Joe Lauer, a long-term American resident of Hiroshima, sent the following feedback on a workshop I conducted to promote the Kanji Proficiency Examination (Kanken), a standardized test that measures both kanji reading and writing ability:
“For most Westerners living in Japan, the Kanken is a waste of time. The many hours it takes to learn writing could better be spent developing the speaking, reading and listening skills we need for our daily lives. On the rare occasions when we need to write kanji, we can do so through the skillful use of a computer — if we are good at reading.”
With Japanese word processing software, writers can simply type their desired words in hiragana and then select the appropriate kanji from the options that pop up. Wizardry like this causes Joe to wonder, “Why should an adult from a nonkanji-using country take the trouble to learn to write kanji from memory by hand?”
Personally, I have been writing kanji for nearly 20 years, but I wasted a lot of time early in my Japanese studies by using an ineffective and unstimulating method: copying individual characters over and over. I used to believe this was a fail-safe way to indelibly imprint their shapes on my memory. But aside from an impressive pile of dog-eared spiral notebooks, this laborious exercise did little to improve my long-term retention of kanji.
Then James Heisig, through his self-instructional text “Remembering the Kanji I,” convinced me that mastery of a character included being able to produce every one of its lines and dots from memory. He outlined a path to literacy in which I could finally stop confusing hopelessly look-alike characters and develop rapid reading skills.
Instead of mechanically copying characters as whole units, I began to produce them completely from memory, component by component, by recalling the vivid story I had memorized to help me link each of the parts with a single meaning for each character. When I didn’t have paper and pencil handy I used my finger to sketch out characters on my palm or in the air. Whether waiting for a bus or standing in line at the supermarket, my hands were in constant motion. Heisig’s method enabled me to learn to reproduce from memory, in less than a year, the shapes of all 1,945 general-use kanji.
Unfortunately, being able to produce characters from memory does not mean that one will develop attractive handwriting. My husband Mitsunori’s appraisal of my childish kanji handwriting several years ago as “legible, I guess” shamed me into taking my first formal lessons in Japanese calligraphy. Weekly sessions with ink and brush increased my confidence as I tackled the unavoidable task of daily writing in my second language.
Like Joe, I am a regular user of Japanese word-processing software, but at my university teaching post I face a variety of forms comprised of tiny sections designed to be filled in by hand. My laptop is similarly useless for filling out forms at the doctor’s office, city hall and post office. Many nights I compose brief messages in the renrakucho — the notebooks that serve as a forum for communication between us parents and our children’s school teachers. Moreover, penning a short thank-you note for a kindness received is still considered good form in Japan.
Handwritten communications arrive regularly in my work and home mailboxes. Having personal experience in writing kanji helps me to decipher the handwriting of others. Even the cursive writing style favored by my mother-in-law’s generation no longer stumps me, nor does my students’ scribble.
Another benefit of learning to write kanji is the familiarity it gives in counting strokes. This skill is necessary for efficient use of paper, electronic and online kanji dictionaries. Moreover, familiarity with stroke order can increase the speed at which writers are able to move through the sequential movements necessary to produce individual kanji.
Even if they manage, like Joe, to largely avoid producing handwritten Japanese communications in their everyday lives, foreign aspirants to literacy must still develop the ability to analyze the complex shapes of kanji. Grabbing a pen to actually produce the bits and pieces that make up individual kanji is an excellent way to befriend them.