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196 more reasons to explore Heisig’s imagination

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Last spring, the bar was raised for kanji learners aiming to attain literacy in Japanese through mastery of the general-use (jōyō) kanji, when the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announced the addition of 196 characters to the original list of 1,945 official jōyō kanji approved three decades ago.

Many kanji learners who view memorizing kanji as a dreaded chore — including my 15-year-old native Japanese-speaking son — groaned at news of the additions and resolved to procrastinate as long as possible before tackling them.

Devotees of James Heisig’s three-volume self-instructional system, “Remembering the Kanji” (RTK), however, are already diving into the additions with a learning supplement recently made available as a free PDF download.

It is no surprise that Heisig has got a jump-start on other kanji textbook publishers in providing learning tools for the jōyō additions, since RTK is not designed for dabblers in kanji learning. Vol. 1 teaches the shapes and meanings of the jōyō list in its entirety, Vol. 2 explains the pronunciations, and Vol. 3 presses on with more than 1,000 additional characters.

Heisig’s system challenges some of the most widely accepted tenets of traditional kanji teaching. First, the learning of pronunciations is postponed entirely until the meanings and shapes of all jōyō kanji have been mastered — a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Second, each kanji is assigned a “keyword” meaning in the learner’s native language (English, Spanish, German, French and Dutch versions of RTK are available). Third, kanji are divided — building-block style — into named components used in the creation of vivid stories (not based on the historical origin of kanji) for remembering keywords and shapes.

This kanji iconoclast encourages learners to tap into their adult powers of logic and abstraction — not to mention a childlike sense of fun and imagination — to create unforgettable kanji memory stories. Anything can happen in Heisig’s richly imaginative “Kanji-Land,” as demonstrated in these examples from his jōyō additions supplement:

妬 — “JEALOUS”
A woman 女 is jealous of the “rock” 石 (slang for “diamond”) on the ring finger of another woman’s left hand.

腺 — “GLAND”
Dig into your flesh 月 (a variant of 肉) and pull out a lymph gland. Now give it a squeeze and watch a spring 泉 (white 白 + water 水) of lymph spout out of it.

捗 — “MAKE HEADWAY”
Let your fingers ⺘ do the walking 歩 as you make headway through the Yellow Pages in search of something hard to find.

鍵 — “KEY”
A gold 金 key presented to you by the mayor gives access to all buildings 建 in the city.

柿 — “PERSIMMON”
Market 市 stalls are set up around an immense tree 木 with watermelon-size persimmon fruit. The tree is sacred, so the villagers allow the persimmons to fall and wreak havoc on buyers and sellers.

汰 — “CLEANSE”
Someone who is displeasingly fat 太 goes to a spa whose waters ⺡ promise to cleanse him of his corpulence. As he sits in the water, the weight melts away, leaving a greasy scum on top.

RTK readers will already be familiar with such whimsical component names as “siesta,” “truckers’ convoy” and “turkey,” along with traditional names such as those featured above. Heisig’s story for 29-stroke jōyō addition 鬱 (gloom, utsu) — which features bulldozers, tin cans, and agro-businesses — will no doubt render kanji traditionalists speechless. Sadly, even many Japanese cannot write this eye-popper from memory.

Despite its detractors (who might not want to take a look at Heisig’s sales figures), RTK has convinced devotees they can master the meaning and shapes of all the jōyō kanji by viewing them as the sum of their parts. For them, the jōyō additions — far from being an annoyance — provide a good excuse for getting more creative kicks with kanji in “Kanji-Land.”

Quiz: Match each of the following joyo additions from today’s column with its meaning and pronunciation in the list that you see below.

1. 妬 (woman + rock)
2. 柿 (tree + market)
3. 捗 (fingers + walk)
4. 汰 (water + fat)
5. 腺 (flesh + spring)
6. 鍵 (gold + buildings)

a. key (kagi)
b. gland (sen)
c. persimmon (kaki)
d. jealousy (to)
e. make headway (choku)
f. cleanse (ta).

Answers:
1. d
2. c
3. e
4. f
5. b
6. a.

More than 100 Kanji Clinic columns are archived at www.kanjiclinic.com

A free download of the first 125 pages of “Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1” may be accessed at www.kanjiclinic.com