushner

Having personally made a few failed attempts to learn Japanese, spoken but especially written, I realize one of the biggest obstacles for me was learning kanji, the complicated characters adopted from Chinese. In my last attempt, I got fairly good at kana, the two sets of 50-some syllable-based characters. I learned a few kanji but soon hit a wall, perhaps because of the time required to memorize the couple thousand of the most used characters, perhaps because there are many thousands more than that. Most likely because I didn’t have a good strategy to learn them.

Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters by Eve Kushner
Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters, Eve Kushner (Stone Bridge Press, May 2009)

Eve Kushner, a self-described kanji fanatic, presents excellent learning strategies in her guide. First, she admits it helps to be as crazy about kanji as she is; even one of her dogs is named Kanji. She dreams about kanji and her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, which helps pull a student along. Like little puzzles to be figured out, breaking a kanji’s secret code leads her to treasure. In several examples from her life, she shows how she gets excited when she sees a complicated kanji she hasn’t seen before, and how she figures out its meaning.

Second, Kushner presents a fascinating look at the way kanji are constructed, many logically, some not so. When I first started learning kanji, I quickly learned the first few simple ones called pictograms, like “sun” or “mountain,” which look like simplified drawings of the literal objects. There are kanji representing abstractions (ideograms), such as “down”: the area below a line. Unfortunately there are only a few of these simple characters. Most are combinations of characters or pieces of characters, some making sense like “mouth” and “gate” meaning “ask,” as in a person putting his/her mouth close to a gate to ask for admission. But “insect” plus “construction” is “rainbow”?

Complicating matters, it turns out there are seven types of characters. In some, the parts dictate the sound. In others, the parts dictate the meaning. And in still others, some parts govern the sound, whereas others contribute to the meaning. Not to mention that one kanji can have several different meanings. Kushner doesn’t shy away from these complexities as do many introductory kanji instruction books. She tackles them head on and provides understandable explanations with good examples.

Third, she gives many examples of how kanji are used in Japan. Different printed and hand-written typefaces can make reading difficult, even for Japanese, and she shows the differences and how they are used. Her guide is profusely illustrated with signs, menus, and other kanji encounters. She also provides several games and quizzes and other engaging ways of learning. Her guide to kanji dictionaries is also very helpful.

Lastly, Kushner is a self-effacing teacher. She fesses up to some embarrassing kanji mistakes and admits some of the characters continue to befuddle her, as they do even with kanji experts. She is also practical in her advice. For example, in explaining the correct stroke order when writing kanji, she advises students not to get hung up on the rigidity of the rules.

There may be no royal road to learning but studying kanji can be a fun, engaging journey.

With Kushner’s book and guidance, maybe I can finally get over the hump. My favorite Japanese novel is Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map. My goal is to be able to read it in Japanese.

Todd Shimoda is the author of Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono No Aware', The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji.