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Driving you ‘crazy for kanji’ — in a good way

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Here’s an addiction that doesn’t require a 12-step recovery program. For the past six years, Berkeley, Calif.-based freelance writer Eve Kushner has been a self-proclaimed, unapologetic “kanji-holic.” Kushner details her passion for Sino-Japanese characters in a new textbook, “Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters” (Stone Bridge Press).

Kushner, who penned “Crazy” in the first-person, is particularly intrigued with the way a kanji’s components fit together logically to form an individual character and with the “elegant construction” of kanji compound words.

“Teasing out the tangles in kanji, breaking the code, provides me with endless hours of entertainment, as well as thrilling epiphanies,” she writes in the introduction to her book.

Kushner asks the questions most foreign adults learning kanji have scratched their heads over — and details the answers in language they can understand. Topics tackled include the evolution of kanji, its pronunciation system and “architecture,” two-four character compound words and phrases, how kanji are used in everyday life in Japan, Japanese attitudes toward kanji, Chinese hanzi and Korean hanja, and tips for studying kanji.

Each chapter begins with a topic overview followed by games, photos of characters in use in real life, and a wealth of topic-related examples. Readers may read the book from cover to cover or alternatively jump around among chapters. The difficulty level provided for each game heads off potential user frustration.

Kushner’s refreshing insights into kanji, including the following examples, pepper the book:

“Kanji are pictures plus sounds. It’s as if kanji can stream audio and video, compared with the mere audio function of kana (hiragana and katakana) or roman letters.

“Kanji continually opens my eyes to the meaning of English words. Only when I encountered the kanji for ‘iceberg’ (氷山, ice + mountain, hyōzan) and ‘glacier’ (氷河, ice + river, hyōga) did I even ponder the difference between the two concepts. ‘Iceberg’ refers to a floating, icy mass. Meanwhile, a glacier, as I have learned, is a body of ice moving down a slope or valley, spreading outward in a riverlike way. So the characters nail it perfectly!”

Kushner creatively dubs phonetic components (e.g., 反 — the Chinese-derived pronunciation [on-yomi] “HAN”- found in 飯 [rice, HAN], 板 [board, HAN], and 版 [printing block, HAN]) “on-echoes,” “because the on-yomi reverberates like an echo through kanji containing these common elements.” She compares figuring out the correct use of okurigana after transitive/intransitive kanji verb-stems (e.g., 止める, tomeru /止まる, tomaru) to finding the lowest common denominator in fractions.

In her “Wonderful Words” chapter, Kushner dishes up kanji compounds for concepts that don’t exist in English, including the following: 置き傘, okigasa: spare umbrella left at work = to leave behind + umbrella; 花恥ずかしい, hanahazukashii: so beautiful as to put a flower to shame = flower + shame; and 畳水練, tatamisuiren: like swimming practice on tatami (i.e., useless book-learning as opposed to life experience) = tatami mat + water + practice.

Whether you have just embarked on your kanji-learning adventure, have attained “kanji guru” status, or find yourself somewhere in the middle, “Crazy for Kanji” will provide you with new information about Sino-Japanese characters, not to mention a generous dose of inspiration. If you have ever labored through humdrum kanji-learning aids, you may be pleased to discover that page-turners in the genre do in fact exist.

Quiz: Eve Kushner’s “What’s the Meaning of This!?” Excerpted from “Crazy for Kanji,” with permission from Stone Bridge Press).

1. 非常口 (not + normal + mouth)
a. malocclusion
b. emergency exit
c. Mick Jagger’s mouth

2. お見舞い (honorific o + to see + to dance)
a. to attend a ballet
b. to commit a crime
c. to visit a sick person

3. 改札口 (to reform + paper money + opening)
a. turnstile
b.change in interest rates
c. stock market

4. 牛歩 (cow + walk)
a.herding cattle
b. snail’s pace
c. pasture

5. 化生 (to change + life)
a. metamorphosis
b. midlife crisis
c. menopause

6. 出所 (to leave + place)
a. departure in a vehicle
b. nostalgia
c. release from prison

Answers:
1. b. (hijōguchi)
2. c. (omimai)
3. a. (kaisatsuguchi)
4. b. (gyūho)
5. a. (kasei)
6. c. (shussho)

Explore kanji-learning materials utilizing component analysis at www.kanjiclinic.com