ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Education and Science»
  • Foreign Languages

Mnemonics or Memorizing Techniques for Japanese Kanji

Updated on October 10, 2013
RYO-SHIN-BUN
RYO-SHIN-BUN

It's all about stories.

One of the best ways to remember kanji is to take a moment to study a composition of a kanji and then develop a story in one's mind. For example, to memorize the word parent - oya 親, as seen in ryôshin 両親 "parents", lit. "both parents" - we might want to start by finding the three parts that are used to put together this kanji. We find that it is composed of 立,木 and 見. To stand (up), a tree and to look. We can quickly find a story in our heads defining parent as someone who looks upon a growing tree. In reality, the left part of the kanji in question is actually its phonetic radical, but we see that those are nevertheless useful for these mnemonic stories.

For example, another kanji with the same pronunciation radical (and also pronounciated "shin" in most contexts) is kanji for "new" 新, as seen in 新聞, shinbun, meaning newspaper. Upon examining the kanji we see that to the growing tree radical an axe, 斤,has been added. We can easily create a story how taking down a young, growing tree is definitely an atroucious act worthy of public attention. A newspaper pops into the mind and you can deduct later shin-bun, news-paper, shin=new.

Why is it OK to deviate a little from the original meaning to memorize kanji? When learning kanji, it is almost impossible to diligently, one by one, learn all the 2000 kanjis and all of their meanings. In that way your ability to read a text will develop only in the very same slow pace as you are able to memorize kanjis. Even if memorizing 20 of them a week, it's less than a hundred a month and even six months later you would still recognize hardly one fifth of kanjis in a text. Unfortunately the odds are that a kanji you recognized is grouped together with an unknown one, rendering the whole word illegible. Therefore, when starting out, it is definitely a good idea to try to stuff as many of them as possible in one's head knowing their approximate meanings and readings

The devil is in the .. compound forms?

Another important lesson can be deducted from the same example. The importance of learning compound kanjis. Every time you learn a new kanji, instead of memorizing the isolated kanji and its various readings, try rather to learn three different words. It's OK if you forget one of them, thanks to that one collateral the other two meanings will still probably stay memorized and instead of one kanji and its two or three readings you will have learned three kanjis, and their readings.

"Shocking" kanji grouped together
"Shocking" kanji grouped together

Element of shock

There's hardly a better way to memorize something than associating it with something shocking or obscene. While chemistry professors teach their students dirty poems, the Kanji are a gold mine of horrible discoveries. The reason? It's easily the oldest writing system still in use but as they were invented (and have not been to much changed since) few thousands of years ago, they still retain the Chinese philosophy of a 2000 years BC era.

In today's, politically correct world we will find big part of the kanji using the radical "woman" quite easy to remember - simply because of the outrageous chauvinism that has been encoded in those symbols. For example 妬 "jealousy" is built using "woman" and a "stone". We all know the stereotype of women and precious stones so we can quite easily remember the word. NB! the hard part for this one is to find other kanjis to learn it together with. Never learn a kanji alone, you will forget it faster than you can turn a page of your kanji manual.

Or let's take this famous example. 安, meaning cheap, yasui, is written with a woman under a roof. If you want to get through without spending too much, keep your wife at home. To defend the chinese philosophers who started writing these symbols on turtle shells thousands of years ago, let me also put down the real etymology of that kanji. Like in quite a few other languages, Japanese used to lack a word for "cheap" and to explain that common occurrence another word has changed its meaning. Yasui, and that kanji in particular used to mean "safe". When first kanjis were invented in China it was an honorable duty of the family head to let his beloved wife live a luxurious life so that she wouldn't have to do hard work on fields or rice paddies.

On the contrary, during war times there weren't enough men to do all the work and women were forced to leave homes (the houses) and also work on the fields. Therefore to express "peace" and "safety" that combination of woman being inside of a building was chosen. Unfortunately this doesn't help as remember that kanji as easily and I suggest everybody to stick with the unfair, chauvinist model.

Let me add one more horrible example (and one more kanji, to be never forgotten, only 1996 to go). 威 this nice, somewhat rare kanji means "authority". In my "Essential Kanji" by P.G. O'Neill the radicals are explained as follows:"I: woman + battle-axe". I can still remember how I bursted out laughing the first time I saw this, I can imagine quite well how a woman, any woman in fact, will definitely be an authority when equipped with a battle-axe.. Even if you're a chauvinist pig, you'll show some respect :) By the way, did you know that battle-axe was in fact a popular symbol of feminism in the 1970s?

In other words...

  • Never learn a lone kanji, always make groups. The point is that our brains can handle only a certain number of loose "bits" of information. Therefore, those bits should be combined together. It's up to you, whether you prefer graphs or sample sentences, but find a way to bind together the random kanji you stumble upon. Create that large picture and try to zoom in when needed.
  • To memorize a single kanji prepare small stories for most of them. Sometimes the opportunity presents itself (funny radicals), sometimes they are unavoidable because two kanji are simply so similar and you keep mixing them up. For example, for me a problematic pair is 後 and 終. So I have created a few meaningless sentences that go through my head when I have to access any of those two kanjis from the archives in my brain. You'll see that the radicals for those meanings "after" and "to end" are thread and winter, so I'll start thinking in what order the comes the winter and then ou run out of thread and so I can get the right order of the radicals.
  • Shock yourself! The dirtier story you can think of, the more of a probability that it will stay in your head a little longer than a few hours.

And repeat...

Although a last trick to mention, it's perhaps the key to memorizing kanjis - repetition.

For me the best technique has been continuous writing of the characters that I wish to learn. But wait! not simply writing them through, but once again, keeping in mind the basics. Avoid writing simple kanji 20 times in a row - like all your classmates are probably doing. This only helps you become bored of Japanese and move on to Korean. Instead remember the groups and stories. When writing through a kanji, start by writing the same kanji a few times paying extra attention to the order of strokes (because mastering the stroke order will help you A LOT in future)

Then you start writing through most common compounds using the kanji you are concentrating on. For example, take one compound with another kanji you know already and one with a kanji you haven't learned yet. Write them through as many times as it seems reasonable and finish by writing a few sentences. Try to put together sentences using mostly kanjis you are learning that week.

And learn from the mistakes of others - when repeatedly writing your kanjis, make sure every once in a while that you are including all radicals. Believe me, it's quite easy to forget one of those thin radicals you find on the left-hand side ;)

Are you here because..

See results

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)