Kanji are characters adopted from Chinese for writing Japanese. Together with Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana make up the Japanese writing system. In the beginning its really difficult to wrap your head around such a system especially coming from the western alphabet, however in time it will start to make sense. Kanji range from simple characters that are just one or a few strokes to complicated monstrosities that even native Japanese have trouble writing and remembering. Again I am no guru of the Japanese language but it makes sense to start with the easier characters and work yourself up doesn’t it?
Kanji is a hurdle that seems insurmountable to many learners of Japanese – including myself. The breakthrough for me was understanding that even native Japanese speakers learn the basic 2000 or so characters over a decade from elementary school onwards so why try to cram them in my head quickly and then get discouraged when I don’t remember? Take heart in knowing that many Japanese people have trouble remembering Kanji and learning them is a lifelong process – there are literally tens of thousands of them. There are a few hundred that are frequently used and when you start being exposed to reading and writing kanji naturally it will be easy to start recognizing those characters so prioritize learning them.
On’yomi vs Kun’yomi
The aspect of Kanji that I am currently battling with is the multiple readings for each character. Most characters have two or more readings divided into On’yomi and Kun’yomi. If a Kanji has another Kanji attached to it you almost always use the On’yomi reading. If Kanji is standing on its own or has hiragana attached to it then usually its the Kun’yomi reading. Again in my experience its the Kun’yomi or Japanese readings that are troublesome. However, in time and with practice you start to see a method to the kanji madness. Check out this link to Tofugu that explains On’yomi and Kun’yomi is more detail that I could ever hope to so check it out!
Fire + Mountain = Volcano
For example two easier kanji are 火 and 山. On their own, I remember them as fire and mountain with the pronunciations “Hi” and “Yama”. Put them together though and you get the world for Volcano but the pronunciations are completely different with “Hi” becoming “Ka” and “Yama” becoming “Zan” or “Kazan” – the Japanese word for Volcano. Learning Kanji and thus Japanese is about understanding these relationships and making that mental connection for yourself or with help from an app, books a teacher, instead of just strictly remembering readings or pronunciations for characters as we do with the English Alphabet. So for example, if you take the “Fire” character and you see it, in other words, it starts to make sense such as Mars (火星) Fire Star, Tuesday (火曜日) Fire Day and Fireworks (花火) Flower Fire and when you see it in other kanji such as Autumn (秋).
Study Kanji in related batches
So in concluding my last piece of advice is to start with the simple kanji and learn them in related batches such as Days of the week, 1 to 10, cardinal points, seasons, weather, body parts etc Afterwords start understanding how and why readings change as Kanji are placed beside each other or smashed together to become radicals and make more complicated characters. Good luck! unlike Hiragana and Katakana – Kanji learning is a never-ending process.
Before starting on Kanji I recommend starting with Hiragana and Katakana.
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