A mastery of written Japanese comes not through rote memorization, but by developing your inductive reasoning so as to nurture a “kanji-oriented thought process.”
Soon after I began my study of kanji I acquired a book titled “Pictorial Chinese-Japanese Characters: A New and Fascinating Method to Learn Ideographs,” by Oreste Vaccari and Enko Elisa Vaccari. The Vaccaris’ illuminating approach fascinated me. Below, I have excerpted a passage from page 155:
戀 ren, koi: love, ardent affection … Formed by 言 iu to say, to tell, 糸 ito, a long thread, long yarn, and 心 kokoro heart* … the three components 言、糸 and 心 clearly suggest the idea that love and affection for one of the opposite sex are expressed by telling the person we yearn for a “long yarn” unraveled from the ardent and tender feelings of our heart.
* Note: In current usage, the character for koi has been simplified to 恋.
Some years later, I happened to be on a public bus when I saw a sticker on the window and noticed a kanji I had not seen before. Here’s what it looked like: 繭
While unfamiliar, I supposed the character was a so-called 会意 (kai’i, associative compound), one of six varieties of kanji in which two or more pictographs combine to suggest a third meaning. Engaging my mental gears, I scrutinized its various components. At the top was the grass classifier, called kusa-kanmuri. Beneath this was 巾 (kin or kire, a piece of cloth), inside of which were 糸 (ito, thread) on the left and 虫 (mushi, insect) on the right. Okay, so this gives us a progression from plant to cloth to thread to insect. Might not the plant be a reference to the 桑の葉っぱ (kuwa no happa, mulberry leaves) which are consumed by 蚕 (kaiko, silkworms), whose cocoons are used to spin silk thread? I recalled that the spoken word for cocoon is mayu. I pointed toward the window and asked the woman seated beside me この漢字は「マユ」と読むんですか？ (Kono kanji wa ‘mayu’ to yomu’n desu ka? Does this character read ‘mayu’?) She replied in the affirmative. Amazing! I had actually inferred the meaning of an unfamiliar character on first guess. Molto grazie, Vaccari-sensei!
More frequently, however, kanji readings are discerned through the process of elimination, i.e., by ruling out what they are not. I once boarded a taxi and glanced at the driver’s 名札 (nafuda, name plate). His given name, written with the single character 芳, combining the grass classifier with 方 (kata or hō, direction) intrigued me.
I knew the same character is used in 芳しい kanbashii, meaning fragrant or sweet smelling. (Its negative is 芳しからぬ, kanbashikaranu, meaning scandalous, unsavory, disgraceful). Also read hō, it appears in ご芳名 (go-homei, your esteemed name) on the RSVP postcards that are enclosed with 招待状 (shōtaijō), invitations).
Normally, in names, this character is combined with a second one, in which case it would be read yoshi. But this time it was standing alone.
運転手さんのお名前の読み方はちょっと難しそうですね。(“Untenshu-san no onamae no yomikata wa chotto muzukashi-so desu ne, Driver, the way to read your name looks a bit difficult).
He agreed, informing me that passengers often venture guesses at how his name is read, but few get it correct. This was a challenge!
I racked my brain for a personal name meaning fragrant and came up with one, “Kaoru,” which can be used by both men and women (the female-only form would be Kaori). In most cases it’s written 香、薫 or 馨. But knowing that’s what the character 芳 meant, and unable to think of any other way to read it, I asked the driver, ええと、「かおる」ですか？ (Eeto, Kaoru desu ka? Um, might it be “Kaoru”?).
“Pin-pon,” he replied, imitating the noise sounded on TV quiz programs when contestants give a correct answer.
I’d surmised the reading correctly because no other reading seemed to work. While I concede it takes years of study to approach the level of a native speaker, the intuitive process starts to develop fairly early, perhaps within six months from the time study begins. Certainly for me, the sheer thrill that comes from the realization that I’m making progress toward mastery of a 2,000-year-old writing system represents one of its greatest appeals.